HAVE YOU LOST THAT LOVING FEELING? Most Long-Term Couples Expect Their Love Lives to Slow Down, but What If the Intimacy Stops Altogether? Can a Sexless Relationship Ever Be a Truly Happy One?
Byline: JUDITH WOODS
Helen and Mike have been married for 11 years and have been celibate for six of them.
But they're perfectly happy. Or, as Helen points out, they're still together, so they must be - mustn't they?
'After our two sons were born we just fell out of the habit of having sex,' says Helen, 44. 'It took us almost a year to conceive our second child, and I found it was a relief to stop because it had become a means to an end rather than a pleasure. I'm always tired and I don't feel any urge for sex now. Mike used to grumble about wanting to make love, but he doesn't try to initiate it any more.
I assume he's happy because he never mentions it.' We live in a world where we are bombarded with sexual imagery in advertising, music and fashion. In our overheated culture, sex is no longer a straightforward expression of desire, it has become a potent symbol of youth and vigour, success and personal fulfilment. Against this backdrop, it's little wonder that sexless marriage is a taboo subject.
Yet recent research suggests that one couple in 20 is celibate, rising to one in ten in the 45-54 age group.
Sexlessness, it seems, is the unacknowledged reality of modern marriage.
So is it possible to be happy in a celibate union? Can a couple connect on an emotional level without physical intimacy? And as long as one partner still experiences sexual urges, can they ever truly be content with a chaste kiss good night?
'A happy celibate relationship is theoretically possible, but extremely uncommon,' says Professor Janet Reibstein, lecturer in psychology at the University of Exeter and author of The Best Kept Secret: Men and Women's Stories of Lasting Love. 'I've worked in this field for two decades.
I interviewed a great many happy couples for my book and none of them was celibate. Sex is the norm, and it's the norm for a reason. One of the ways in which love and intimacy are expressed is through sexual contact. If a woman says she and her husband are happy to be celibate - or vice versa - then I would question whether the relationship does genuinely feel comfortable to the other partner, or whether they are simply resigned to not having sex.' Of course, celibacy is a highly subjective term. 'A husband or wife who is having sex once every four or five weeks, but would prefer it more often, might feel virtually celibate,' says Mary Clegg, who runs sex information workshops where she teaches both men and women (in single-sex classes) how to get the spark back into the bedroom, 'While another couple might feel that is the ideal frequency.' But the fact is that even couples who are unable to have full intercourse for medical reasons can give each other sexual satisfaction in other ways, whereas a marriage based on hugging and kissing, however loving it may be, is a celibate relationship.
The big issue is agreement. Both partners in a couple may, with age or for other reasons, lose much of their sex drive and feel content simply to embrace and caress one another with affection rather than desire. As long as this state of celibacy is a mutual choice and can't be misinterpreted, that's fine. But it can cause a problem if one partner experiences a loss of sex drive which results in them withdrawing from all physical contact.
A woman suffering from discomfort or loss of libido after her menopause may be unwilling to touch her partner for fear of him misinterpreting it as a cue for sex. A man with an erection problem may feel too embarrassed and angry about his condition to reach out to his partner, even though she is desperate for physical contact.
For women in particular, the absence of the affection associated with sex can be more painful than the lack of intercourse.
'Equal numbers of women and men write to me about their partners' loss of desire,' says YOU's relationships counsellor Zelda West-Meads. 'If, for example, a husband no longer wants sex, the question is whether he has lost interest in sex completely, or has he lost sexual desire for his partner? …