Cover

GONE But Not Forgotten

Sexually inactive marriages are startlingly common, and they leave most spouses feeling hurt, confused and angry

Nora Underwood August 9 1999
Cover

GONE But Not Forgotten

Sexually inactive marriages are startlingly common, and they leave most spouses feeling hurt, confused and angry

Nora Underwood August 9 1999

GONE But Not Forgotten

Cover

Nora Underwood

Anna and her husband, both in their 40s, have been together for more than two decades. The Toronto woman, who asked that her real name not be used, says that during their first years, “we had sex every time we saw each other— sometimes twice a day.” After about 11 years together, the couple started to have children and Annas desire for sex took a nosedive. “For the first time, I saw having sex with my husband as requiring work,” she adds. “This creeping reluctance to have sex started to grow; now its about 99 per cent.” Once so vital in the relationship, sex has dwindled down to an annual event. “I keep wondering,” she says, “if this is the stage of life I’m in, or the person I’m with.”

Anna’s situation is not an anomaly. Researchers examining this litde-understood aspect of marriage now say that sexually inactive couples of all ages are more common than previously thought. Hard statistics are notoriously imprecise, though, in part because men and women tend to see their sex lives from different perspectives. There is a scene in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall in which Allen and Diane Keaton, on split screens,

play a couple in separate therapy sessions. Each therapist asks about how often the two are having sex. “Almost never,” he replies. “Only three times a week.” She, meanwhile, tells her therapist: “Constantly. I’d say three times a week.”

In addition, most people find it difficult to admit they aren’t having sex in their marriage. Anna’s sex life with her husband has been almost nonexistent for about nine years. But she has never really confided in anyone about it. “A lot of married people don’t know what to do about it,” explains Denise Donnelly, assistant professor of sociology and women’s studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta and author of a study entitled Sexually Inactive Marriages. “It’s very frustrating, it’s very embarrassing and most of them put on a facade, pretend everything’s OK.”

Donnelly’s conclusions come out of data collected in the late 1980s by a U.S. study that asked 6,029 married men and women: “How often have you and your husband or wife had sex in the past month?” Her team excluded answers from people who had health problems, who had recendy given birth or were pregnant, or who didn’t live together. The result: 16 per cent of married people, across a range of ages,

Sexually inactive marriages are startlingly common, and they leave most spouses feeling hurt, confused and angry

had not had sex during the previous month. “Is it a danger sign for a marriage?” Donnelly says. “What I found from this was that the more sex a marriage has, the happier it is on average. People who didn’t have sex in their marriage were much more likely to say they had considered separation.” Sixteen per cent may not sound dire, and most of the couples claimed to be having sex at least once a week. But, adds Pepper Schwartz, a leading U.S. sex researcher and sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, “of that 16 per cent, how many didn’t have sex for the six months before that? If you have 20 per cent who are not having sex regularly, that’s one in five. That’s a lot of people.”

How does it happen? As in most relationships, the intense early passion fades when reality sets in. “You can have a highly charged courtship, then solidify it with a formalized ritual like marriage,” explains Judith Daniluk, a professor of counselling psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “When you start combining bank books and dealings with laundry, then the glow starts to change a bit, and it changes dramatically again with children.”

Daily drudgery can put a lump in any conjugal bed, of course. But it usually takes more than that to push sex out of a relationship completely. One couple to whom Donnelly spoke were staunch Catholics who saw their sex life disappear after the woman accidentally got pregnant before they were married. Why? The man felt so guilty that he was no longer able to perform. Another woman told Daniluk that she confessed to her husband about having had an extramarital affair; their sex life never recovered.

Illnesses, depression and deaths in the family may also cool passions. And sometimes, one person simply may not be as interested in sex as the other. John, a 42-year-old Toronto man who has been in a relationship for 20 years, says sex with his wife has at best occurred only sporadically—a fact he still finds difficult to accept. “It makes me feel very unattractive and it makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with me because I can’t seem to attract the person who I’m closest to in life in that way,” he says. “It’s depressing and discouraging and dispiriting.”

While the stereotype is a frustrated man and disinterested woman, the reality of many sexually inactive couples is often different. “It really seems to depend more on circumstance than on gender,” explains Donnelly, who is in the process of conducting a more detailed survey on sexual inactivity. “Some have just drifted into not having sex; it’s not articulated, but at least one of the partners is very unhappy about this.” Anna, for example, started to have children and began to resent the amount of effort she had always had to expend initiating sex with her husband.

For Jane, a mid-30s Montreal woman who also does not

wish to be identified, it was an unplanned pregnancy two years into a 12-year relationship that marked the end of an easy sex life. “When I brought it up, he would say he was going through something or just didn’t feel like it,” she recalls. “There was always some reason.” From that point on, sex happened sporadically, often with periods of several months in between. Even then, says Jane, “I felt like I had to initiate it and had to make it a big deal.”

Prolonged periods without sex can cause a variety of problems in a relationship. “I think it’s tougher on an older woman for whom sex has stopped because his erection has gone,” says Dr. Rosemary Basson, clinical associate professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia. “She remembers the frustration with this problematic penis and the whole focus becomes work, so after a few years it’s kind of OK that it’s gone.” But if he eventually sees a doctor and gets help, Basson adds, “sometimes the woman does not want to go back.”

There are other dangers, as well. Without sex at home, people often seek it from affairs. Then there’s the warning from trailblazing 1950s sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who basically said: “Use it or lose it.” “People who are having heavy-duty sex are having it into their 70s or 80s, but they’ve been having it all along,” says Schwartz. If people have sex infrequendy enough, she adds, “men will have much more trouble with erections; women will be lubricating less. Bodies manufacture these things by practice.”

An inactive sex life isn’t a problem if both partners are content. And if they aren’t happy but there’s a genuine willing-

ness from both to change the situation, experts say, there’s nothing to stop change from happening. And if the cause of the inactivity is a lack of time and energy, then all is not lost. Kids do eventually grow up and leave home, and if a couple can learn to live with the lean times, their once-prolific sex life may eventually be restored. “A lot of it has to do with what’s considered socially appropriate,” says Daniluk. “Everybody is convinced that everybody else is having more sex than they are.” Jane agrees. “People say you can’t be happy unless you have an active sex life,” she says. “It’s so unrealistic. If we all knew we were only going to have sex five times a year, it would be different.”

In the end, the toll sexual inactivity takes depends on the people involved. “I’m sure it affected our marriage,” says Jane, who is separated from her husband. “I think there’s something subconscious that happens; it just makes you feel so much closer to somebody when you’re touching them.” But like any appetite, the sex drive is randomly distributed. “The question is, are you matched or can you become matched?" says Schwartz. “You won’t die from lack of sex—you may be less happy, but you won’t die.” EE