There’s no drama, no fighting. You’ve been together for years, raised kids and pets. As months drift into years, you realize: You’re in a sexless marriage.
Most married couples don’t really know what to expect of a long-term relationship, says Diane Solee, MSW, a former marriage counselor who is the founder and director of Smartmarriages. She is also director of the Coalition for ily, and Couples Education.
“It’s so normal to hit the doldrums. In a way, you should be smug about it,” Solee tells WebMD. “You have a partner who is not bringing drama into your life. You’re not going to alcohol or cocaine treatment classes. You are in a very good place. Realizing all that, your job is to get out of the doldrums. You may have gotten into a rut.”
There’s more at stake than simply boredom. Very often, couples are headed toward a bigger disconnect in the marriage — and possibly divorce, says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, professor of sociology, psychiatry, and behavioral medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Are You Spouses or Just Roommates?
Schwartz is on the Health Advisory Board at WebMD, and author of several books including Prime: Adventures and Advice about Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years.
Signs you’re in the marital doldrums: “You’re leading parallel lives, and don’t see each other anymore,” she tells WebMD. “You tell everything important to your friends but not to each other. Those are really big problems, and you’ve got to tend to them.”
A sharp tongue is a red flag of growing frustration in a passionless marriage, Schwartz adds. “If you’re bitchy, if you treat each other with contempt, it’s a warning sign. It may not happen all the time, but it happens often. It’s because people start to feel neglected, disappointed. They had expectations of what marriage should be like, and this is not what they’d hoped for.”
In fact, boredom is very often a cover-up for anger and disappointment, Schwartz explains. “Those deeper feelings have to be dealt with. I’m not talking about deep therapy; it can happen in one or two visits. But there has to be a refocusing on the relationship. a renewal of what this marriage is supposed to be.”
The Anatomy of Love
First step: Be realistic. If you’re looking for the swept-off-your feet sex of those first few years, dream on. And a new partner certainly isn’t the solution. Three years later, you’ll have the same sizzle-less marriage you have right now.
“The initial passion of any relationship changes after 18 months,” says Sallie Foley, MSW, director of the Center for Sexual Health at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Modern Love and Sex and Love for Grownups.
“It moves from the romantic and exciting to an attachment kind of loving, fondness,” Foley tells WebMD. “That gotta have it, gotta have it feeling is gone.”
Take stock of what you want, she advises. If you want a sex life, then commit to making it happen, Foley says. “Not everyone wants a sex life as they head into last third of life. But AARP studies show that 65% remain sexually active.”
Put aside the romanticized, silver-screen notions of sex, Foley says. “The majority of people your age are having good-enough sex. Occasionally, they have sex that knocks it out of the ballpark. But they’re having sex regularly. They’re getting into bed, hugging and touching, canoodling as I call it, and they’re doing it on a regular basis.”
You’ve also got to set aside negative attitudes about your spouse. “You have to give up fantasy notions that he or she is suddenly going to be 20 pounds lighter with no cellulite. You have to decide, ‘This is what I want, how do I proceed,'” she advises.