I received this question from our anonymous Have A Question page about a week ago:
Can a Christian marriage survive without it ever once being consummated? My wife and I had pain issues in every attempt to consummate our relationship. We stopped trying altogether about 12 years into the marriage. We have never fought about this, because we are Christians and understand the difficulties associated with painful intercourse. We have not once talked about sex in many years and frankly, would not know how to or why to bring it up since both of us have significant problems. We have been married for 28 years. Both of us are still virgins. My wife admitted to me years ago that sexual intimacy is just not important for her. I sympathize with her and can understand why. I have always wanted to be sexually active, but could not and now, at 62, I have ED. I am trying to accept the fact that I will live my entire life without ever knowing the joys of married, sexual intimacy.
I think that I have to resign myself to the fact that I will always be a virgin.
Sometimes, this makes me feel sad. Still, I have hope in God.
Sign me, Disappointed but not Depressed
and then I got this email:
Can a Christian marriage survive without it ever once being consummated? If it can, my wife and I are living proof. Both of us experienced pain issues in every attempt to consummate our relationship, even with preparation. We stopped trying altogether about 12 years into the marriage. We have never fought about this, because we are Christians and understand the difficulties associated with painful intercourse. I am a church pastor and have researched these problems, but they are very difficult. As both of us work, dealing with the issues of pain is a tedium and overwhelming challenge. We have not once talked about sex in many years and frankly, would not know how to or why to bring it up since both of us have significant problems. We have been married for 28 years. Both of us are still virgins. My wife admitted to me years ago that sexual intimacy is just not important for her. I sympathize with her and can understand why. I have always wanted to be sexually active, but could not and now, at 62, I have ED. I am trying to accept the fact that I will live my entire life without ever knowing the joys of married, sexual intimacy.
I think that I have to resign myself to the fact that I will always be a virgin.
Sometimes, this makes me feel sad. Still, I have hope in God. I wonder what His purposes are for us.
Sign me, Disappointed but not Depressed
Obviously from the same individual. But, then two days ago, I also got this anonymous question from our Have A Question page:
Is sex really necessary for a marriage to be healthy and intimate? Many of your blog entries address what to do when one spouse has a higher drive than the other. My question is what it both spouses are low/no drive? If neither my wife nor I really want sex can we not just move on and let it go? We are close and physically affectionate. Can that not be enough? I feel like society thinks that sexless marriages are always dysfunctional. I don’t agree with that but would love to hear your opinion.
So, I guess the ultimate question is: can a marriage survive without sex? And the answer is: yes, it can. However, in my non-professional opinion, it will fail to thrive. And here’s why:
You lose out on a biological mechanism for encouraging intimacy
God created this amazing system of sex for us. It’s more than just “scratching an itch” or “relieving pressure”. When we have sex we receive large doses of oxytocin, dopamine, vassopressin and other hormones. These all have a specific function, and they are released in staggaring quantities during sex. In fact, a brain having an orgasm lights up in very similar ways to a brain on heroine. It literally makes us addicted to our spouse in some ways. Oxytocin encourages us to feel safe, secure, emotionally bonded and connected. Vassopressin encourages us to keep our spouse safe, happy, healthy, to protect them. Dopamine lights up our brain like a Christmas tree telling us “You really like to spend time with this person!” Especially doing that particular activity.
Now, yes, you can get oxytocin from hugging and kissing and holding hands, but not in the same quantities. Men’s oxytocin levels jump 5 times their normal value when they have an orgasm, which is why, if you can keep him awake, conversations after sex tend to be a lot deeper and more meaningful, because the husband feels safe and emotionally secure and wants to connect emotionally even more. His oxytocin levels approach what is normal for a woman, so they can actually start to connect emotionally on the same level. Without sex, he will never get close to his wife’s oxytocin level. And it only lasts a short while. 30 minutes to a couple of hours, before he’s back and baseline. The diminished effects last a bit longer, a day or two, but to keep up that emotional connection at that level, there needs to be frequent sex.
To have sex is “to know” your spouse
There is a reason that the Bible says that spouses “knew” each other when they speak of sex. That’s the Hebrew euphemism for sex. Why? Well, there’s a lot of reasons. Firstly, we’re physically naked. Sex is one of the rare times that you get to see your spouse naked, without clothes. See all of who they are, physically. This is terrifying for some spouses, and I spend a fair bit of time addressing that for women in my course Becoming more Sexually Engaged. But, if you can manage to do it…it’s a strong intimacy builder, just being naked. Because you feel vulnerable and open, and when that goes well, when you see your spouse still desires you, flaws and all, that builds security.
But it’s not just about the physical body. We are also open in other ways. When we get aroused, parts of our brain start to shut down. Specifically the parts that deal with inhibitions, measuring risk and the part that gets disgusted. I think a lot of spouses have done things during sex, in the heat of the moment, that they never thought they’d do while they weren’t aroused. I know, because I see their comments in our surveys. But, when we have sex, we let our guard down. We let walls down that we keep up in normal situations, even with our spouse. We let the true “us” come more to the surface. We are more fully known by our spouse in a way that I think would be very difficult to replicate outside of a sexual relationship.
Sex, if done right, trains us to be selfless
The best sex is had when both spouses are working selflessly for each other. Each one is working to give the other pleasure. Not only physically, but emotionally and intellectually. Sex is more than just the physical mechanics. Arousal is a very emotional and mental process as well. And so, good sex means studying your spouse, knowing what gives them pleasure, what turns them on, and then working to fulfill that for them. And, ideally, they do the same for you. It’s an excellent training ground for the rest of your marriage, but because of the lovely hormones above, especially dopamine, it helps solidify those neuropathways, to help us to learn to serve our spouse. That we like serving our spouse. That we get pleasure from serving our spouse.
Because we don’t get a huge rush from doing the dishes for them. We don’t get a huge rush from taking out the garbage. But, giving your spouse an orgasm … wow, that is an experience. Even if you derived no direct physical pleasure from it. Even if it’s from manual stimulation (fingers and hands), the feeling you get from seeing your spouse have so much pleasure, and at your hands … that’s a drug I could take every day, if not more often. And it trains my brain to think “hey, I like doing things for my wife”, so that when it’s time to do the dishes, it’s not such a fight with myself to do them, because on some level my brain things “hey, you like doing stuff for your wife, remember that orgasm?” and yeah, this isn’t the same thing…but it sort of is. Just on a muted level. So, sex helps build those neuropathways strongly and more quickly, because it has a huge dopamine kick with it.
So, those are just a couple of ways off the top of my head that sex helps improve a marriage. And improve isn’t strong enough of a word. In my experience, sex is the glue that makes a marriage hold together easier. Not that you can’t do it another way … but it’s going to take a lot more effort. So, yeah, I think sex is important to a marriage. Can it survive? Yeah, probably. But, I don’t think it will be the marriage God intended, and you’re cheating both you and your spouse by missing out.
Tomorrow I’m going to write a post about how to deal with sexual pain, for those who are struggling with that, so that you can have some options for a sexual relationship within your marriage.
If you have another way that sex helps in marriage, let us know in the comments below. If you have someone you know that isn’t making sex a priority in their marriage, maybe share this post with them. Might just turn their marriage around. More and more I’m getting emails and comments from people saying they had a friend send them a post and it changed their marriage around. I like to hear that, because it means we’re helping people, and that’s ultimately what this blog is all about. Help a marriage out today. Share this post. Facebook, Twitter, send them an email with the link. Whatever you think would help someone.
19 thoughts on “Can a marriage survive without sex?”
Good article but I don’t like the comparison of the hormonal component of sex being compared to heroin addiction. I have a child addicted to heroin and I assure you the two are not the same. Otherwise great article.
I’m sorry you are struggling through that with your child. No, I agree, sex is not the same as a heroin addiction. All I’m saying is that there are similarities when one scans that brain of a perhaps having an orgasm and a person on a heroin trip. That does not mean they are the same thing, merely that there are some overlaps. Obvious sex is a good thing, created by God and heroin addiction is not. But, we often see that evil takes something good and twists it to make it harmful. This mechanism in our brain to bond us to our spouse has been twisted, in many ways: heroin, porn, etc., to try and satisfy a God-given desire in us through sinful means.
Glad you enjoyed the rest of the article!
I think a sexless marriage also leaves one vulnerable to temptation. Even when they are comfortable with a sexless marriage, what happens when one of them runs into somebody who for some reason awakens those urges, or has an awakening not triggered by sexual chemistry with another person? They know their spouse is not interested going there. They can quickly find their marriage dissatisfying and have less experience dealing with sexual urges too.
This is incredibly true. I’m stuck in a true sexless marriage. Been married five years and have had sex MAYBE six times. It is a struggle for me at the very least and encourages temptations I never knew existed inside me. I hate it. I hate the marriage because of it. I’ve expressed these things to her but she says she just has no libido and I can go screw someone else; but my conscience won’t allow that – thankfully!
A sexless marriage can survive…I have been married over 35 years. However, I would also say that most sexless marriages do not thrive.
Most? I haven’t seen one yet.
Are you dismissing out of hand the two examples that started this post? The 2nd couple expresses no regrets or frustrations. Is it right to say that they are “surviving but not thriving” based solely on the evidence in the email? The 1st email expresses “disappointment”. Is disappointment in one aspect of marriage grounds for saying the marriage is not “thriving”?
I will agree with Anonymous. Statistically, most sexless marriages do not thrive, but that does not rule out that some sexless marriages do figure out how to thrive.
One problem that I think may crop up if we don’t at least acknowledge the possibility of a thriving sexless marriage is that we won’t be able to really talk about what that looks like. I sometimes think that would be an interesting and useful discussion. Some of that may depend on finding examples and being able to did deeper into these marriages to see what is really going on. Because they are statistically less common (and probably even less likely to visit a blog like this), it may be difficult to find some good case studies to delve into. But I still wonder if it would be a worthwhile discussion.
Hardly. The first individual contacted me after the post was published, and he didn’t disagree with my assessment. He thanked me for being non-judgmental, and from the tone of the messages, I would stand with the assessment that they are “surviving” but not “thriving”.
The second message, I don’t have enough to go on, so I’m not counting it one way or another. So, I guess you could consider that as discounting it. I wouldn’t count it as proof either way.
And I agree, if they exist, that would be a worthwhile discussion.
There is so much here to disagree on, I don’t even know where to start. Yes, all the hormone releases that you’re mentioning are true, and yes, sex can make a marriage thrive and God designed a thriving marriage to have great, fulfilling and meaningful sex. But to say that it can’t thrive without it, is bogus. To say that without it you can’t have true intimacy, more of the same. So many of the questions and topics on sexuality here are driven by selfish porn and the effects that it has had on people and society. Most of these people wouldn’t know true intimacy if it bit them in the rear. Just look at the questions and topics your dealing with. The moments I felt the closest to my wife had very little to do with sex. And to say that talking to each other after sex is the best time because of oxytocin levels being more equal is another myth. I love to talk to my wife any time of the day, but after she’s had an orgasm is the worst time to try, because she’s usually asleep before I can finish my first sentence. Btw, we also enjoy each other’s bodies naked daily without having sex. If two people come to a mutual agreement of not having sex (for whatever reason), I believe they can have a beautiful marriage and probably eliminated much conflict from their lives.
Try a sexless marriage for a few months and then see if you still agree.
I have my friend. I have! Not just a few months but years. I didn’t say it was easy, but I do believe it’s possible. Off course it is quite different when one spouse just flat out rejects the other, for whatever reason, but if, because of some difficulty, sex becomes unbearable, and both agree to stay faithful to each other and also abstinent, one can come to a place of a great relationship, even better then allot of people who still have sex, but are selfish and fight over it constantly.
If it’s a purely physical reason, like the couple you mentioned above, I would think that they could still enjoy each other sexually without actual intercoarse. But in a case of sexual child abuse, like my first marriage, I came to the point that I didn’t need sex to have a good marriage. I agreed to her request for no more sex and we’d probably still be married today if she’d kept her end of the bargain and left other men alone.
So, your proof that a marriage doesn’t need sex to thrive is that your first marriage was sexless and it ended in divorce due to adultery? I think you’ve proving my point on that one.
Wow, I didn’t think you were that simplistic!
I’m told it’s a talent: being able to break down seemingly complex situations into points to make it simple to understand. My point remains: a marriage without sex cannot thrive. Your first marriage was sexless, and it failed to thrive. I understand you want to attribute a whole lot of other stuff to it, but from an outside perspective, it seems to be a contributing factor. Your marriage lacked intimacy due to prior emotional trauma. She sought a substitute somewhere else and that ruined the marriage. Ergo, a lack of sex contributed to the marriage failing to thrive. The fact that there was a pre-existing trauma doesn’t invalidate that fact. It merely explains the root cause that should have been addressed.
Yes, it is a talent when applied in a helpful way. But simplistic answers to painfully complex , life altering situations is adding insult to injury.
Thank you for your thoughtful response though.
Maybe I missed something, but I thought the question was: Can a marriage survive?
The wast majority of marriages don’t even thrive with sex in them, much less without. But what is a thriving marriage to one, may not be to another.
I totally agree with you that sex, is crucial to a healthy marriage! That’s how God designed it! And I will never advocate for a sexless marriage! On the contrary.
In my case , not only did my marriage not thrive, in the end it also didn’t survive. I know that it could have, because it did for many years. And it COULD have if it wouldn’t have been for the continual unfaithfulness. That, however, had nothing to do with the lack of sex, and everything to do with ten years of sexual child abuse by her father. Turned out, the affairs started before our wedding already, before we ever even consummated our marriage.
And , for the purpose of simplifying things, to say that the root causes should have been addressed, is another insult to injury! You have no idea how much they waere addressed.
I will agree to disagree with you: The key to a marriage surviving is commitment and faithfulness, not sex. But sex sure make a marriage more beautiful.
Thanks for all you do here!
My husband has never like sex. I’ve always begged for a 1to 5minutea intimacy. At my age, I don’t want to beg.
I want to have real sex, I want be desired and pleased by my husband..
I often fantasize to have sex with neighbours, friends and even coworkers.
I’ve prayed all our marriage lives for my husband to approach me and desire me.
No, God has never answered me.
Today my husband gave me permission to have sex with anyone else…. of course, he just wants me to stop asking him for sex.
I’m a Christian and I’m so confused.
I really want to sleep with another man and feel pleasure.
I’ve also turned to pornography in order to satisfy myself. We’ve been together 29yrs.
I’m sorry I didn’t see this earlier.
I know that you want to be desired, but affairs and pornography aren’t what God wants for you.
I have a post on adultery with permission if you’re interested here.
21+ years of marriage without sex has been the toughest thing to survive, of all the hardest wounds in my life. Way harder than med school. 9 years ago was very close to suicide. Prayer, psychiatrists, psychologists, meds, friends — all helped, after me finally giving up on my wife changing “I’m not the one with the problem. You are. That’s why you go to à shrink.” ( she refuses anymore, after a pastor blamed her to her face”. That was a fun day! Anyway, I finally just decided / felt God had placed me in the relationship to minister to her and love her, as maybe no one else possibly could. At least that’s what her brother as well as my best friends have finally decided about the situation (told in confidence). Going to pastors was no help, as pretty much it was a 3 to 3 split with them on whether I should leave and was it biblical . Not to sound melodramatic, but we all have crosses to bear in this life, and just trying to focus on this glorifying God by keeping our marital covenant, even if my wife didn’t, has made it a little more bearable. Despite my guilt of occasional masturbation and porn to tamp down my normal sex drive. Even harder I think has been the pain of no emotional or spiritual intimacy or deep connection with her, after dreaming of having it for the 2 decades before marriage; while watching others grow up, get married, and thrive sexually, emotionally, and spiritually, at least partly because of them prioritizing their intimacy. I used to cry out ” God, what did I ever do so wrong to deserve this?” But that was the wrong question. Now, it is more (at least on some days) ” God, can you please give me the strength to show your love, compassion, and forgiveness as an example to others of what You can do in people’s lives when they trust You implicitly. Particularly when I / they surrender some of their most preciously held desires to you in faith, showing those in their sphere of influence how real our faith is and how beautiful You are, that we would actually want to do such a thing.
I am in that exact situation, and it is GUARANTEED to cause problems when the sexless marriage was NOT YOUR CHOICE – although you may well have had a part to play in creating it.
Its a really challenge then