Can we sustain Love without Sex?

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In my last group therapy session members were discussing their levels of happiness in relation to all aspects of their lives.  This particular group ranges in age from mid-forties to mid -fifties. One of the women who was recently divorced said her major frustration in life is not having a sexual partner. “I haven’t had sex in more than a year, she kiddingly made light of the situation but we could all tell she was genuinely frustrated. As members began to open up she was surprised to hear that some married members do not have sex regularly. Two of our male members said they basically live in celibate marriages. Her reaction, “I don’t think I could stay married, why do you stay in such a negative situation”. Ironically the two men who currently have celibate marriages have been married the longest. One indicates that he has gained a new understanding of his situation over time. “My wife struggled with her weight all her life, as the years went on she felt more and more unattractive despite my telling her she looked good, I still love her but I have never been able to change her mind. Then menopause came early and the lights went out completely.  I admit I have been angry with her for a long time but through couples sessions I realize that it is not personal, it is something she is working on and I finally have come to believe it is not about me. I have hope for the future because I know we love each other and we’re both trying”.

                                    Sexual Desire is Complicated

    In my practice the story above is a very common, particularly as people age. There are a multitude of reasons as to why people become distant sexually. Unresolved conflict, ill health, poor fitness, depression, anxiety about body image, alcohol or drug use, sexual abuse and of course hormonal changes are all influential factors. In addition a person’s history with affection within one’s own family is a very important factor.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            One of our group members is a person we all admire tremendously. He is not a driven or self absorbed person, his character is outstanding and his devotion to people in his community is quite impressive. He was divorced several years ago and his second marriage has been the best relationship of his life. However his wife has never had strong sexual desires and as she has aged her desire for sex has diminished greatly. Ron has periodically talked of his longing for her and how rejected he sometimes feels. He has periodically brought up the subject with her and he ultimately feels uncomfortable as his wife usually ends up feeling terrible. She loves him deeply and realizes she is disappointing him in significant ways. Ron knows his life loves him. They communicate well except for this very touchy subject, and have both been very committed to their children from both of their previous marriages. In our last group session he was asked how he copes with such infrequent sexual contact. “I don’t know really, I try to focus on the other aspects of our relationship. My wife is a very affectionate person, we cuddle on the couch and in bed so it’s not like I can’t feel her interest. I think of how wonderful she has been to my family, my dying father, my daughter over the years and I love how committed she is to the students in her class. I should talk to her more about our sexual relationship but I just don’t like hurting her. All in all I cope by knowing she is the best thing that ever happened to me. Do I wish we could make love occasionally? Of course but for now I have to look at the whole picture”.

                                        What is the Answer?

Sexuality in the early stages of a relationship is easy, takes very little skill and is usually filled with idealized projections of who the other persona is and how they will change our lives. As time goes on reality sets in and those who use sex for functional reasons often become disenchanted quickly. Sexual intimacy for them is not about loving it is about satisfying needs to lift self worth.  They seldom remain engaged long enough to truly love the essence of another person. They move on to another fantasized person who will temporarily serve as an anti-depressant.

         What about those individuals who come to truly love their partner. What do you do when sexual intimacy is lacking and emotional distance is growing? How do you decide to go on if you know intimacy may not be a major part of the relationship? These are extremely complicated questions for sure and they will take time and patience to answer accurately. It is most important to ask yourself if you are allowing for intimacy to develop. Examine your own behavior first and with the help of your partner try to be honest and open as to what you bring to the relationship that may hinder intimacy. For instance,  many people underestimate the need for relationships to be fostered and not taken for granted. If you don’t water the plant it withers, love is no different. After you have worked out your part with clarity you are in a better position to access the level of genuine love in your relationship. If it is truly absent it will be easier to make decisions. For instance my two patients above love their wives and thus they have decided to remain committed and will continue to work on the possibilities.

                                      Empathy creates Intimacy

   In order to maintain intimacy in any quality long term relationship we have to go beyond physical attraction to encompass the heart and soul of the person we have committed our lives to. Empathy leads us from the initial superficial connection to a deep, heartfelt relationship that involves knowing and loving the whole person. When we love and accept our partner’s imperfections we also find ourselves more acceptant of our own limitations and shortcomings.

     It is foolish to assume your sexual relationship will remain the same as when you first met. Many people long for the return to the initial infatuation phase.  It is far more fulfilling when we actually experience the depth of love that goes beyond imagination to a reality that is supportive, dependable and expansive. Ultimate intimacy is when two souls join together as one. As we have seen this may or may not include sexual intimacy. In any event when you establish this kind of depth you are in a much better position to judge the relevance and importance of sexuality to you and your partner. In my experience when couples love deeply and empathically they find a way to re-engage affectionately and often reach a satisfactory level of sexual intimacy.

                                          Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

                                 Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

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Arthur Ciaramicoli PhD

Comments (5)

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  1. Wow, you are so brave do address this question, Dr. Ciaramicoli!
    Can we have love without sex? Yes. We love lots of people we never have sex with. can we have a healthy marriage without sex? No
    Sex, along with breathing, nutrition, water, sleep,homeostasis & excretion are all basic physiological humamn needs (Maslows heirarchy of needs).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs
    Unless both married partners agree to not have sex in their marriage, sex is a healthy way to maintain intimacy.
    Not having sex in a marriage is a way to withold love, vulnerability & allows us to avoid working through our intimacy issues.
    If we want our spouse to remain monogamous to us and not have their sexual needs met by someone else, then we need to be meeting that need.
    Elisabeth Davies, MC
    http://www.brightalternatives.com

  2. Thank you for your response Elisabeth. I agree that sex in a marriage is a healthy form of intimacy and when witheld purposely it can be very damaging. However their are marriages where because of hormonal difficulties, menopausal issues sexual feelings are absent and the person is not purposely witholding. It is very complicated and each situation can be quite different.

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