If you rarely – or never – have sex with your partner, you're not alone. "It's a very common issue," says Wall Street Journal reporter and relationships columnist Elizabeth Bernstein. "Of course, a sexless marriage can signal that something is wrong in the relationship – but it can also be quite normal for busy people with kids, money worries, and just the daily grind."
See also: Tantric sex tips for long-term couples
See also: How to keep your sex life hot
Talking about the issue with your partner can be daunting - but it is possible to come through a dry spell and re-establish a satisfying sex life.
The importance of sex
"Research shows that sex makes a better relationship, we're happier and more gratified both in the relationship and individually," says Bernstein.
While sex isn't necessarily the thing that binds couples together, it plays an important role - energizing a relationship, making each person feel desired and desirable, and acting as a buffer against trials and difficulties. According to Barry W. McCarthy, Ph.D, a psychologist and certified sex therapist, when a couple avoids or is conflicted about sex, the disconnection can have a negative impact on the relationship. The good news is that if you repair the sexual bond, the relationship improves as well.
What counts as a no-sex marriage?
According to Dr. McCarthy, a no-sex marriage does not mean total abstinence. Instead it refers to couples who have sex less than 10 times a year. Around one-in-five married couples are believed to fall into the category, while a third have a low-sex marriage – ie they have sex less than every other week, so fewer than 25 times a year.
In his book Rekindling Desire: A Step-by-Step Program to Help Low-Sex and No-Sex Marriages, Dr McCarthy writes: "Desire problems are the most frequent complaint of couples seeking sex therapy... and it stresses a marriage more than any other sexual dysfunction."
People don't plan to have a sexless marriage, it's a pattern they fall into. "The couples falls into the cycle of anticipatory anxiety, negative experiences, and eventually, sexual avoidance... The longer the couple avoids sexual contact, the harder it is to break the cycle," he explains.
Dr McCarthy adds that while confronting avoidance and inhibitions is more difficult for the couple that has stopped being affectionate, the good news is that motivated couples are able to re-establish touching, desire, arousal, and intercourse. Whether you've haven't had sex for six months or six years, his strategy for change is the same. "Renew intimacy, engage in non-demand pleasuring, and add erotic scenarios and techniques."
How to raise the subject with your partner
Sex is everywhere in our culture – spoken about openly on daytime TV shows and in magazines – yet talking about sex with your partner can be difficult.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth says: "I hear the same question over and over. 'How do I say I'm not satisfied with our sex life?'
"Some are unhappy because they have little or no sex in their marriage. Others wish they could find the nerve to tell a partner about sexual fantasies... Most worry their spouse doesn't notice there is a problem and that they feel unfulfilled."
Dr McCarthy explains: "Talking about sex as a personal, intimate experience with your partner is a totally different kind of talk. You have to be open to talking about what you value and your vulnerability."
The longer you've known someone, the easier it should be to discuss sex and intimacy, right? Experts say the opposite is true. Talking about sex comes more naturally to new couples who are keen to share everything about themselves. Admitting that you're unhappy with your sex life when you've been together for years can feel as if you're revealing a buried part of yourself – or betraying your partner by suddenly putting new demands on them.
Finding the right words
There won't always be a 'perfect moment' to start the conversation, but it's best not to raise the subject directly after making love. Saying anything that may seem critical now can leave your partner feeling vulnerable and hurt. Instead, talk about it while you're out walking or cooking dinner.
Be gentle in your approach and try saying. "I love you and I'd like to feel closer to you..." You can ask them how they feel about things, but when it comes to talking about yourself, focus on your feelings rather than making accusations or saying: "You never..."
If you rarely touch and no longer sleep in the same bed, you may need professional help from a marriage therapist with experience of sexual issues or a sex therapist. Relate's website has lots of helpful information and a guide to what to expect from sex therapy.
Tips to try
2. Don't worry about trying to be spontaneous, schedule time for sex – preferably when you're not too tired.
3. Take the pressure off by agreeing to kiss, touch and talk but not have intercourse.
4. Inject newness into the relationship. Learn a new skill together, go somewhere different on holiday and meet new people. Getting out of your old patterns can spark excitement in your relationship generally.
5. Touch your partner outside of the bedroom – hold hands while you're walking and give them a hug. Touching can be a bridge for desire according to Dr McCarthy, so show your partner physical affection frequently, not just in the bedroom.