When Sex Isn't Working

Is there more to being faithful than being monogamous?

The lack of sexual confidence, growth, and connection in marriage is staggering and sad.

Should I shut it down or go elsewere?

Too often married individuals respond to unsatisfactory or nonexistent sexual intimacy in their marriage with this binary question. In other words, they feel they have to shut down or “turn off” their sexuality because it hasn’t been working (or has never worked) or they conclude that they will have to look for a partner or other outlet outside of the marriage in order to find sexual fulfillment.

I see a lot of clients in my practice who have tried, or are still trying, one of these two options. Let me share how couples often find themselves feeling stuck between them.

Shut Down Sexuality

There are many reasons someone may have sexuality that is currently “shut down” (turned off, ignored, not acknowledged, repressed, etc.) Marriages where one or both of the spouses have “shut down sexuality” have healthy and fulfilling sex less than 10 times a year, some less than 6 times a year, and some who haven’t had sex at all in one or more years.

There are many reasons that someone may not be ready or willing to “turn it on” again after realizing that their sexuality is shut down. Many of these reasons come from fears. One fear that can keep someone from putting forth the effort to “turn it on” is the fear of rejection that may have occurred earlier in the relationship or in a previous relationship. Another is the fear of embarrassment. Our culture is pretty flawed in how it portrays what is “attractive” or “sexy” and most of us can’t live up to the Hollywood definitions. For some it’s the fear of failure to physically perform as they or their spouse expects them to perform. They fear that their bodies can’t respond sexually in the ways it once did or is expected to. Most of these fears present in the form of some level of sexual anxiety.

Other reasons someone may be unwilling or not ready to “turn it on” again are based on pain. Some of the pain associated with “shut down sexuality” can be from past painful sexual experiences that has resulted in damage to genitals, or other body parts. Some pain can be from physical challenges associated with other parts of the body that make sex physically uncomfortable, like pain in the knees or back. Sometimes various other painful sexual functioning issues that have never been addressed are contributing to keeping sex “turned off”, including emotional or relational pain.

Other reasons for “shut down sexuality” can include emotional trauma, previous sexual abuse, relational conflict, religious teachings, fear of intimacy, spouse unwillingness, or clinical mental health issues.

Go-Elsewhere Sexuality

The books and articles written for “why people cheat” are many and varied. Some today see “go-elsewhere” sex as “no big deal” sex and advocate for “open” marriages and relationships. Regardless of the varying opinions out there, most marriages want and expect sexual and emotional fidelity in their relationship with their spouse. And for those who have made vows of chastity, I’m not proposing justifications for going elsewhere, but there are reasons and situations behind all behaviors. Here’s a few of the common reasons (not excuses) some choose to “go elsewhere.”

The absence of or increasing distance in emotional intimacy can be a precursor to the “go-elsewhere” response. Sex is much more than an act, so many marriages with regular sexual contact can still be vulnerable to “go-elsewhere” behavior if the alternative sought holds the promise, or facade, of emotional connectivity and intimacy. This idea is more than just the lack of romance, though lack of romance can definitely contribute to the bigger issue of lack of intimacy. One date night a month or even one a week can be really helpful things to any marriage, but intimacy that is reduced to a few hours a month or a few hours a week is still likely to be missing the boat.

Sexual stagnation is often a factor in “go-elsewhere” decisions as well. Sexual stagnation occurs when sex has become predictable, lethargic, and repetitive in expression. The longer a marriage is in this situation, the more the rut feels like a sexual grave.  Stagnation can begin slowly and unnoticed. There are often good reasons it begins: job demands, time pressures, kids, religious activities, lack of physical fitness, or just assuming that you know all there is to know about your mate. Most of us innately know that sex wasn’t supposed to be this way. No one expects their married sex life to be the same 5 years after the wedding, they want it to be better! But when efforts for improvement fail (which they do at times for every marriage) some couples settle for stagnant sex.

My own practice would validate other contributing factors that occasionally pop up: early negative experiences with spouse, unplanned romantic relationship with a 3rd party, conflict in the marriage, a sexually “shut down” spouse, pursuit of media-fantasy sex, and clinical mental health issues. Marriages where one or both of the spouses have drifted toward “Go-Elsewhere Sexuality” are at risk of facing an extramarital sexual affair, heavy pornography use, addiction to sexually risky behaviors, and/or have had one or more sexual relationships outside of their marriage.

In some marriages, both spouses take the same response, and in some one spouse has chosen one response and their spouse the other. These two lists are far from exhaustive as every individual case is just that, individual. However, those noted here are common.

If you find yourself in one of these two responses to an unfulfilled married sex life, (or you think you drifting steadily towards one of them), get caring, supportive, and competent professional help.