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Can a Sexless Marriage Be a Happy One?

Can a Sexless Marriage Be a Happy One?

Lilien, who has two kids, says becoming a mother was a turning point for her. She had to leave her previous career and didn’t know who she was or what she wanted. “My identity was totally eviscerated,” she says. “I was really confused about what my worth was.” Her history of sexual assault also resurfaced in profound ways. She thought she needed to be “permeable” to nurture her children. She didn’t have the capacity to extend that physical openness to her husband. She couldn’t stand soft caresses from him, which felt like the tickling of her child’s hands.

Lilien’s husband, Philip, never pressured her to be intimate, for which she is grateful. “The most important thing for me was to maintain a place where the sex you have is very positive, very consensual, very understood and mutually enjoyed,” he says. Five years later, Philip knows she is still coming to terms with everything motherhood has brought into her life. Recently they started having more sex, about once every other month. Lilien loves her husband’s firm back rubs, which he’s happy to give.

Other couples, much like Rose and Will, confessed to feeling sexually misaligned with their partners as their desires shifted in different directions. Jean, a 38-year-old mother living in Virginia, told me that her husband’s interest in sex has dropped off gradually over the course of their 13-year marriage. She, on the other hand, experienced what she called “a secondary puberty” as her kids grew older and became less dependent on her. She felt “so sexually charged” that she visited her gynecologist to confirm she wasn’t having a hormonal issue. She’s now trying to figure out how to navigate her husband’s low desire. “I feel like I’m living in the upside-down a lot of the time,” she says. “My friends complain about their husbands grabbing their butt while they wash dishes, and I think, Wow, I would love to feel wanted like that.”

Another mother, Emily, says that sex gradually became less important over the course of her 34-year marriage. When her kids were little, intimacy with her husband stalled briefly, but as their children grew older, they had a “revival of a good sex life,” Emily says. Now she is 59 and has had several operations resulting from a battle with cancer, including a hysterectomy and mastectomy. As a result, her desire lessened, and sex began to feel like “vacuuming the house” — something she did to make her husband happy. And he noticed. “If you are used to somebody responding to you in a certain way, you can tell when they are acting,” she says. “I wasn’t the same person.”

One night in bed, about 10 years after she went on a hormone treatment for her cancer that put her into early menopause, they had a frank conversation about their sex life. “We discussed my lack of desire, and he said that if I’m not turned on, then he’s not either,” Emily says. He admitted that his sex drive had dipped, too. So they decided not to force it. She feels there’s some cultural pressure for older people to keep up their sex lives into their 80s. She’s read, with skepticism, articles claiming that maintaining sex later in life is healthy. “Is it?” she said. “I don’t know.”

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