Relationships

The surprising reason why more and more Kiwis are finding themselves in sexless marriages

Sex therapists believe at least one in seven marriages in NZ are sexless. That's quite a lot!

By Karyn Henger
We could all agree that intimacy slows down after a few years of marriage. The daily frolics that couples enjoy in the first flushes of new love start to drop off and settle into a pattern of once a week, once a fortnight, once a month, or even less. There is no 'normal' around 'how often' couples 'should' have sex, the experts I interviewed for this story will tell you.
(They also divulge that that's the question they most often get asked: 'How much is everyone else doing it?')
But what if you're no longer intimate at all? Would you be the only couple in the world that no longer has sex?
It is very hard to find couples who will talk about this. It is deeply private and often couples are not even talking with each other about it.
It takes six to seven years to seek help for intimacy issues, Auckland sex therapist Mary Hodson tells me. Such is the shame and embarrassment that comes with, as well as perhaps the fear of what the conversation might unearth.
So, unsurprisingly, there are no recent statistics on how common relationships without intimacy are in New Zealand.
A 1992 US study found that one in seven marriages was sexless and Hodson says that gives us a good indication of what's happening here.
However, her feeling is that the incidence would be even higher now and intimacy counsellor Angela Rennie, also from Auckland, agrees.
Both say it's not uncommon to see couples who've not had sex for 10 years or more, and cases like these are turning up more and more frequently in their clinics.
Image: Getty
Why? Rennie will tell you it has a lot to do with technology.
"There's pornography, which we have easy access to now because of the internet. Pornography changes the function of the brain. It's an artificial version of a natural reward which floods the brain with extra dopamine and that's so different to a natural reward that in the end men can't maintain an erection with a partner.
"But it's also just technology."
People are spending greater parts of their day than ever before online so "there's more disconnection overall in relationships. When you're disconnected you're not having physical intimacy either."
Ever-increasing stress and anxiety are playing a big part, too, she says.
Hodson agrees: "I think the general busyness of life now [has taken a toll on sexual relationships]. In most families both partners are working and they're both working full time and they've got children."
Kids, in themselves, are a massive killer of desire.
"I always say to people, 'You need to put yourself first, your relationship second and your kids third,'" Rennie says. "And people say, 'what? the kids third?' But if you're not in a good place and your relationship is not in a good place then it affects the children."
Mothers, in particular, make the mistake of centring their world around their kids.
"And so you give to the kids all day and then sex with your partner becomes just something else that you've got to give, a chore.
"You forget that sex should be pleasurable and fun and part of your own self-care as well."
Interestingly, the group of people having the least amount of sex is parents in their thirties or early forties, Hodson reports. The people having the most sex are retired – yes, we have something to look forward to!
Image: Getty
Building resentments, hormonal changes (menopause and/or pregnancy and breastfeeding), pain during sex (14 per cent of women have sexual pain at some point in their lives), past sexual traumas that cause a person to associate sex with anxiety or fear, and medications that quash libido can all kill desire and kickstart a drought.
Then when a couple has trouble communicating or avoids talking about difficult issues – like 'why are you no longer keen to have sex with me?' – the divide becomes even greater.
The thing with sex is that once you stop thinking about it you stop wanting it and once you stop wanting it you stop having it.
"It's a little bit like a tap that can be turned off and on," Rennie explains. "There's a bio feedback loop between the brain and the body.
"So if you think about sex that kind of gives your body a little bit of a jolt and responsiveness as well, but if you're not having any sex then your body is not getting blood flow to those organs so they are not getting 'used' and they don't really give you any twinges that then make you think about sex.
"So if you're not getting those twinges your brain is not thinking about sex either."
Once both the physical and mental 'components' are switched off people can be quite happy to not have sex, she says.
The problem is that couples don't always stay in sync, and partners are rarely a perfect match when it comes to sex drive.
Image: Getty
Is it a problem if a couple is not having sex?
No, as long as both partners are equally happy with the arrangement.
But things can change, and if no one is talking about it…
(And for the record, if a partner is unhappy with the arrangement they're as likely to be female as they are male.)
"Research tells us that 47 per cent of people stay in sexless marriages but they have negative feelings like frustration, depression. They feel rejected as you would expect," says Hodson.
"They make a decision to stay perhaps because the person that doesn't want sex seems to be their ideal partner and they can't imagine not being with that person - or they've got too much to lose, and that could be related to relationships with children or grandchildren or it could be the other kind of too much to lose - money, investment.
"People often say they stay because they feel obliged to because of their values or belief systems. And some people – women in particular - are just afraid to leave, afraid of being back out there 'on the market'. They fear poverty or being in a financial position that leaves them without savings and resources."
But is it enough - to live like flatmates?
"I'm sure there are some people who can do that," Hodson continues. "But I think that it does have consequences. The consequences that follow depend on how the person that does want to engage sexually copes with it.
"Some will throw themselves into their hobbies or their work, fitness, going to the gym, that sort of thing, and some people just find alternative sexual outlets like masturbation, pornography, cyber sex, phone sex. There will be a small percentage that will get into other relationships, affairs. It's easier to throw yourself into something like that than deal with what's happening."
Image: Getty
To get a relationship back on track requires a lot of open, honest and gentle communication.
While medications for erectile dysfunction can provide a practical quick fix they don't address why the dysfunction began in the first place, and there are no "wonder drugs" for women to boost desire.
"We know for sure that desire and arousal are two separate things," Dodson says. "They're two different stages in the cycle of becoming excited and interested in sex, and finally reaching an orgasm. So if desire doesn't occur at all for someone, spontaneously, then they and their partner need to… find out what else is going on… Are there relationship problems? Is sex painful? Do they have concerns over their physical appearance? Is there illness? Are there addictions? Is there infidelity now or that happened in the past?"
Rennie adds, "You've got to work through any pain and resentment before you can turn desire back on. It's not so easy if you've had a lifetime of negative beliefs around sex due to culture or religion or past trauma. But if you've had quite a healthy and happy sex life in the past then it's easier to turn back on."
It sounds like hard work. Do you actually have any success stories?, I ask them both.
Definitely, they say.
"I would say sincerely that almost everybody that comes to me and sees it through to the end benefits greatly," says Dodson.
But it's important not to leave it too late to ask for help in the first place.
"Wouldn't it be great if people didn't wait six or seven years," she says. "If they talked to their doctor - and only six per cent will - then they would get referred to people like me.
"Only nine per cent of doctors ask their patients if they're having any sexual problems yet GPs are the ones handing out antidepressants and high blood pressure medications and they are the medications that can affect libido."
Rennie urges couples to retain non-sexual contact if they're not having sex: "Cuddles and kissing and snuggles on the couch, because without that you're not creating any hormones and chemicals that create that attachment, and that's when it does start to feel very much like flatmates.
"Humans need physical touch. It's essential for our wellbeing and mental health.
"There's an element of self care and bringing fun back into the relationship. Fun is a very underestimated part of connection. If you're not having fun outside of the bedroom you're not going to have fun in the bedroom."