Marriages are often fueled by passion—a combination of love and lust that manifests itself in an appetite to be together emotionally, physically, and especially sexually. Over time, while love remains, the intensity of that passion can wane, and some may find themselves in a marriage without sexual intimacy.
A sexless marriage can lead to divorce—especially if only one partner is uninterested in or withholding physical intimacy from another and is unwilling to work through it. If you're in a marriage without physical intimacy, it can help to learn the possible causes, what you can do to try to save your relationship, and—if those efforts don't work—whether the lack of sex can be grounds for divorce.
The definition of a sexless marriage varies depending on who you ask. For some researchers, a couple must not have engaged in any sexual activity together in the past year for the marriage to be called sexless. Other studies draw the line at having fewer than 10 sexual encounters over 12 months (which some experts call a low-sex marriage).
By any measure, the lack of a sexual relationship can put a marriage on shaky ground.
"Intimacy in a marriage is absolutely critical," says Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and creator of Mental Drive, a psychological well-being initiative on Instagram. "A marriage without intimacy, including sexual intimacy, is a marriage that is at risk for failing. But it's important to note that a marriage that's failing for other reasons will not be saved by sex."
It's normal for the frequency of sexual activity to ebb and flow in a marriage. Major life changes such as the birth of a child or a job promotion that leads to long hours might make all types of intimacy more difficult to maintain at times.
But when a lack of sexual intimacy persists, Dr. Klapow advises that the first step in moving forward is to identify why your partner is unwilling or unable to have sex with you. Or, if you're the one who has disengaged from a sexual relationship with your spouse, make an effort to tune in to your reasons.
A number of factors not connected to the relationship can contribute to low sex drive (libido). Here are just a few of them:
If you think one or more of the above issues is contributing to your sexless marriage, consider talking to a doctor, therapist, or other health care provider. There might be treatments available to improve low libido in some cases.
If a sexless marriage can't be linked to an outside cause, relationship issues could be at the root. Examples include:
"All of these issues have, at their foundation, a lack of communication," Dr. Klapow says. "If couples don't talk about feelings, intimacy, sex, sexual arousal, sexual needs and desires, frustrations, and conflicts, then sexual interest and interest in the other partner, in general, will fall by the wayside."
Sex can be a difficult subject to discuss. You want your partner to feel comfortable and safe opening up to you and vice versa. Couples counseling is a good option for creating an environment that facilitates open communication. Individual counseling can also be useful for one or both spouses. Knowing what the issue is can help you both take action to address the situation, says Dr. Klapow,
Whether it's seeking medical advice, changing medication, or one or both partners going to counseling, there are ways to keep a sexless marriage intact—even if sexual intimacy doesn't fully rebound. When it comes to sexless marriage and divorce, it often boils down to the importance of sexual intimacy to each spouse.
Research doesn't provide a clear answer as to how many sexless marriages end in divorce. Some couples choose to stay married when sex is infrequent or even nonexistent, often finding other ways to be intimate.
"Consummating a marriage often assumes sexual intercourse, but sex does not have to mean intercourse. It can mean a wide variety of intimate activities," Dr. Klapow says. For a marriage to survive, "it's absolutely essential that couples find a way to share intimacy in a manner that is mutually satisfying."
A spouse might consider going outside the marriage for sexual intimacy. Unless both partners have agreed to an open marriage, infidelity isn't the answer.
"Cheating is a betrayal of the trust of your partner. It's not a useful, healthy, or long-lasting way to fulfill sexual desires and needs," Dr. Klapow says. "Work on it together, or work on a solution, or work on ending the relationship in an open, honest and clear way."
When you file for divorce, you need a legally accepted reason (or "ground"). All states now allow you to file for a "no-fault" divorce.
Unless you live in one of the few states that require a lengthy separation first, you may usually get a no-fault divorce if you and your spouse have "irreconcilable differences," or your marriage is "irretrievably broken," with no reasonable hope of reconciliation. Unless you're fine with a sexless marriage, your spouse's ongoing refusal to have sex with you would probably count as an irreconcilable difference or breakdown in your marriage relationship.
But some states still allow you to file for a "fault" divorce, which means you're claiming (and must prove) that your spouse was to blame for the end of your marriage through certain kinds of misconduct. Abandonment, desertion, or cruelty are typically on the list.
Rarely—such as in North Dakota—a state's law will specifically define desertion as including a spouse's "persistent refusal" to have sex, unless there's a physical or health reason for that refusal. (N.D. Cent. Code § 14-05-06 (2022). More often, it's been up to courts to decide whether a spouse's refusal to have sex could be considered abandonment or cruelty.
Courts in different states have taken different positions on this issue. Most of these cases are old—a reflection of the fact that couples these days usually choose to file for no-fault divorce, because it's less expensive and less contentious.
But as recently as 2007, a New York court held that a husband had proved his wife abandoned him by refusing to have sex for more than a year, despite his repeated requests. (Czaban v. Czaban, 44 A.D.3d 894 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2007).
When courts have found that withholding sex is abandonment or cruelty, they've generally agreed that it must be ongoing, unjustified, and in response to the other spouse's repeated requests for sex.
It's also worth pointing out that in some states, you may file for a fault-based divorce based on your spouse's impotence—the inability to have sex. Typically, the impotence must have lasted from the time you first were married.
But if you're thinking of filing for a fault divorce based on your spouse's refusal to have sex or impotence, you should speak with a lawyer who can explain whether that would be to your advantage, and what it would take to prove your claims.
Some couples can stay happily married in a sexless marriage. But there are circumstances in which you might want to consider walking away. The warning signs are different for each couple, but they could include:
If you don't believe your marriage can be saved, it might be time to think about moving on with your life. You can learn more about filing for divorce and the divorce process in your state, as well as how you can save time and money by filing for an uncontested divorce.