Some people feel satisfied in a sexless marriage — they may feel they don’t desire sex as much, that it isn’t a high priority, or that their sexual needs are being met in other ways. However, others may feel that a lack of sex is damaging the health of their relationship and personal happiness. Those who experience the latter may struggle with feeling rejected, isolated, unwanted, and hurt. If those feelings become overpowering, you may find yourself at a crossroads, wondering if and when you should walk away from a sexless marriage.
Choosing to separate or even divorce due to a lack of sex is entirely your decision as only you know what’s right for you. It may feel impossible to even imagine leaving, or it may feel liberating and exciting. For some, leaving a marriage doesn’t mean nixing the relationship altogether, but reframing it as a friendship rather than a romantic partnership through conscious uncoupling. Everyone is different, but, either way, choosing if and when to walk away requires carefully weighing the pros and cons, considering how much you value sex over other aspects over your relationship and qualities in your partner, and many more factors.
If you’ve tried to mend your sexless marriage, nothing is working, and now you’re wondering when it’s time to walk away, consider these six factors to evaluate the best plan of action.
1. Your partner isn’t willing to work on the issue
“You can't change your sex life with your partner if they aren't willing to help you make those changes,” Carmel Jones, sex and relationship expert at The Big Fling tells O.school. You may have a partner who gets defensive or angry, tries to change the subject, or walks out when you try to communicate and repair the issue. They may refuse to see a couples’ therapist or consistently cancel or put off appointments. It also may be that your partner outright tells you they don’t want anything to change.
If you feel you’re the only one fighting for the relationship, things are unlikely to change any time soon. While it can be hard to come to terms with this, it’s a sign that it may be time to consider whether the situation is right for you. You deserve a partner who puts in effort to repair issues and talk about the things you need to feel happy and loved.
2. You consider sex to be fundamental to a relationship, but your partner doesn’t
Everyone prioritizes sex differently and everyone has varying sex drives. Some people feel happy and satisfied in a relationship without sex and/or acts of intimacy. Some people may desire sex, but only once in awhile — and that’s okay. For others, however, sex is an extremely important part of physical or emotional intimacy and feeling loved and connected to their partner. Irene Fehr, MA, CPCC, sex and intimacy coach, says that when sex is missing from a relationship for a person like this “they will continuously feel that something important is missing” and the relationship can feel incomplete.
“In such a situation, it might be more beneficial for a couple to split up and release each other to find a partner who will meet them in the form of relationship that they desire” says Fehr. Recognizing that you and your partner prioritize sex differently and are not able to meet each other’s needs can be difficult. However, chronically feeling like something is missing from your relationship is also not sustainable.
3. There’s a lack of sexual compatibility you feel can’t be resolved
Everyone has different sexual preferences and needs. Some people find their favorite and most pleasurable sexual experiences are with fantasies, fetishes, BDSM, or kink. Other people may not be interested in these sorts of sexual activities but find ways to accommodate or support a partner’s sexual interests in ways that feel comfortable. Partners can even have different interests in the sex positions they enjoy or sex acts they like best. Often, even when couples have differences in sexual interests, there is some overlap, but “occasionally there is none” says Jessa Zimmerman, AASECT certified sex therapist and author of Sex Without Stress in an article in MindBodyGreen.
Lack of overlap in sexual needs can also appear when partners have very different levels of sexual desire. While there is no “normal” or “correct” sex drive to have (everyone’s sex drive is different), mismatched libidos can cause a strain if neither partner feels able to make compromises for the other.
There are many potential solutions to work around sexual incompatibility. For example, “Some couples decide to address this by using fantasy and masturbation while staying married. Others decide to implement some type of open marriage in which they can meet their needs outside the relationship but remain married,” says Zimmerman. But if you feel you’ve tried to align sexually and your needs are still not being met, or no compromises are being made, it may be time to open a conversation about whether or not the relationship is working.
4. Your sexless marriage is a symptom of a deeper issue that feels irreparable
A sexless marriage can be a symptom or a cause of a deeper issue in the relationship. When it’s a symptom, the lack of sex can shed light on that underlying problem. Zimmerman says “if the two of you have toxic communication cycles, including blame, shame, criticism, gaslighting, or abuse, that can nix your sex life — and bring your marriage to its end.”
You may also have challenges like fundamental differences in parenting styles, cheating, financial strains, etc. If you have tried meaningful ways of working on these underlying issues but feel the damage is irreparable, it may call for you to leave the unhealthy dynamic.
5. You feel you’ve tried everything to strengthen your sex life with your partner, and nothing is working
The relationship may be over if you and your partner have been working on your relationship for a long time and feel like “you've exhausted your options,” says Jones.
You may have already tried different approaches to reintroducing intimacy with your partner: scheduling date nights, practicing smaller acts of touch, like hand-holding or massage, and making an effort to affirm each other romantically and sexually. You might have tried sex toys, rethinking what sex means to you, experimenting with erotica and porn, erectile dysfunction treatments if that’s an issue a partner experiences, etc.
“If you've tried counseling, communication, and experimenting it might be time for a conversation about how it's not working,” Jones tells O.school. There are many different options for improving a sexless marriage before divorce. For example, having many extensive conversations with your partner, trying to improve your communication skills, and seeking out therapy. Or exploring alternative relationship structures like swinging, an open relationship or polyamory.
If you’ve tried every strategy you can think of, but the relationship has not improved or your needs are still not being met, it can leave you feeling emotionally depleted. This can foster anger and resentment which only worsens the issue at hand. At a certain point, it may feel it’s time to call it.
6. The lack of sex causes unhappiness in the relationship that outweighs the joy
When considering if and when to walk away from a sexless marriage, it’s important to look at the relationship holistically. A lack of sex doesn’t necessarily mean you should give up on the relationship — especially if other aspects are important to you and working. Perhaps you aren’t having enough or any sex with your partner, but they provide emotional support and perform other smaller acts of intimacy that make you feel loved. Perhaps your partner is a wonderful parent and maintaining the partnership is important for the sake of the kids. Perhaps you value sharing financial resources, like a house, a car, etc.
Consider making an extensive pro-con list, evaluating each aspect of your relationship and how you prioritize them compared to sex. If you find that you feel so unhappy due to the lack of sex that it begins to trump any joy you might feel in the relationship, it might be time to consider walking away. Know that choosing to leave a sexless marriage is a completely fair determination, especially as sex is often tied to feeling loved and desired.
In cases where your partner has a lower libido, has health issues, or other things that impact their ability or desire for sex, it’s also important to consider their happiness. They deserve a partner who can love and appreciate them, despite a lack of sex.
The bottom line
Ending a sexless relationship is a very personal decision. Take time to consider the situation you’re in and to evaluate the relationship as a whole. If you do choose to walk away, it does not mean the relationship was a failure. A break up, separation, or divorce can mean appreciating the relationship for what it was while understanding it’s not serving you now. Moving on can mean giving yourself and your partner the opportunity to seek happiness and fulfillment elsewhere — something we all deserve.