Sex IRL: 11 women share what it’s like to be in a sexless relationship

Not everyone’s comfortable talking about their sex life, but knowing what goes on in other people’s bedrooms can help us all feel more inspired, curious, and validated in our own experiences. In HG’s monthly column Sex IRL, we’ll talk to real people about their sexual adventures and get as frank as possible.

Talk to enough people about it, and you’ll realize there’s no one definition of a “sexless relationship.”

For some people, a sexless relationship is one where there is absolutely zero sexual activity. For others, doing everything but intercourse is considered a sexless relationship. In other situations, couples might have a ton of sex at the start of their relationship and then gradually peter out to having intercourse so infrequently that it feels basically sexless.

People have very different feelings about not having sex, too. For some people, it’s a real source of tension in their relationship and a barrier to connection. For others, it’s a conscious choice made because of personal beliefs about intimacy, and sticking to those beliefs feels empowering for them. And for some others, they make do without sex in their relationship, don’t mind not having sex at all, or suffer in silence without it. And unfortunately, some people break up with their partners because they’ve been pushed to their limit.

How important is sex in a relationship?

Plenty of research has found a link between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction. In other words, being happy with your sex life usually plays a significant role in being happy with your overall relationship. That said, some studies have found individuals who don’t have sex are just as happy with their lives as those who have sex all the time. Moreover, a 2015 study found adding more sexy time to a relationship beyond a certain point doesn’t continue to improve one’s well-being. (The sweet spot was once a week; less than that is associated with less happiness, but more often than that doesn’t improve it.)

Perhaps the more important question is this: How important is sex to you in your relationship(s)? Every person will have their own unique feelings about sex, how often they want it, and how important it is them. It’s okay to need what you need, and it’s also okay for those needs to shift over time.

I spoke to 11 women who’ve been in sexless relationships to understand how they got there, how they felt about it, and what happened to their relationships without sex in the picture. Here’s what they told me.

“Having a sexless relationship makes me feel more relaxed.”

“I have been in a few, sexless relationships over the course of my dating history—all of which lasted less than a year. The relationships were sexless from the beginning mainly because I feel like I enjoy the aspect of feeling close and intimate with someone I love through sex more than the physical act itself. From what I’ve experienced, sex for me is quite painful and uncomfortable. With almost every man I’ve ever dated, I feel like the pressure for sex is always looming overhead, but I personally don’t feel sexually attracted to a man until I’ve gotten to know him better a few months in.

I hold out because I feel like allowing a man to have sex with me would make me vulnerable, powerless and worthless in front of him afterwards. I have slept with men that have woken up the next morning completely cold and unfazed while I’m fighting back an emotional breakdown. Having a sexless relationship makes me feel more relaxed, in control and less pressured. A few men tried to change my mind, but I made it clear I didn’t want to have sex. We even went as far as almost having sex with clothes on, but I insisted we not go beyond that. This way, I don’t feel like I’ve lost something the same way I would have sleeping with a man who I feel didn’t deserve me. However, I know I will be ready to have sex with someone when I find myself falling for him, and I know he will love and accept all of me for me.”

—Woman, 27, in various year-long sexless relationships

“It was a conscious decision made on both of our behalves.”

“I was with my person for a duration of about two years or so (if not more). This relationship was not a sexless one at first, but did become sexless over time, and it was a conscious decision made on both of our behalves per the Spiritual calling on my person’s life. And although we faced a lot of sexual tension and challenges, we were happy to be accomplishing our goal and felt guilt-free once we eliminated all sexual intimacy. (We also became engaged.)

The abrupt downfall of this relationship took place when he allowed himself to become sexually active with another woman and later had to announce her pregnancy to me. I then cut off the engagement and decided it was best for me to go my own way in order to regroup, heal and continue to stay on my Godly path. I felt it was unfair to me when I was trying so diligently to do things God’s way, along with saving myself sexually for my future husband (which was him) while he, in turn, not only broke his agreement to God first, but to me, too.”

—Woman, 49, together with her partner for 2+ years

“Somehow my husband’s interest in sex decreased dramatically immediately after marriage.”

“So in the early years of my marriage, we had a lot of issues with [not having sex]. Somehow my husband’s interest in sex decreased dramatically immediately after marriage. One of the big changes [that occurred] was that we were long distance [for the majority of our relationship], which meant we would see each other every couple of months. And then after marriage, of course, we started living with each other. It felt like I wanted to have sex so much more and [that he wanted it] a lot less. I think while [we dated], sex was more stressful to me because of [my] religious beliefs, and so I felt more relaxed about it after marriage, and he became distant from it. When I [would try] to talk about it, he didn’t think anything was wrong and we would fight about that for years. But over the years, I had to understand that for him, sex meant having good quality sex on a less frequent basis.

Now after 10 years of marriage and two kids later, we’re at a good place with it. I think one to two times a month is good for both us. Also, it helps that we know exactly what each of us like. I think that’s an important place to get in your relationship as well.”

—Woman, 32, married 10 years

“I was egotistical enough to believe that I could get him over his erectile dysfunction with my oral skills.”

“[The first time I was in a sexless relationship,] I had a boyfriend who had erectile dysfunction (E.D.). I was egotistical enough to believe I could get him over it with my oral skills. But I tried and failed. This was pre-Viagra time. (And before the term “E.D.” was common currency.) After a number of failures, we gave up trying. At first he tried to satisfy my needs with his finger, and I had no objection in principle to being brought to orgasm with a finger rather than a tongue or penis, but he was so not into it. Because it seemed like he was getting nothing for himself when he was taking care of my needs other than feeling like he was doing right by me, I finally told him to stop. I reverted to satisfying myself with my vibrator in the privacy of my home when I was not with him. (Although, we spent four nights together a week, we did not live together.) The relationship lasted four years and eventually ended for reasons having nothing to do with the lack of sex.

My now significant other and I have been living together 13 years and are in our 70s, and he is four years younger than I am. In the beginning, we had a healthy sex life, but he gradually got E.D. and then began losing his sex drive altogether. If I would have asked him to use his finger, he would have done it, but I had learned from the relationship I described above that if my bed partner is not enjoying what he’s doing, it’s not pleasurable for me either. I’m better off just [using] my vibrator. So I am once again in a sexless (but otherwise great) relationship. I focus on all the positive aspects of the relationship and not on what’s missing.”

—Woman, 76, living with her partner for 13 years

“There were so many excuses and declines that I stopped asking.”

“[Being in a sexless relationship] was a huge challenge for me. I also let my own personal solo sexual relationship die along with it. At first, we would laugh about it, but then other issues unfolded because of this happening. It just got weirder as time passed on and became the elephant in the room.

As time moved on, evidence of an unhealthy codependent relationship surfaced and I decided it was time for me to end the marriage. The ending of the marriage [was caused by many reasons]—not just [because of the lack of] sex.

[The marriage] slowly became sexless over the span of about six years. After a few years of marriage, sexual intimacy declined to about once a month, then a few times a year to nothing at all. My invitations were declined regularly. It developed to the point where there were so many excuses and declines that I stopped asking. Even cuddling or love intimacy declined to nearly no physical connection as well during the last five years of marriage.

Being in a sexless relationship was confusing and disappointing [for me]. But being sexless with my husband wasn’t my choice. It hurt and I was confused as to why he was rejecting me. I learned later it actually had nothing to do with me. Looking back, it was a gift in the end because it was one of several messages [that indicated] we were more friends than romantic partners. Other evidences of being in an unhealthy relationship unfolded as well. All of these cues led me to a divorce by my choice.”

—Woman, 46, sexless for the last five years of a 12-year marriage

“He confessed that he felt turned off by my weight.”

“[Our relationship] became sexless over time [during the] last four years of the relationship. It happened after my depression happened, which lasted about three years and, as he mentioned, because we gained weight.

It was frustrating for me. I tried to enjoy my own company and even masturbation did not feel like enough at the time. I felt neglected and abandoned. I felt like he did make a few attempts [to improve the situation], but I felt like I tried more. But it became this weird back and forth … [During] days I was in the mood and I tried [to have sex with him], he rejected me. And on times he wanted [to have sex], since I felt rejected, I did decline too because I wasn’t in the mood to feel rejected again.

It became worse when he allowed his best guy friend to live with us in the house. It got so bad that one night after watching HBO’s True Blood, I was aroused by some of the sexy scenes that I wanted to play flirty with him and entice him for us to be intimate.  However, he said, “Here we go again. I already told you I’m not in the mood. My best friend is next door (in the living room).” This statement took the cake for me to begin to switch and transition; it was time to let him go. I told him, “You’ve been telling me that story even before he got here. If you don’t want me, just say it.” That is when he said that we were both overweight, and he feels he’s not turned on because he could not see his thing. In addition, he confessed that he felt turned off by my weight and the condition the house was in during my depressive years. He said he felt neglected by me then and because he had to work and order food for us since I didn’t cook.”

—Woman, 38, sexless for the last four years of a 10-year relationship

“The emotional connection created through physical connections is difficult to replicate.”

“Because of physical limitations, my husband has never been able to have sex with me. Our marriage has otherwise been affectionate, but it didn’t include alternatives to sex that most people suggest. My husband had such discomfort and shame around his inability to perform that he essentially closed the bedroom door permanently.

For a long time I was able to cope with it–I’ve had plenty of bad sex in the past, and plenty of bad relationships that had good sex and nothing more–and being married to a good man and having an otherwise healthy connection was acceptable to me.

However, as time went on, I realized that the emotional connection created through physical connections is difficult to replicate. And during the times when a marriage naturally drifts apart, we didn’t have sex as a way to reconnect. I think over time, it made it harder and harder to stay emotionally close. Now our relationship lacks both emotional and physical intimacy, and divorce is seriously crossing my mind for the first time.

I also didn’t anticipate the toll it would take on my self-image. While I understand that our situation stems completely from his physical limitations, after years of not being desired, I started to feel invisible. I struggle with this all the time, and it casts a shadow over the prospect of dating again.”

—Woman, 40s, together with her husband for 12 years

“I later found out he had been sleeping with his best friend for months.”

“I was in a sexless relationship for three years. It wasn’t my choice to be sexless, it was his. He said that we should be saving sex for marriage, and that was that. We did everything but sex, which really messed with me. It put the concept of sex on a pedestal, and made me want it more but also, made me disgusted by it. I also had this false sense of “holier-than-though,” because I felt like I was “better” or more “disciplined” for not having sex—at least that’s how I justified it. We broke up after three years because he wasn’t into me anymore. I later found out he had been sleeping with his best friend for months, and worse, that everyone but me knew. That really, really messed with me. I went from feeling holier-then-thou to feeling like I wasn’t woman enough for him or that I wasn’t attractive, just not enough. It took me a long time to digest and get over what happened. It also changed how I viewed sex. It wasn’t until I read the book Come As You Are that I fully understood and resolved those feelings of inadequacy.”

—Woman, 32, together with her partner for three years

“Early in my life this might have felt like a crisis, but … honestly, I would rather stay home with my cats!”

“After a very sexually lively early relationship, I started to see that my partner and I were not truly sexually compatible—really different ideas about what good sex looked like—and we could not successfully talk about it, either. (He didn’t want to hear it, and he wouldn’t consider going to a therapist.) Perimenopause was happening right about then, and that proved to be the catalyst that ended our sexual relationship. My libido basically went away, though it is clear to me that this had to do with relationship issues as much as hormonal ones. I also know this is far from a unique situation. But it interests me that low libido has made withdrawing from sex easier than I’d ever have projected it would be. If you’d told me when I was young that this would be my situation, I’d have thought it was a crisis. But I really don’t feel that way.

There was a time when I was extremely identified with my sexuality and cared very much that there was enough sex and erotic play in my life. The hormone shift [of perimenopause and middle age] moved that needle, though! I have always known that sexuality can be fluid, and sometimes we forget that this can mean libido waxes and wanes, and not just the gender, etc. of the objects of our affection. Early in my life this might have felt like a crisis, but I feel more introverted than I have for decades and honestly, I would rather stay home with my cats!

I’ve spent some time trying to get us to work on communicating around this. We really weren’t on the same page, and it wasn’t always comfortable—and we both got stubborn about our own perspectives. No question that this lowered my interest in fixing it.”

—Woman, 62, together with her partner for 30 years

“We’ve started to get better.”

“My husband and I have been together for 12 years and have been sexless for most of our marriage, including a stint where we went less than a week shy of a calendar year. Both of us had histories of being sexually abused, him when he was quite young and me during my late teens to early twenties. We did okay with regular sex when we were dating, but within months of the honeymoon, we were in marriage counseling because it was already apparent that we were heading toward a sexless marriage.

Being young, physically healthy, and happily married while lacking physical intimacy is fraught with problems. People just assume you’re having sex very often and would make comments that were so wildly inappropriate even if we HAD been having sex often, but stung a lot when I knew we weren’t. The kicker is that we’re not bad at sex. We’re actually really good at sex. We can orgasm simultaneously in various positions without clitoral stimulation, which is like going Easter egg hunting and finding a Faberge instead. But when that lone simultaneous beautiful orgasm happens once or twice or thrice annually, that is as much a cruelty as it is a blessing. How can a couple be this good in bed together, so good at satisfying each other in the moment, and yet so bad at connecting toward even kissing?

Without warning or particular provocation, just in the past eight or nine months, we’ve started to get better. Recently, we even had sex twice within two weeks. It’s been eight years, if not more, since that happened. I can’t say whether or not being sexless is residing or if we’re just on a temporary hiatus. I’m happy to have these times for now, though.”

—Woman, 34, together with her partner for 12 years

“I’m empowering myself to find the sex I’ve been praying for.”

“I’m a clergy woman in a sexless marriage. For me, that means there is no sexual intercourse. In fact, I hate to admit that our marriage was never consummated. We went to pre-marital counseling. We talked about sex, especially given our 13-year age difference. He is 13-years my senior. We agreed that if there were challenges around sex, he would get whatever assistance, Viagra. However, years into the marriage, he never got the prescription filled.

It wasn’t a personal choice. I resulted to self-satisfaction with B.O.B., aka my battery-operated boyfriend. It has been humiliating, embarrassing, and a self-esteem robber. I often wonder and I’ve even asked what’s wrong with me? I’ve asked, why he isn’t attracted to me? Until finally, I’ve stopped asking.

The tensions have impacted our marriage. So much so, I’ve finally resolved to file for divorce. This year, I will be celebrating my 50th birthday. I want to extricate myself from this sexless and ultimately, loveless union so I can be available to meet someone new.

As a clergy woman, I’ve prayed. However, I believe God can only do so much. We have a part to play in getting our prayers answered. He’s refused to exercise options available to him. But I’m empowering myself to find the sex I’ve been praying for. #Freedom2020”

—Woman, 49, together with her partner for four years

Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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