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The Slippery Slope Toward a Sexless Marriage

Ignoring a dry spell may lead to depression or divorce. Here’s why you’ve lost your mojo and what to do about it.

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Illustration of a lady trying to reach out to a man who slipped off a mountain
Islenia Mil
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When it comes to sex, there’s an assumption that couples who are married or in long-term relationships are constantly getting it on. But some reach a point where it feels like, as bluesman B.B. King sang, the thrill is gone. Sex that used to sizzle somehow fizzles, and the intervals between getting busy in the bedroom get longer.

“Research suggests that anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of couples go through ‘sexless marriages,’ where there’s no sexual activity for months or even years, but we don’t talk about it much,” says marriage and family therapist Sonja Williams, who’s based in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Sex is one of the assumed benefits of marriage and long-term relationships, but tensions can brew when one or both partners is feeling unfulfilled, says Eboni Joy Winston, a marriage therapist in Phoenix, Arizona. “Going for long periods without it can result in depressive moods, low self-esteem and devaluing your relationship.” Surveys also show that people in marriages that lack sex are more likely to consider divorce.

If you used to give (or get) good love but now it’s gone, consider the common causes of sexless relationships and try these strategies to put your love back on top.

You’re stressed. If you’re navigating a demanding job, raising children, caring for an elderly family member or tackling financial problems, sex can take a back seat to the issues at hand. “Stress is a major cause of sexless marriages because we’re not focused on the bond or level of intimacy with our partner,” says Winston.

The fix: To restore intimacy, she suggests open discussion and active problem-solving. Since stress is an inescapable part of life, developing a stress-relieving toolkit — like exercise, meditation and/or therapy — will also help.

You’re out of sync. You gotta have it; him, not so much. He likes prolonged nights of passion; you like morning quickies. He gets right to it; you need foreplay. Our libidos aren’t always in harmony, and if that makes either of you frustrated or resentful, it can diminish your desire.

The fix: Talk openly with each other about your sexual expectations, says Winston. Then work toward a healthy and realistic compromise. Start the convo with, “I know you really enjoy __, and I will engage with you some of the time.”

Your hormones are changing. As women age, decreased estrogen can cause vaginal dryness and make intercourse uncomfortable. Lower testosterone in men can result in difficulty maintaining an erection. And orgasms for both sexes may not be as intense as they once were. When these changes happen, says Winston, “Performance anxiety becomes an issue, and we worry about if we are able to please our partner.”

The fix: These shifts don’t have to mean the end of sexual activity. Vaginal lubricants for women and medications such as Viagra for men can help. You can also enjoy stimulation without penetration, says Winston. Her credo: “Sex is exactly what you make it.”

You’re depressed. Everybody gets the blues from time to time, but if depression is affecting your relationship, sexually or otherwise, it’s important to get professional help.

The fix: If you’re feeling down, consider in-person or online therapy to discover and resolve the root cause. If it’s your partner, Williams recommends raising the subject gently. “You can say, ‘I love you and care about you, and this is having an effect on us,’” she advises. “People respond better if you’re not starting the conversation by pointing out their inadequacies and stating your demands.”

You’re in a conflict. Sometimes you and your partner can agree to disagree. But if you don’t settle your differences, anger and hurt can fester. “Conflict is an indication that couples are not on the same page,” says Williams, “but it also creates an opportunity to get back on track with each other.”

The fix: When strife arises, have an open conversation that gives both of you an opportunity to talk and listen. If necessary, consult with a therapist to help you clear the air.

You’re bored. When love is new, says Williams, “It’s like an expedition and there’s a lot of excitement.” But after the honeymoon phase, sex can become routine and leave you feeling like you already know how this movie ends.

The fix: Get creative by introducing massage oils, sex toys or a new position to your love-making repertoire. Flirt with your partner, have regular date nights or plan a romantic getaway.

You have difficulty talking about sex. From steamy movies to suggestive advertisements and explicit song lyrics, we’re bombarded with sexual references, yet some people feel uncomfortable expressing their desires. It can be embarrassing, says Williams, “or they lack the vocabulary to talk about it.” Winston agrees. “A lot of times couples come into therapy and they'll start with relational issues, but they really want to talk about sex and intimacy.”

The fix: Talking about how you like to “do it” doesn’t have to be a fraught conversation. Start by telling your partner what you’d like more of and what you enjoy. If that’s not your style, seek the guidance of a marriage or sex therapist to help you initiate sex talk.

You’re experiencing medication side effects. If one of you has lost your mojo after starting a new prescription, let your doctor know. Some blood pressure medications, antidepressants, contraceptives (also prescribed for relief of perimenopause symptoms), hormone medications and even non-prescription antihistamines may interfere with sexual function.

The fix: The risk of sexual side effects increases when a person is using multiple medications, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Make a list of every prescription and over-the-counter medication you take. Discuss it with your doctor and be forthright about your symptoms. She can’t help you if she doesn’t know. If you’re uncomfortable broaching the subject, write a script and practice it in the mirror before talking with your physician.

Read more relationship articles from Sisters From AARP here. AARP supports you in connecting to your passions—and discovering new ones—at every age and stage. Join us or renew your membership to explore the possibilities for fun, friendship and fulfillment.