Is a Sexless Marriage a Loveless Marriage?

Why does he equate sex with love, and how does that shape whether he feels loved?

This is the third in a series of posts in which I discuss six points husbands have expressed about the lack of sexual intimacy in their marriages. I first discussed these points in this post several years ago. Please read the introduction to this series here for background and a list of caveats.

This post discusses the third point: Men best receive love through sex.

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I just didn’t get it.

Why was sex such a big deal to my husband? As far as I could tell, what he really wanted was an orgasm—and he could have one of those on his own.

He complained about the lack of sex in our marriage, saying, “I guess I have to resign myself to a sexless marriage.” He looked and sounded so sad, as if this was something that truly mattered to him. But I dismissed it, thinking he was being frivolous.

It wasn’t like we were really sexless. I would give him sex once or twice a month, but it was never good enough. I lay there waiting for it to be over. I didn’t want to touch him. I didn’t initiate. Big deal, I would think. He’s still getting sex.

I didn’t understand why it was even an issue. So he wasn’t getting sex as often as he wanted, or in the way he wanted. So what? It wasn’t like I was depriving him of love. I washed his clothes, cooked meals he liked, took care of our kids, and managed our social calendar. When he was sick or injured, I took good tender care of him. I did a lot out of love for him, even though I didn’t see that I was getting anything in return.

The only time I felt safe in touching him and fully loving him was when he was sick. When I knew he felt too weak for sex, I could touch his forehead and pamper him without fear of repercussions. I enjoyed showing him love then. It was affection, with no strings attached.

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It breaks my heart to think of the many years I didn’t understand how intertwined love and sex were for my husband, just as they are for a majority of men. I think it’s fair to say that for most men, love and sex are not two separate things.

Several years ago, I described it this way: Men best receive love through sex.

Although I still believe that is generally true, I think there’s a better way to say it:

Men best experience connection through sex.

Sex=Connection

The stereotype is that while women need to feel connected in order to have sex, men need sex in order to feel connected.

In part, it’s about biology and hormones. Specifically, it has to do with the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the bonding hormone. When our oxytocin levels are high, we feel closer and more connected to someone. Women tend to have higher levels of oxytocin much of the time than men do. Our oxytocin levels increase when we touch and when we communicate intimately with another human. As women, we touch and communicate a lot.

Men, however, don’t touch very often, nor do they communicate in intimate ways. Furthermore, although touch and communication can increase their oxytocin levels somewhat, the only time they experience high levels is during sexual intimacy.

A man’s generally high sex drive drives him to increase his feelings of connection with his wife. Over time, his physical need for sex is strongly correlated to those feelings of connection. When a man wants to have sex with his wife, it is because he wants to feel connected and close to her. If it were just about the orgasm, he could take care of it on his own. The fact that he wants to have sex with her is a sign that he is seeking emotional closeness.

In addition to feeling close, sex meets other emotional needs in men. (See For Women Only.) Men have a deep emotional need to know that they are desired and that they measure up as men. Sex is the one thing that can affirm these needs. Duty sex that is given begrudgingly may fulfill certain physical needs. It does NOT, however, fulfill emotional needs. In fact, it sends negative emotional messages that can hurt a man deeply.

That last bit is why men seem to do okay when their wives are unable to have sex for medical reasons. They know that it isn’t about their own desirability. When I spent several months on pregnancy bedrest and was recovering from childbirth and, years later, from my hysterectomy, my husband was loving, tender, and caring, completely unfazed by the lack of sex.

The emotional component of sexual intimacy is incredibly powerful for our husbands.

We can meet every other need our husbands have. We can be awesome and amazing wives in every other way. But if we are not making sexual intimacy a priority, our husbands are going to feel disconnected and rejected.

When I used to care for Big Guy when he was sick, while I felt safe, he was feeling even more dejected and rejected. He saw my willingness to care for him, so it was clear that I wasn’t a heartless woman. He thought it must have been him. I was willing to care for him, but I wasn’t willing to have sex with him. That must mean that he was undesirable as a man.

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For years I thought my husband should just get over it. He was making too big of a deal about sex, and he should’ve accepted all the ways I tried to express my love for him.

I was wrong.

A sexless marriage is defined as having sex ten or fewer times in a year. We had a nearly-sexless marriage for quite a while.

It was self-centered of me to think that my husband should do all the adapting to my way of expressing love. At the very least, it would have been good for me to understand why he was feeling rejected. I knew I wasn’t rejecting him, but understanding why he felt that way might have helped me think about sex a little differently.

I knew that I loved my husband and that our mostly sexless marriage wasn’t a loveless marriage. To Big Guy, however, that’s exactly what we had: a loveless marriage.

What Can Wives Do?

If your husband has ever used the words “sexless” or “loveless” to refer to your marriage, chances are that he is feeling alone and rejected.

I’d like to suggest two things that you can do as a wife to help your husband feel loved in your marriage.

First, choose to believe these two statements:

  1. Sex is about emotional connection for your husband.
  2. He will experience connection and love best through sex.

Even if his words are about body parts and physical pleasure, emotion and connection are the real force driving him.

Second, make sexual intimacy a priority. If you struggle with sex, pursue solutions for that. Sex is as much for you as it is for your husband, and learning how to enjoy sex is worth the effort for your own sake. It is also true, however, that sex is also for your husband. If sex has been a problem in your marriage, working to figure it out is likely to help your husband feel more loved.

My own journey began with addressing sex simply for my husband’s sake. It didn’t stop there, but it was a first step—and it helped my husband begin to trust me and feel loved again.

I am not asking you to permanently set aside your own needs and desires and have sex with your husband no matter what. I AM asking you to grow in your understanding of why sex matters to him and to work toward joyful sexual intimacy because it is good for you and for your husband.

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Big Guy recently had a medical procedure that requires me to change his bandages.

The other night he was lying on the bed while I leaned over him to clean and bandage his chest. I touch him frequently now, and he is sexually and emotionally content in our marriage. His long-ago feelings of rejection and my long-ago feelings that caring for him in illness was the only time I could be safe in touching him were nowhere to be found.

The light reflected off my wedding ring, and Big Guy was overcome with emotion. “Your wedding ring,” he said. “You are taking care of me, and there’s your wedding ring, . . . “ At that moment, he felt the fullness of my love for him and the expression of my wedding vows in a powerful way. In sickness, and in health . . . 

God designed my husband as a man. Sex makes emotional connection possible for him, and it meets the deepest needs of his heart.

In his emotional contentment and sure knowledge of my love for him, Big Guy is better able to receive love in all the ways I express it to him, not just through sex.

I think I get it now.

Posts in This Series

Why does he equate sex with love, and how does that shape whether he feels loved?

Image credit | Christianpics.co

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18 Comments on “Is a Sexless Marriage a Loveless Marriage?”

  1. Chris,
    That was beautifully written. At times, I felt like I was given an inner glimpse behind the curtain of your thoughts; a rare gem indeed. My heart ached and understood when my husband and I were going through a difficult time. I just didn’t understand why it was so important to him. I felt my marriage hitting wall after wall after wall, and I was powerless to stop it.

    I finally reached out and got help, but I learned that it wasn’t enough for me to have sex just to please my husband…while that sounds really nice and almost martyr’ish. It wouldn’t last, and I knew it. I had to find out what I did like and how to enjoy intimacy for the give and take that it really is. Just like you said, “Sex is as much for you as it is for your husband, and learning how to enjoy sex is worth the effort for your own sake.”

    The more I learned and applied to myself, the more the ache in my heart lessened and opened up to my husband and his touch. I wanted him and in return I was able to give my husband what he so desired.

    1 yr ago, I didn’t get it. But now I do. ~ Johanna

  2. What if it is the opposite, “you should be happy with what you have and let your faith carry you I am no longer interested in sex” that from my husband of 34 years so boom no sex in 2 years and I am supposed to be “ content”(by the way the stuff in the parentheses is what he has said to me. I am confused, sad and depressed

    1. Your husband was wrong to expect you to be content without sexual intimacy in your marriage. If your husband’s low sex drive came about only a couple years ago, it might be worth looking into whether there is anything medical going on. Men sometimes find that low testosterone, medical conditions that cause ED, or stress can significantly interfere with their sexual desire. Even if he isn’t interested for himself, he can still engage with you sexually in other ways. Meanwhile, please talk with a pastor or counselor to help you deal with your sadness. I’m very sorry you’re going through this.

  3. Sex can foster emotional connection. It doesn’t guarantee that it will, though, I had that experience early in my marriage where my husband and I would have a few issues that we could never settle, but the sexual frequency was there. I’d sometimes feel awful after sex when things would go right back to how they were as far as respect for my wishes and needs in the marriage. I would feel used. None of the issues we fought about were about sex.

    Certainly men can foster emotional connection in other ways, as they do with the rest of the world, sure sex is part of that puzzle, but not all of it.

    I wonder where people fit in who are too frail or too sick to have sex, does that mean there is no emotional connection. I work as a nurse with these people daily, and I would say there still is an emotional connection despite the fact that one of the couple is no longer able to have sex. How do we prepare people for this stage of marriage, as people live longer and longer lives.

    As far as medical conditions and low T causing ED, there are definitely reasons for men to see a doctor. Once they do though, we have to accept them as they are at that point, say if they decline testosterone therapy.

    My husband had his prostate removed due to cancer. He has ED as a result. The ED has changed our sex life. It will never be what it was before. I can only accept that and put my energy toward supporting him during his illness.

    1. You are right: Sex doesn’t guarantee connection. Sex isn’t the only way men can experience connection. The lack of sex doesn’t mean there is no emotional connection. Sex does make emotional connection easier for most men, but they still have to put effort into helping their wives feel connected.

      I’ve been thinking about that connection during illness and aging. A medical condition does seem to remove some of the “I’m not desirable” component of no sex. When we physically cannot or should not have sex, it changes the playing field. We’ve seen that in our marriage. When years of multiple emotionally connective sex are replaced by less sex, or sex that is difficult or without a reliable orgasm, we don’t lose the connection that we’ve already built.

      A relationship has many factors that influence emotional connection. My point here is that for many men, sex plays an incredibly powerful role.

  4. Thank you. This was the scenario for my husband and I for at least 15 years. Two years ago, my husband and I were at odds over a separate issue. We fought so much and I couldn’t take it anymore. I finally decided to stop resenting him and prayed for God to help me know how to act respectfully toward him. It was at that time that I got a conviction that couldn’t be anything but God making me realize that I had been witholding for years due to resentment. Our sex life was far from my mind.
    My husband echoed exactly the way you described most men’s feelings about sex, and I FINALLY got it. Hit me like a ton of bricks! I had NO idea that there could be a spiritual or emotional connection from sex.
    Life changed from that point and the thing we were at odds about got resolved. Then, I found your site Chris! and couldn’t believe there were others with the same issue. You have helped me so much! Sex means a lot more to me now. But, it wasn’t easy at first.
    Please, for anyone struggling in this area, know that it is possible to heal. But, I believe it takes asking for and surrendering to God’s help. I couldn’t have made it through otherwise.

  5. For me as a man, I have not equated sexless with loveless in my marriage. (For the record, we are not sexless since we average 13-18 times a year for the last 5 years). However, I have always felt and known that my wife loves me. Sex is just not on her radar. She has told me that she is not comfortable initiating sex. She has never truly organism in our 35+ years of marriage. I have learn to accept this and probably will never change since she deals with a variety of physical ailments such as fibro and chronic fatigue.

    1. Thank you for taking time to comment. I know that will be encouraging to many wives. Chronic pain issues can have a significant impact on the ability to experience or enjoy sexual intimacy. Many women are not comfortable initiating sex, although it is something that can be learned.

  6. Somehow, medical/biological sexual dysfunctions still bring a husband’s “desirability” into question.
    Even when years of connection have been nurtured.
    I agree with K, how do we prepare people for the sexual problems that are Going to arise in the latter years of marriage?
    Sometimes I think we keep our heads in the sand by placing too much emphasis on just one syllable. Sex won’t stay the same. Love and caring can.

    1. I think the best way to prepare for the sexual problems that come with age is to remember to focus on intimacy. Sexual intimacy does not have to mean intercourse. It doesn’t even have to mean an orgasm. It might be a husband and wife lying together naked and just cuddling.

      I do have a couple posts that might be helpful. Sex in the Middle is about middle-aged sex. Some of it may apply during the older years as well. When It Hurts: Maintaining Sexual Intimacy While Dealing with Pain has some suggestions specific to when health prohibits sexual activity.

  7. In my situation, it’s a lack of interest in sex which leads to an apathetic nature regarding sexual intimacy. For over ten years my wife has repeatedly told me that she didn’t want to have sex anymore. Or, why it was such a ‘big deal’ for me. For the few times that we do make love it’s clearly duty sex, which along with most men, I truly despise. But given how infrequent the sex is, I somehow allow it.

    What really hurts the most is that I remember what our love life used to be, and what it is now. My wife has gone from triple X sex to triple S sex. Space Shuttle Sex. You know how that goes. Every little thing must be just right before the space shuttle can acheive lift off. Because if it isn’t the mission is scrubbed. And, if and when the shuttle ever does get airborne, it’s a long time before the next mission, and the process has to repeat it’s frustrating cycle all over again.

    To sum it up, a sexless marriage does feel like a loveless marriage. And the really sad part is, you start emotionally drifting apart from your wife and she has the nerve to ask why that is.

    Even though you’ve explained the reason to her time and again.

  8. It’s a vicious cycle. I think what really smarts is that I work for a big box home improvement store and interact with cashiers on a frequent basis, about 98 percent are female. And I realize that I don’t treat them any differently than I do my wife. So why are they appreaciative for all that I do for them, but the same amount of effort at home makes no difference at all? So what am I doing wrong that makes my wife still feel so emotionally detached? It’s like I can’t do anything right or good enough for her. It’d so frustrating.

    I’m new to your blog, but for what it’s worth, I’ve read your posts regarding your past and how it affected your husband. And I’m amazed at how you describe the effect it had on your man. Because your previous gatekeeping years are remarkably similar to what’s going on in my marriage. So I commend you on your turnabout for the best and hope someday my wife does the same. May you and the man in your life continue to grow closer together in all things.

    As for me…I’ll keep hoping, and praying, that in the fullness of time, all will be made right.

    Keep up the good work.

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