This is the third story of a five-part series on how alternative relationships are reshaping love in Canada. Each day this week, we’ll explore a different union model, from sexless and arranged marriages to mixed orientation and polyamory. Follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #SOTUCanada.
Seven years ago, Mike took a staycation with his wife. They booked a Seattle hotel and explored their city’s best restaurants and outdoor scene.
That was the last time the couple had sex and Mike says he’s completely fine with it.
“I had no sexual experience prior to meeting my wife and she is the only intimate partner I’ve ever had,” he says. “We get along really well and I love her.”
Mike, who Global News agreed to identify only by his first name, is one of many North Americans who chooses to stay in a sexless marriage. He doesn’t weigh his marriage’s happiness on how many times he has sexual intercourse.
Married for 19 years, Mike says he stopped trying to initiate sex after that trip, even though the sex was enjoyable.
“My wife wasn’t interested [in sex] and mentally, I decided I was not going to bug her,” he continues. “My wife and I go to dinner, we go on dates, we get along well … Life would be more complicated with sex.”
There are a multitude of reasons
Sexless or celibate marriages are unions in which couples mutually agree to not have sex. Sometimes they consent to an open relationship, where one partner has the freedom to have sex with other people; others remain faithful and committed to a sexless union. In other cases, one or both members of the couple identifies as asexual — someone who isn’t sexually attracted to anyone — and they mutually decide not to engage in intercourse.
According to the 2016 census by Statistics Canada, nearly half the Canadian population is married and 21.3 per cent of relationships are common-law. Unfortunately, it’s harder to track alternative models like sexless unions, but some bodies are following them, indicating that they’re ones to watch. Although there is no concrete Canadian data, sexless marriages have been estimated to comprise 15 per cent of all marriages in the U.S.
However, a new Ipsos poll conducted exclusively for Global News found 19 per cent of Canadians said that they and their partner rarely, if ever, have sex. This was highest in Alberta (27 per cent) and lowest in Quebec (10 per cent). The poll also found that 22 per cent of men were more likely to say this, compared with 16 per cent of women.
Author and therapist Susan Pease Gadoua says there are a number of reasons why some marriages evolve into sexless unions, including one partner losing attraction for their spouse over time, medical conditions that can preclude a couple from having sex, or simply, age.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life, also lists communication issues, a decrease in desire to have sex and stressful environments.
Any new parent can tell you that having an infant is often a detriment to sex, but sometimes sexual intimacy doesn’t resume even after the kids grow out of infancy.
For Mike, who is now in his late 40s, having children was one of the biggest reasons he and his wife stopped being intimate. Although he says he doesn’t know what a “normal sex life” looks like, after the birth of his first child in 2002, he started to notice a change. Then, one of his children was diagnosed with a developmental disorder, which added another barrier to the couple’s alone time.
In June, Global News asked readers to anonymously share their experiences of being in a sexless marriage, to help us understand how common these types of relationships are.
Some readers talked about their feelings of isolation.
“The flame died years ago. I feel like I live with my best friend — 24 years together and counting. Not sure why I’m here some days. Toss up between losing my best friend or leaving for a new adventure,” one reader said.
“After 20 years it feels like having sex with a buddy. The love seems to change from desire to love for a family member,” wrote another.
“I have been in a sexless marriage for more than 10 years. I have survived and chosen to stay in the marriage because I’m married to one of my best friends who knows me inside out. We have figured out that we are sexually incompatible. Right now all I want is to have sex and feel physically wanted,” another reader added.
‘Sex itself may not be important’
There’s no one way to determine how sex impacts the success of a marriage, Gadoua and Lehmiller say, and there’s no one-size-fits-all equation to sex in relationships. Some people are happy to engage in intercourse a few times a week, while others look forward to a few times a month.
Lehmiller says we often compare our sex lives to those of others — whether it’s people we know or what we see and read about celebrities — and it can create tension with our partners.
“They feel pressure to keep up with the same behaviour to feel normal,” he explains.
Mike says he feels pressure from the messages around him that tell him sex is more important than it needs to be (or how he perceives it to be), which is why he started an anonymous thread online to see if other couples were living in a similarly sexless union.
He found a community of like-minded people who were supportive and allowed him to vent, but also added a silver lining to the situation: a happy marriage doesn’t necessarily include sex.
“There is no single answer to happiness, that’s pretty much what I’ve adopted,” he says. “I know a lot of people who have more sex than I do and are miserable in their marriages, so I don’t see how having more sex equates to better happiness. I’m not saying they are wrong, I just don’t see any evidence that sex itself is a prerequisite to a healthy and happy relationship.”
But studies have been conducted that could provide Mike with the evidence he needs. One 2017 report found sex can produce an “afterglow” in some people, resulting in long-term relationship satisfaction, while a U.K. survey from the same year found that having sex 8.35 per times per month was “the key” to a successful marriage.
Experts will tell you, however, to take these reports with a grain of salt because intimacy in relationships can come from a number of things.
“Sex is a way people often meet emotional needs, but there may be other ways without necessarily having sex with your partner,” Lehmiller says, noting some people find pleasure in things like cuddling or other acts of foreplay without necessarily having intercourse.
“It can be fulfilling and meet our physical needs … Sex itself may not be important.”
‘I feel loved’
In some cases, experts say, when sex starts to decline relationships can turn sour. Asking for sex becomes a form of nagging and this can quickly turn into resentment for someone you truly love.
Gadoua says when people get married, the mindset is that the person they are marrying will be their sexual partner for life, and if there are changes to this dynamic (because of children or other life circumstances), it can result in an involuntarily sexless marriage. Some live with it — including most of our readers who chimed in with their own experiences — while others either leave their partner or look for sex elsewhere.
“Some don’t want to blow up their entire marriage. … It’s tricky,” she says.
Lehmiller adds others will take their frustrations out in other ways, which can include focusing all their attention on work or hobbies as a distraction. “When you end up in a sexless marriage and it’s not what you want, people tend to focus on that very negatively.”
Mike’s wife is hesitant to speak to a professional about their issues, he says, so for him, it comes down to being content with the form their relationship has taken. Like other couples, they hug, kiss, go on date nights and travel together; and like other couples, they also don’t spoon each other in bed or cuddle.
He’s not immune to the need for sexual satisfaction — he masturbates several times a week for his own personal pleasure — but he would never seek sex outside of his marriage.
Lehmiller says the lack of research on sexless marriage may make some couples feel like they are weird or abnormal, but he stresses that this simply isn’t the case. Gadoua adds that as a society, we need to recognize that marriages can exist without this type of physical romance.
“We put a lot of emphasis on the romantic aspect [of marriage], but there’s a business aspect, parenting aspect and social aspect. There are a lot of reasons to get married and stay married.”
Mike says his wife is an ideal partner; she takes care of him and the children, and at the end of the day, he has what he is seeking — love.
“She supports us in a lot of ways and I really appreciate that,” he says. “I feel loved. I’m happy.”
These are some of the findings of an Ipsos poll conducted between July 13 and 16, 2018, on behalf of Global News. For this survey, a sample of 1,501 Canadians aged 18+ was interviewed online via the Ipsos I-Say panel and non-panel sources. Quota sampling and weighting were employed to balance demographics to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the adult population according to Census data and to provide results intended to approximate the sample universe. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within ±3.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all Canadian adults been polled.
— Illustrations by Laura Whelan