By Peggy Vaughan
'Sexless marriage'defined as having sex 10 times a year or lessis a significant and growing problem. There are many potential contributors to this problem, including the challenges associated with having kids, extramarital affairs, health issues, effects of aging, etc.
While sex is only one of the ways a couple express their love through the years, it's an important part of the bond that connects you to each other in a special wayand it deserves our care and attention. So I've decided to address this issue in the same way I first addressed the issue of affairsby sharing our own personal experience in trying to keep sex alive in our 50+ years of marriage.
NOTE: In order to be as useful as possible, this writing will candidly report on our experience through the years, so of necessity, it will be explicit. I hope it is received in the spirit of helpfulness with which it is shared.
My husband and I grew up together, and although we 'came of age' in the 50's when premarital sex was considered taboo, we were typical of our peers in that we began 'going steady' at age 16 and first had sexual intercourse at age 17. We had a very difficult time with feelings of guilt about sex during this time, but it still stands out as one of the most wonderful periods of our sex lives, and we refer to it as the period of 'young, hot love.'
In those early days, it would have been impossible to imagine a time when we wouldn't be filled with sexual desire for each other. We did, however, encounter our first sex-related problem when, at age 18, I thought I might be pregnant. Although we always used a condom (the only protection we knew about at the time), we were very frightened about the stigma associated with a pregnancy outside of marriage in the 50s. So we got secretly married, planning to pretend we had married earlier. When it turned out I was not pregnant after all, we told no one about the secret marriage and proceeded with plans for our wedding scheduled for 7 months later.
This experience, however, led us to adjust our sexual activity to assure that we would not be vulnerable to another pregnancy scare. But as young people in a small town in the Southern part of the U.S. during the 50's, we had never heard of oral sex, so we found other ways to satisfy each other sexually for that 7-month period until the wedding. Looking back, I think this was a positive experience in that it led us to talk candidly about sex and to find ways of expressing our sexual connection in ways other than intercourse.
Early Years of Marriage
After the wedding, we were thrilled to finally have intercourse for the first time in 7 months, and it was also the first time we had been able to have sex in a real bed. However, we were not able to fully give ourselves over to this new sexual situation because we faced some immediate challenges. Since we had to support ourselves while going to college, we didn't have a honeymoon. We spent the week following our wedding staying in a motel while we painted the apartment we would occupy on campus and interviewed for jobs.
Our delight in being able to have sex anytime we wished was dampened by the severe restrictions on our time and energy due to handling so many responsibilities with school and jobs. I added even more stress to our schedule by insisting on taking my new role as 'wife' very seriously and trying to imitate what I had observed with my mother and James' mother. I didn't take into account that they were full-time homemakers while I had many other demands on my time and energy. Instead, I tried to follow what I had observedwhich included making homemade biscuits for breakfast each morning, homemade rolls for dinner, and ironing a starched shirt each day for James to wear to work.
In addition, the student housing for couples on campus involved a bedroom, a kitchen, and sharing a bath with another couple. This arrangement was not conducive to the kind of casual intimacy that can enhance a couple's sex life. But when you're newly married, it's not difficult to overcome any such inconvenience in order to maintain a strong sexual relationship.
From the beginning of our marriage, we adopted a habit that has continued throughout our marriage: we always sleep together in the nude. While this doesn't necessarily translate into more frequent sex, it certainly affords an environment that reminds us of our sexual connection.
We had been married 7 years when our first child was born, with the second child coming 2 years later. We had desperately wanted children, but we felt it was essential to wait until James finished his graduate school work before taking this step. While children can be a wonderful blessing to a marriage, they also add a level of stress (physically, emotionally, financially, etc.) which can create an unintended barrier to the kind of intimacy that supports an active sex life.
This was compounded by the fact that shortly after the birth of our first child, we spent the summer with my parents, then moved almost a thousand miles away to a city where James would begin his first full-time job. That year was particularly difficult because in addition to his duties as a new professor, he also had to write his Ph.D. dissertation and independently learn a foreign language to satisfy his language requirement for the degree. This meant he was stretched about as far as a person could be.
During that same year, I devoted all of my time to our baby. I had worked full-time during the first 7 years of our marriage, and I was thrilled to finally be a full-time mom. However, it was also a difficult time for me in that I was in a city where I only knew one person and where (due to having only one car) the baby and I were alone in the suburbs while James was away most of the time.
I don't have a clear recollection of the status of our sex life during this first year, but I have to believe that it was significantly diminished in light of everything else that was going on. (The fact that I can't remember the nature of our sex life speaks volumes about the diminished role it must have played during that period.) My overwhelming memories of that year are of being with the baby (positive) and being alone without my husband (negative). So I suspect that the experience of focusing on an infant prevented me from focusing on my sex lifewhile James' work demands did the same for him.
As happens with many couples, over the next few years we gradually grew apartin essence living in two different worlds. We continued to have an active sex life, but it was more about simply coming together physically without really being 'together' in the larger sense of being strongly connected in our lives.
James pursued his work with a vengeance, and although I appreciated his growing success at work, I was busy pursuing my role in the home with the same kind of intensity of focus and effort. We became ensconced in our very different roleswithout investing time and effort in knowing or understanding what was happening in our different worlds. (By the way, 'growing apart' is not the result of pursuing different interests/activites; it's the result of failing to share with each other about not only what is going on in your life, but how you feel about it and how it is affecting/changing you.)
As a result, James came to see me more as the role I played than as the woman he married. In our first book, Beyond Affairs, we described our attitudes during this period.
After 11 years of marriage, the situation (as described above) led James to view me less as a 'woman and sex partner' and more in my roles as a 'wife and mother.' While we still had an active sex life (and while he proclaims to have still found me sexually desirable), he also began to warm toward the idea of the kind of variety, novelty and newness inherent in sex with different women. Acting on this interest was reinforced by seeing most of his peers involved in affairs while professing their commitment to their marriages. While these influences were not an excuse for his behavior, he used them to rationalize that he might be able to do that too.
This began the most difficult and damaging 7-year period of our entire marriage. For me, our sex life took on a totally different level of focusbecause I immediately suspected an affair and spent years trying to gauge whether or not it was true by 'testing' his interest and/or enthusiasm for sex with me.
I must say that while I was unable to detect any changes in his interest or actions in our sex life, I made some drastic changes in my own approach. I began doing a lot of 'acting' in bed, trying to be the most enthusiastic sex partner imaginablethinking that if a man had an affair, it must be because he was dissatisfied with the sex with his wife. (I now realize this was a false premise, but back in 1966 it was a common assumption.)
Commitment to Honesty
After James told me about his affairs and willingly answered all my questions, our relationship changed in a very significant way. Dealing with the crisis of affairs led to a commitment to honesty that completely redefined the nature of our relationshipnot just regarding affairs, but regarding every aspect of our lives, including our sex lives. Once you talk honestly about sex in the context of dealing with affairs, it becomes easier to honestly discuss all aspects of sex.
Also, this kind of responsible honesty allows you to develop a special closeness and willingness to be vulnerable that enhances the overall freedom and comfort with your sexual relationship. So this began a period of our marriage (that continues today) where we are able to deal with any issue that may arise that can affect your sex lifelike health problems and aging.
In 1992, at the age of 56, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had a lumpectomy, with chemo and radiation. During the 6-month period of treatment, our sex life continued as before. In fact, there was a certain 'sweetness' associated with enjoying sex with a body that was in other ways struggling through the treatments. And my bald head resulting from the chemo gave me a kind of sweet, innocent appearance that made James even more caring and protective of me, helping to increase our bond during a difficult time.
However, I must admit I felt a little awkward about the appearance of the breast that underwent surgery due to the fact that the surgeon acknowledged that he failed to do the kind of job (aesthetically) that he should have done. Of course, I appreciate that the overwhelming priority is the cancer itself, not the aesthetic results of the surgery. But it was disappointing that the nipple was completely inverted and that in its place was a crease across the center of the breast that pulled inward. I tried not to be self-conscious and not to let it interfere with my sexual feelings.
This effort was greatly enhanced by the way James reacted to me during this time. He made it clear that he continued to find me attractive and sexually desirable. He continued to touch me in the same ways as always, and it was especially comforting to have those casual touches that had no overt sexual overtones. In fact, the non-sexual closeness we have always shared (with our morning ritual of cuddling when we first wake up) has no doubt been a factor in maintaining the kind of physical bond that also helps keep sex alive.
But since I still faced the fact that the scar was a constant reminder of the cancer, I decided to consider getting it repaired. So about four or five years later (after first checking with my oncologist), I went to a plastic surgeon who was able to restore the breast almost to its before-cancer appearance. There was still a crease, but I had a nipple and didn't mind that the breast was overall a little smaller than the other one. Anyway, even though the breast appearance had not had a negative impact on our sex lives, this corrective surgery allowed me to feel more comfortable with my body and more sexual in general.
Another byproduct of the breast cancer was that the chemo plunged me into sudden menopause. Prior to that time, I still had regular periods and regular hormone levels, including those associated with stimulating sexual desire. In addition to a significantly reduced libido, I also experienced other common menopause-related symptoms like hot flashes, etc., that can undermine a woman's sense of herself sexually.
Unfortunately, many people assume that menopause means a certain decline in sexual activity. However, it only means you don't have the same 'desire' for sex; there can still be 'arousal.' And since a part of the capacity for arousal lies between your ears (not just between your legs), you can still have a very satisfying sex life. So, despite not having the same impetus to embark on the experience, I learned to appreciate the results of going aheadthus our sex life did not suffer.
Another potential challenge came two years later when James was diagnosed with prostate cancer. None of the possible treatments are without some risks, many of them related to possible impotence. As with my breast cancer, the priority was to take care of the cancer, but the possibility of forgoing the kind of sex life you had previously enjoyed is an extremely serious issue.
Doctors don't 'order' which kind of treatment to choose (either for breast cancer or prostate cancer). They may 'recommend' one over the otherbut frankly, the recommendations are often based more on their personal 'specialty' than any other criteria. We did a lot of reading/studying/interviewing doctors and concluded that (even with the risks of impotence and/or incontinence) the best choice at his age and stage of life was a radical prostatectomy, the surgical removal of the prostate.
We were fortunate in that he had an excellent surgeon who was able to perform the surgery while leaving the all-important nerves intact, thus avoiding either of the common serious side-effects of this surgery. But, of course, we couldn't be sure about the potency until some time had passedbecause it does take time (and attention) to restore full sexual functioning.
Unfortunately, most doctors adopt a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to a man's sex life following surgery. This is simply not a topic the doctor normally addressesbeyond the initial information that the surgery has these possible negative side-effects. So following surgery, there was no discussion with the doctor about how things stood in the sexual arena.
We were fortunate in that our ability to honestly discuss the situation in the months following the surgery made all the difference in its impact on our sex life. Having already established an ability to candidly talk about our sex life put us at a significant advantage, quite different from some other men with whom we spoke about their experience following the surgery.
We knew from our reading that it might take some time to know the full impact on potency. So during the first months when erectile function was not sufficient for intercourse, we stuck to oral sex and other forms of sexual satisfaction. This was the nature of our sex lives for about 9 months, at which time full erections allowed us to once again include intercourse.
Without the ability to talk through all aspects of this situation and continue a sexual relationship (with all the ongoing stimulation that provided), it's unlikely that intercourse would ever have been resumed. That would have been an unnecessary loss, one not usually discussed, which is one of the reasons for sharing this experience.
Taking Care of your Body
Even without facing a particular physical problem like side-effects from cancer or other illness, every couple's sex life is affected by the physical condition of their bodies. Other than our bouts with cancer, James and I have been fortunate in maintaining our bodies in a way that is healthy and fit. A big part of our motivation for this was not for the sake of sex, but of life itself. I watched my mother gain about 150 pounds through the years, leading to diabetes, ending in blindness, and eventual death with gangrene. And James's father, who was overweight as well, died of a massive heart attack at age 47. I'm sure our awareness of the health results for our parents played a major role in our ongoing efforts to maintain healthy bodies, which had the effect of also allowing us to function better sexually.
Unfortunately, even the most responsible people sometimes fail to take care of their bodies. While people of all shapes and sizes certainly have and enjoy sexual relationships, the growing epidemic of obesity may lead many people to be so uncomfortable with their bodies that it negatively affects both their partners and themselves in their openness to and enjoyment of sex. In fact, those who are extremely overweight may find the act of intercourse itself to be a physical challenge, further inhibiting their sex lives.
Effects of Aging
The condition of our bodies plays an even greater role in our sex lives as we age. About the time we reached 60 (when many people accept the idea of a possibly decreased sex life), we determined that we were not going to sit idly by and allow that to happen. So we developed a planwhich continues today in our 70s. If we have sex sometime during any given week, fine. But if it doesn't happen spontaneously, we still have sexbecause we have agreed upon a certain day of the week when it will happen.
This kind of plan to 'choose' to have sex works well. In fact, it has some advantages in that (like dating) you know it's coming up and you anticipate it. For women especially, thinking about it in advance can help 'get in the mood.'
There have been rare occasions where something happened to interfere with our 'sex date,' but we've found that it only served to make a spontaneous sexual experience more likely during the following week. And at the very least, having this kind of plan assures that we never let sex recede from awareness or attentionas happens all too often when couples just ignore the absence of sex in their lives.
I hope that by sharing our experience in 'keeping sex alive,' you will find some ideas/perspective that will be helpful in sustaining sex in your own long-term marriage. However, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, sex is only one of the ways couples show their love through the years. So none of these insights may be effective unless you are simultaneously 'keeping love alive'not just 'keeping sex alive.'
Note: Our book, Making Love Stay, covers a wide range of issues related to keeping love alive. It also includes about a dozen pages specifically related to sustaining a good sex life. You can also find links to more pages on the site with Information about Lasting Love. And since 'my life is an open book'... if you want to read anything more about our marriage or life experiences, see the section About Us.