Can a marriage work without sex?

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Can a marriage work without sex?

Yes, say counsellors and a surprising number of happy couples.

By Amanda Montei

Until recently, the conventional cultural wisdom was that frequent sex was integral to a happy marriage. That’s beginning to change as couples explore unconventional ways to stay together.

Until recently, the conventional cultural wisdom was that frequent sex was integral to a happy marriage. That’s beginning to change as couples explore unconventional ways to stay together.Credit: Getty Images

This story is part of the May 11 edition of Good Weekend.See all 13 stories.

Will and Rose met online 10 years ago. His screen name was professorparsley, and he looked the part – tall and thin, with glasses, features that Rose found attractive. On their first date, Rose learnt that Will was a college student living with his mother, and his handle came from a nickname given to him by a child at an art camp where he worked. They laugh about it now, as they do with most things. Will thought Rose was ­exciting and direct. He grew up in suburban Ontario, and she was from Southern California, which was like another world to him. Right away, what they loved about each other were their differences.

Rose was drawn to how stable Will seemed – so ­unlike the other men she had dated, who dreaded ­commitment. Their relationship survived multiple moves, about a year of long-distance dating and the challenges of finding time to be together while living with parents and roommates. Now, seven years into their marriage, they have their own place: a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, where Rose sees Pilates clients. Will is gone during the day, teaching, and at night they cuddle in bed and watch television. “It’s my favourite part of the day,” Rose says. (Rose and Will are middle names. All subjects asked to be ­referred to by their first names, middle names or a nickname, out of concerns for their privacy.)

As much as Will grounds her, Rose feels that the ­familiar calm of their relationship also shuts her down sexually. They go months without sex, but they don’t lack intimacy. They have a policy of never refusing a hug, something they instituted to resolve the minor disagreements that inevitably crop up in any relationship. They have also talked candidly about how, for her, the safe predictability of their marriage – the quality she loves about their lives together – dulls her sex drive. She knows that can be confusing, even frustrating, for Will, but she doesn’t like the idea of forcing herself to have sex. Rose’s mother, now divorced, felt obligated to have sex with Rose’s father once a week. That’s not the kind of relationship Rose wants.

To get into a sexual mood, Rose relies on a set of rituals to help build anticipation – doing her hair and make-up, shaving her legs, having a glass of wine over dinner or, when their schedules allow, going on holiday to break out of their routines. Will doesn’t need to do anything to feel ready for sex, and Rose sees this as another way in which they’re different. Over the years, they have accepted that this is what their sex life looks like, and will look like, if they want to be together, which they do.

During the pandemic, the couple went more than a year without having sex, but they savoured their extra time together. Rose used to spend hours driving in ­traffic to different workout studios, coming home late, not seeing her husband much. Stuck at home, they took walks around their neighbourhood. They talked ­constantly. They started taking online yoga classes ­together, a hobby that stuck. Will appreciates these smaller opportunities to connect. Rose thinks she’s not the nurturing type, but Will disagrees. “She’s not ­stingy in spirit or time,” he says.

Sometimes they shower together and hold each other naked, without any expectation of sex. Though Will remains hopeful that these moments will lead to something else, he doesn’t push it.


Cultural attitudes about the role sex plays in a marriage have evolved significantly over time. Where once marital sex was primarily a means for bearing children, in recent decades, the conventional wisdom was that frequent sex was integral to a happy union. During the 1990s, a new wave of sex positivity coincided with the ascendancy of different forms of therapy, including couples counselling. Experts coached couples on how to strengthen their marriages, often relying on the belief that healthy relationships included consistent sex with partners. By the 2010s, appointment sex had become one popular method for maintaining intimacy and, somewhat implicitly, safeguarding against separation.

In more recent years, however, both relationship ­experts and couples themselves have been gradually dismantling some of these commonly held views, working to destigmatise the unconventional approaches that some take to stay together. Online groups have sprung up for couples who challenge basic assumptions that spouses should share a bedroom or even a home. Sharon Hyman, who runs a Facebook group called Apartners for couples who have chosen to live separately, told me that many of the members in her ­community find their sex lives improve when they don’t spend every minute together. “My goal is to show that there are healthy options for relationships,” Hyman says. “No one size fits all.”

Psychotherapist Esther Perel: mystery and intrigue are needed to inject eroticism into the domestic routine of long-term relationships.

Psychotherapist Esther Perel: mystery and intrigue are needed to inject eroticism into the domestic routine of long-term relationships.Credit: James Brickwood

One effect of the ever-changing sexual climate is that many couples today are simply less willing to tolerate what the psychotherapist Esther Perel calls “boredom” in the bedroom. Perel has made a career of articulating how domestic overexposure saps eroticism, which ­requires some intrigue, mystery and unfamiliarity. That’s not to suggest that long-term love and desire are impossible, but according to Perel, keeping sexual ­interest alive requires getting creative. In her podcast Where Should We Begin? Perel helps couples explore and articulate their fantasies, honour each other as ­individuals and experiment with new approaches to fulfilling their desires together.

‘It’s not dysfunctional not to want sex you don’t like.’

Sex educator Emily Nagoski

For Perel, as for many other relationship experts, that sometimes means re-examining investment in another foundational premise of marriage: monogamy. The advice columnist Dan Savage, too, has argued that monogamy isn’t entirely plausible, or pleasurable, for everyone, and is critical of Americans’ obsession with moralising infidelity. He encourages married people to be honest with each other about how hard it is to carry the responsibility of fulfilling their partner’s sexual and emotional needs for decades on end.

While some are questioning the standard of monogamous sex in marriage by exploring polyamorous and open relationships, others are pushing back against the pressure to have sex at all. In fact, Americans on the whole are having less sex than they used to – across race, gender, region, educational level and work status. One study found that American adults born in the 1990s are having less sex than older generations; they are in fewer steady partnerships, and those who are partnered are also having less sex. The 2021 General Social Survey found that about 50 per cent of all adults polled had sex once a month or less, with half of those people reporting they hadn’t had sex for a year. Researchers have speculated about the reasons for this 30-year sexual low, from isolation caused by technology to cultural conversations about consent.


Many younger women, for instance, shaped in part by the #MeToo movement, are engaging in intentional abstinence. There are trends on TikTok about going “boysober,” a word coined by American comedian Hope Woodard, who says that taking a break from sex can be empowering for women who previously altered their desires to accommodate men. The digital feminist 4B movement, which originated in South Korea but has spread globally through social media, advocates a rejection of childbearing, as well as heterosexual dating, marriage and sex. “Platonic life partners,” meanwhile – friends who commit to owning a home and even raising children together – insist that sex and romance are not necessary to lifelong unions.

The sex educator and researcher Emily Nagoski is resistant to the idea that frequent sex should be a chief component of every committed relationship. Nagoski – who has been open about her own hiatus from marital sex – doesn’t endorse obligatory sex, nor does she ­encourage aiming for any sexual base line in terms of regularity or behaviour. Drawing on the work of the Canadian sexologist Peggy Kleinplatz, Nagoski ­believes that low desire can sometimes be evidence of good judgment. “It’s not dysfunctional not to want sex you don’t like,” Nagoski says.

After experiencing what she calls a “traumatic” childbirth, Michelle began to worry that intercourse would cause her pain.

In her new book, Come Together, Nagoski urges ­couples who want to explore their sexualities and deepen their sexual bond to begin by figuring out what each person wants when they want sex. For many, sex represents freedom from the ordinary, but what it takes to get there will look different for every couple and is likely to change over time. After all, desires don’t always align, or they evolve in unexpected ways.

Michelle and John met in 2005 at a party, and in the early years of their relationship couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Four years ago, however, after experiencing what she calls a “traumatic” childbirth, Michelle began to worry that intercourse would cause her pain. She and John did not have sex for a year after they became parents. Now they can go months without it. Friends of theirs, too, seem to be experiencing new chapters in their own sex lives and opening up their marriages, which has sparked conversations between Michelle and John about the possibilities for reinvigorating their sex life. But they don’t always agree on what they want, or what they’re comfortable with.

John knows, however, that having sex outside the marriage is a red line for Michelle. She witnessed infidelity tear apart her parents’ relationship. “I think there’s a big fear about ‘I have an urge that may be resolved in a minute or two’, but the sense of what could be broken is not worth the risk,” John says.


Love, for both, is about much more than fulfilling those momentary desires. After almost two ­decades together, they consider themselves best friends and “soul mates”. When they first began ­dating Michelle was reeling from the loss of her brother, who died in a car accident. She talked with John about the experience on an early date, and they were inseparable after that. John thought she was beautiful and wanted to spend as much time with her as he could. Michelle thought he was a welcome distraction, someone who could lift her out of her grief. They went to concerts. He made her mixtapes. But there were also times when she broke down crying, and he was there for her.

John used to try to comfort Michelle by saying he understood how she felt, but when he lost his own brother in 2012, he realised how wrong he had been. As he mourned, Michelle “just knew what to do in the ­unspoken moments – whether it was knowing when to give me space, or knowing when I needed a hug, or I just needed her to be next to me,” John says. Today, Michelle remains the “central piece” of his happiness.

Michelle and John share a one-bedroom property with their daughter, and while they get some privacy during the day, they’re busy working from home. Now, most days, Michelle masturbates in the morning, while John takes their daughter to preschool. He masturbates at night in the bathroom, while watching porn on his phone. For John, it’s merely a physical release, but for Michelle, pleasuring herself serves a different ­purpose: she is trying to figure out what makes her feel good. Exploring her changed body alone eliminates the guilt she has when she can’t climax with her husband. She doesn’t want him to think it has anything to do with him. “I want to get there, but it’s not getting there,” she says.


Of the more than 30 married people I interviewed, many, like Michelle, told me that becoming parents ­irrevocably changed their sex lives. Camille, who lives in California, felt her marriage was the most solid and caring relationship she had ever experienced, but ­becoming a mother distanced her from her desire. “It feels like something I can’t quite touch, like in another room, or another part of me that I don’t know how to access,” she says.

Other mothers started to see sex as one more chore, another line item on their list of responsibilities. Keti, a mother of a neurodivergent child who craved being held, found that sex with her husband had become “robotic” as she began to see it as “one more demand”. Her husband was doing everything he could to support her, but she felt an obligation to get back to their old sex life, even though she wanted “desperately to go into a forest and just lie down and not hear anyone or anything”.

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 gynaecologist 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.”

Sex began to feel like “vacuuming the house” – something Emily did to make her husband happy.

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 scepticism, articles claiming that maintaining sex later in life is healthy. “Is it?” she said. “I don’t know.”

Emily feels their marriage has progressed naturally: They experienced decades of passion, and while they remain affectionate outside of the bedroom, their relationship now transcends sex in many ways. It’s about the life they’ve built together. “We’ve been in a sexless relationship for years now,” Emily says. “We get along great, but we’re more like best friends than lovers.”

Despite their insistence that sex isn’t essential in their marriages, most of the couples I spoke with still keep track of how often they have sex. They also appear haunted by how far they deviate from perceived norms. John, for instance, hopes he and his wife can work back up to having sex two or three times a week, but admits he has no idea where that figure came from.


Numbers, Nagoski believes, can be a counterproductive metric. It’s impossible to hear such statistics and not judge one’s relationship against them. Numbers also don’t account for whether participants are enjoying the sex they are having. “You’re comparing yourself – you’re judging yourself as okay or inadequate – compared to a whole bunch of people you’re not having sex with, who are not having sex with you,” Nagoski says.

For couples measuring themselves against what Nagoski calls the “fictions” of sex, or for those worried that their relationship is on the line whenever they enter the bedroom or don’t meet some monthly number, there may be too much pressure for sex to be ­enjoyable. It’s more important that couples establish what kind of sex is worth having.

‘There are people who tell you about all the sex they’re having. I feel it’s more common that a lot of people are not [having it].’


Rose admits to feeling the weight of societal expectations. Recently she decided that since she and Will were rarely having sex, she would have her birth-control implant removed from her arm. During the procedure, the nurse intimated there was something wrong with Rose’s marriage. Rose felt shamed and angry. The idea that she should be living in a constant state of arousal with her husband after a decade together is, to her, ridiculous, but also part of a façade she thinks many married couples maintain.

“There are people who tell you about all the sex they’re having,” she says. “I feel it’s more common that a lot of people are not [having it].” With the help of her therapist, Rose is exploring whether her ADHD may play a role in her need to seek new stimuli – not ­because she sees it as a problem but because she is ­interested in understanding her desire more fully. “Apparently the partner fatigue I experience is not so uncommon because our ‘special’ brains are always seeking out what’s new,” she says.

Will sometimes turns to Buddhist writings on ­restraint to explore his sexuality. He jokes there may be some confirmation bias at work, but he thinks his wife’s self-awareness – and her unwillingness to force herself into sex that she doesn’t want to have – has matured him. For Will, intimacy is less about completion and more about connection. “I’ve learnt, even just about the act of sex itself, the ending is not always the best part,” Will says. “There’s pleasure throughout the spectrum.”

In March, for Rose’s 40th birthday, they took a trip to Hawaii. She switched off her phone for hours as they sprawled out by the ocean. Will remembers turning towards his wife and staring at her, watching her relaxing, her body loose. In that moment, he wasn’t thinking about sex or how beautiful Rose looked under the sun. He was thinking about how similar they actually are. More than anything, they want to enjoy themselves in their own way, to savour the small moments when they can let the rest of the world fade away.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine. © 2024 The New York Times Company

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