How to Deal with a Sexless Marriage

Every month in Sex at Our Age, award-winning senior sexpert Joan Price answers your questions about everything from loss of desire to solo sex and partner issues. Nothing is out of bounds! To send your questions directly to Joan, email sexpert@seniorplanet.org.

My wife and I are in our 60s, very active and in good health. We haven’t had sex in over a year and a half because of my wife’s lack of interest. I would like to ask her if we’ll ever have a sex life again, but she has a hard time talking about it.

We’ve been married almost 40 years and neither of us had any sex partners before we met. I’ve always wanted sex more than she has, though the first years were pretty satisfying for both of us. She started losing interest when our children were young—she’d be OK with sex once or twice a month, and only when she was in the mood.

When she was in the mood, my wife really enjoyed sex and had great orgasms, but that mood hit less and less frequently. I finally became frustrated with being turned down and just waited for her to initiate sex. She didn’t. So our sex lives dwindled until around 15 years ago she realized a more regular sex life might be a good thing. For a short time she’d schedule sex once a week whether or not she felt like it—but then menopause hit and sex dwindled again, diminishing to once or twice a year until we stopped having sex altogether.

I’ve read about vaginal atrophy and would guess she has it. We used lubricant but it still wasn’t very effective the last time. She’s been mostly dry since a few years before menopause.

As far as foreplay goes, either I don’t know how to do it or she doesn’t like to be touched unless she is in the mood. The most affection I can show without her being irritated is spooning for a short period when we’re in bed — I’d better not move my hands to caress her! — and hugs when one of us leaves the house. I’ve tried suggesting a date, but it’s hard to find something she wants to do or doesn’t cost too much.

There are always two sides to a story, and I don’t want to paint her as an uncaring wife. I know at times she’s felt my touching was just for sex, and at times she was right. She told me a few years ago that she felt sorry for me because of her lack of sexual desire. But at this point I don’t think her interest in sex will ever revive, so what would your advice be? Should I ask her what our sex future will be? How should I phrase it? Or should I just accept her celibacy and masturbate when I need release? —Frustrated

Joan Price Responds

I read the frustration and despair in your story and I thank you for being willing to share it here. I can understand why you’re anxious about talking to your wife about this, but communication is the only way you’ll get out of this impasse. The subtle ways – dates, touching, hoping – haven’t worked and although years have passed,  neither of you really understands yet how the other feels. Since I don’t know your wife and I don’t know anything about your conversational style or hers, I can’t give you the magic words for getting the conversation started. Here are some possible openings – finesse one or more of these to fit your comfort and style:

  • I really miss the intimacy we used to have when we were sexual. Can we please talk about how we each feel about sex in our relationship?
  • We seem to have fallen into a marriage without sex. I love you, but I am not happy this way. Would you be willing to see a therapist with me to learn how to talk about this?
  • I realize that I really don’t know your reasons for not wanting to be sexual with me – whether it hurts you, or there’s something I’m doing or not doing. I’d like to hear how you feel.

I strongly suggest that you see a sex therapist (find one in your location) or a sex-savvy counselor for guidance. Therapy will help you identify the issues underlying the lack of sex, teach you how to communicate more effectively, give you strategies for regaining your intimacy if she’s willing, and tools for coping if she’s not, and offer you the boost you need to work on your relationship.

You’re guessing that your wife might have vaginal atrophy, but you don’t know. Have you asked whether she experienced vaginal pain during sex? If it’s just dryness—which is common as women age—as well as using lubricant you’ll also want to be sure that your wife is aroused, even before any genital touching.

If your wife thinks she may have vaginal atrophy, I hope she’ll see a knowledgeable doctor or  pelvic floor therapist to get a diagnosis and treatment plan that can alleviate her discomfort. There are many reasons for vaginal pain, if indeed that’s what she’s experiencing, and getting the right medical help is essential.

You talk about your wife not being “in the mood.” That’s an elusive state when we’re not driven by our hormones. It’s important to understand the difference between spontaneous desire and responsive desire. As I explained before on seniorplanet.org, spontaneous desire just happens, while responsive desire only happens after a woman’s body starts getting aroused. Most women, especially in our age group, only experience responsive desire. That means you could wait forever for your wife to just want sex. But maybe if she’s willing to try your weekly sex date again, she might find that once you’ve aroused her, the mood sails in. (You might want to share with her an excellent resource about responsive desire, Emily Nagoski’s book “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life.”)

That said, you should also think about how you’re trying to arouse your wife. You say you don’t know if you’re doing foreplay right. If you go too directly and/or too soon to her vulva before she’s aroused, she’ll likely just want to withdraw. I don’t know if that’s what’s happening for her, and of course the only way to know is to ask her. Working with a therapist will help you learn to ask her how she prefers to be touched and help empower her to guide you.

You’ve both gone so long without sex together and without understanding each other that it isn’t an easy fix. But don’t give up!  If she’s willing, find a therapist who will help you and your wife talk about this and really listen to each other—and if she won’t go, go on your own. Even without your wife, seeing a therapist will help you learn how to communicate with her, and give you new ways of looking at your marriage and strategies for coping. Meanwhile, I encourage you to keep masturbating. It’s good for your general health, your sexual health and your sense of well-being. There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself sexual pleasure.  I wish you the best.

Would you like to see more questions and answers? See all of Joan’s advice in Sex@Our Age.

Send Joan your questions by emailing sexpert@seniorplanet.org. All information is confidential.

joan-priceJoan Price is the author of several books including “The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50” and the award-winning self-help book “Naked at Our Age.” Visit Joan’s  blog, “Naked at Our Age” and her Facebook page. For senior sex news, tips, event and webinar announcements, and special offers, join Joan’s mailing list.

20 comments
  • Dave
    REPLY

    Been there, done that. Tried all the hormones, the therapy, the talks, and yes, even the threats of stepping out if things don’t improve.

    Let’s face it, as women age, many lose sex drive, along with experiencing a good number of other sexual problems. When it gone, it’s gone. She may give in from time to time to satisfy her man, but the drive is gone. What men want is for her to have some of that drive back. Men don’t want to force their wives into sex, nor do they want to beg for it.

    We might as well bring up the time tested alternative. Someone on the side. Only you can decide if this is right for you. But we are kidding ourselves if we somehow justify a woman’s position requiring fidelity in a sexless marriage. That’s abusive and hurtful too.

  • Dan
    REPLY

    Dear Joan,
    I am partly replying and partly commenting on the many very earnest and difficult sexless relationships discussed here.
    There is one category which never seems to be covered in these kind of forums, that is where one partner is both medically unadvisable to have sex. Add to that some other longstanding unresolved low sex drive and relationship problems caused by their mate (me) in the past, and strict un_affectionate anti_sex parents in her upbringing.

    We are 64 and 66 age, with my wife having a mitral valve replaced 30 years ago from childhood rheumatic fever and poor medical care, after our son was 6 years old. After my heart surgery 2 years ago for the same valve, we found the same surgeon who repaired it robotically and I was able to care for her pneumonia 2 weeks later and a year later heart failure, improved by a TAVR Aortic valve replacement last spring.

    I was active outside a few times with permission, after 7 years of zero sex, and was not having problems engaging in it, but that had to stop when I tried to help a person I was seeing was caught. Even before this, she told me she does not want to nor have any desire for sex or intimacy with me or anyone. Furthermore the AFIB and some remaining heart failure issues make sex not safe to engage in, even if counseling could resolve our relationship issues from the past.

    I still plan/need to continue working in a high tech job many hours a week, with excellent insurance, which is fortunate, and there is no way she can drive or work for several decades now. Put simply, she needs me as a caregiver and husband, as our son and 5 grand kids moved away for church school 2 years ago. We are happy for the days she has some energy and good enough oxygen levels.

    I am very sexually frustrated and a different Danish upbringing with a healthy attitude. contrasts what my Wife and her 7 siblings and and an unstable Mother made her as the oldest have us take in 2 of her brothers early in our marriage. This put stress on things as did a lack of acceptance from my mother, to my Wife, until she died at 97.

    So in summary, WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS IN THIS KIND OF SITUATION? For the months it was possible, I felt like a real man again, and much stronger at home and work. Now it is back to looking at every other couple as maybe having something unattainable for me and my Wife.

  • Will
    REPLY

    Married 36 years, neither of us had sex with anyone including each other until our wedding night: It was tough, but my choice. We had a fantastic time learning each other and how to do it together! I think because I really enjoyed masturbating from my semenarche to marriage, I brought in a healthy way of looking at sex. My wife says she’s convinced that my strong sex drive saved our marriage that got us through our in-laws, the deaths of 2 of our children, accidents, emergencies, seriou surgeries, any one of which could have destroyed us. But, here we are with 13 grandchildren from the strong marriages of our 9 surviving children.

    My point is, most of the sexless marriage problems are from the man not ruling. I ruled our marriage & family and still do. During our engagement I made it crystal clear that my sex drive was high & she was the perfect woman to relieve it. Sure she was sore & tired particularly in the beginning, but she didn’t make it a habit to say no because she knew my hand was nothing like her body that I craved.

    The man must rule by demanding to get what he wants. When he gets it, his wife & children are covered in security & abundance. And everyone under his authority flourishes. Not so in an egalitarian or woman-dominated ‘marriage’ where she gets what she wants that always ends in dysfunction & misery.

    • Joan Price
      REPLY

      Will, I don’t see “ruling” the relationship and demanding that a wife “relieve” her husband, even if she’s sore or unwilling, as a solution to anything except an unhappy wife. I respect your right to your opinion, but to say that an egalitarian relationship “always ends in dysfunction & misery” is unfounded and far from true.

    • Garry
      REPLY

      Will: I was very disturbed to read your post. I am a man who has been married for 48 years and to read “The man must rule by demanding to get what he wants” suggests a serious mental illness. No human being should “dominate” another person. Love and mutual respect must be the basis for any human relationship.

  • Poppa B
    REPLY

    I read this with interest. Masturbation in the case of a marriage where one party is no longer interested in having sex and actively resists any overtures along those lines would seem to be the logical course of action. But to then take into account the Catholic Church’s stance on that interjects another sticking point, if I may use that term. A person wants to, and intends to, stay faithful to their spouse in a sexless marriage “and” be a “good” Catholic at the same time is faced with, what seems to me, a no win situation.

    Suggestions, thoughts, comments?

    • Dan
      REPLY

      You’re describing my dilemma to a tee. I don’t know why I’m still here. She told me years ago that “we’ve had all the kids we’re going to have, what’s the point?”. As if I was only there as a sperm donor.

  • DeCaf
    REPLY

    I’ll keep this short, but I could write a short novel. Married 50years and our sex life never really got going. We did have sex on occasion but we would go months in between, not my idea, finally he ‘stopped and said he had no more interest or ambition to have sex. He just didn’t want me and wanted to be left alone, in his world. He worked constantly on the mid night shift away from me. I had to fend for myself, and I could have done that before we were married.
    I’m in my 70’s now and don’t care any more, he’s retired and works in his shop on cars mostly.

  • Ken Bell
    REPLY

    We are both in our Sixties now and have been married for over 35 years and apart for a few occasions, birthdays etc my wife just hasn’t been interested. I feel very bitter about it and although there have been compensations in our marriage- children and now grandchildren I have found her lack of interest difficult to cope with. I end up feeling bad about this as I think I should not be ‘obsessing’ about it as she often says. She basically views it as an immature fixation and that as a married man I should concentrate on more important things.
    I have been a loyal affectionate hard working husband ( I would say that!) and I feel I have been cheated. Once the children appeared on the scene I would never have done anything that would risk us splitting up. And now we are old and the chance of my wife changing are now nil. We both have health issues
    My advice would be to sort these problems out before the years pass and certainly before there are children as I think most men have a stronger sense of loyalty and decency than they are often given credit for and are willing to forgo what is a very primal need for the sake of a stable relationship.

  • Larence Arthur
    REPLY

    Hi, Nice advice. I go through the details of your sexual life. Really it’s happening with many couples as the year goes and children born the interest goes down. But it should not stop like this as it hampering your life. So all should take care on this. Nowadays due to the requirement of Adult Men’s Sex Toys, different kind of online retailer store like Lovecubby available for a variety of high-quality sex toys for men & women that everyone can love. Hope now your problem will be solved.

  • Demetria
    REPLY

    It’s all a crock. When they stop they stop. My husband stopped 25 years ago when he couldn’t get it up. I think it was a relief for him because he was not much into sex. I am sorry I stayed, but life, illness, dementia parents and a son kept me in this sexless marriage. Now it’s too late. Bitter? You bet. Take what you can, now.

    • Bob
      REPLY

      Demetria,

      I agree, once they stop there’s nothing that’s going to get them interested or willing to do it again. With my wife it was menopause. But I do like your advice, don’t waste time with them and take whatever you can get now. Life is way too short!

  • bob
    REPLY

    My wife lost interest in sex years ago. She continued to have sex for a while but that eventually ended and we haven’t had sex now in over 5 years. She has absolutely no interest in it. I’ve tried everything I can think of but I’ve given up. The only thing I have now is masturbation about 3 times a week. She’s always saying how bad she feels about it but but never offers to do anything. I’m only 63 and I’ve pretty much just given up.

  • Elston Smith
    REPLY

    I think that the advice to seek a trained sex therapist, and the encouragement to increase communication between this man and his wife is appropriate and excellent. But if neither of those possible remedies to the sexless marriage proves satisfactory, then perhaps the couple should agree to allow the husband to seek sex outside of the marriage. If done with the full knowledge of both partners, and always using safe sex, this would provide another solution to their dilemma.

    • Terry N.
      REPLY

      At this stage, you may be right about getting help. For others that are on the borderline of this happening:
      Suggest to her that she will have control of the situation. Choosing a date of the week for example, in which she will be the one to request it. For a woman, as she ages, she needs time to get into that sexual mindset and anticipation is a great aphrodisiac.
      Scented coconut oil is a great way to give her a message. Dont worry about having sex for a long time. Quick and fast is also good. lol.

  • Joan Price
    REPLY

    Bonnie, thank you for commenting. Withholding sex as punishment is hostile — you deserve better. I suggest to you what I advised Frustrated — see a therapist right away. You’re right that it’s a huge, painful problem. Please ask your husband if he’ll see a counselor with you to save your marriage. If he won’t go, go on your own to express your feelings fully and evaluate whether you want to be in this marriage and, if so, what can be done to improve it. I urge you to seek help now.

    – Joan

  • Bonnie
    REPLY

    Hi
    My husband has showed be very no closen in for years. I tried to think that it was OK, I still had company and friendship. I though it was my age, now I am 65 look OK, but not yong any more. But if he cared for me a hug would be nice. I finally asked him he said I was crab and mad all the time, I have a lot of pain and take a lot of meds sometime, and yes I am very unhappy with my life, but I try to hid it. He has with held sex before, once or twice when he was mad at me a couple of times in the past 18 year, that was my punishment. This is a huge problem, how can I live with someone who feels this way? Is there anything I can do. It makes me feel sick.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.