‘Are We Broken?’: 15 Couples on Not Having Sex

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Photo: Corbis

Not everyone wants sex all the time — we know that. But it’s hard not to feel rejected when the person you’re supposedly sleeping with starts going straight to sleep. What does it mean for a couple when a boyfriend says he’s too tired, again, or a wife stops initiating sex? Is cooling desire the beginning of the end, or are dry spells inevitable, even healthy?

The Cut asked fifteen men and women what they make of the sexless nights, weeks, months, and even years in their relationships.

1. "A lot of effort for two seconds."
Three years into their postcollege relationship, Tim and Carly only had sex every three or four months. Tim’s wet dreams routinely woke him, but he rejected Carly’s advances “nineteen out of every twenty times.” He never initiated. When Carly tried to talk to Tim about “spicing it up,” he’d say, “'This is just how I am,’ and that sex just wasn’t that satisfying … a lot of effort for two seconds.” They stayed together another two years.

“Who knows what my friends really thought,” Carly, now 32, laughs. “I rationalized to them in the most upbeat way that it didn’t really matter, like, ‘It’s not all about sex with him.’ I could see my life with him. I presumed building a life with a man would mean a tradeoff.”

The routine rejection made her feel “completely unattractive all the time,” she says. After their breakup, “feeling sexy was the hardest part of moving on.”

2. "Just say it."
The “buzz wore off” for Nick after eighteen months. He “wanted to be seduced, to be excited,” so when Lily just “rolled over and snuggled up,” he’d “ignore her and then feel like such a dick.” After a while, he “could feel the frustration in the air.”

Then in their mid-twenties, neither Nick nor Lily was “especially experienced,” and Nick (now 31) says that neither knew how to ask for what they wanted — sexually or in terms of “general intimacy.” Instead, the sex “was close-mouthed,” he says. “It’s like we were both being half-people.”

After three years, he cheated. Then she cheated. “The relationship blew up,” they broke up, and then they got back together for five months. The breakup supercharged their intimacy: The sex was “electric.”

“Everything we’d been too afraid to express had bubbled over,” Nick says. “There was nothing else to hold back. It took hurting each other to break down all the walls.” During sex, Nick felt “less shy, less ashamed.” He says, “What I took away is wanting to say what isn’t being said — even if it’s scary. Just say it … If I could go back I would’ve loved to be more comfortable with that piece of myself sooner.”

3. "Oh, God, hurry up."
“The moment he was about to stick it in, I would look up and think ‘Ew, dear God, gross,’ Natalie, now 26, says of sex with her college boyfriend. For the first three years they had sex multiple times a week, but then Max dropped out of school, stopped exercising, and started eating only fast food. As he hovered in “a gross complacency” and gained weight, Natalie lost her attraction to him. “I never thought I’d be one of those people who thinks, Oh God, hurry up, but I was,” she says.

“Recoiling” from his advances by faking her period and nausea, and “subconsciously picking drunken fights,” she avoided sex for months at a time. Their circle of friends consisted entirely of couples — she felt she couldn’t break up with him and keep them. “I lied to him so often I started to convince myself,” Natalie says. But at a bar one night an attractive guy talked with her: “I came to the realization, I have been dating down! I’m better than that. I can be treated the way I want to be treated.” She and her boyfriend broke up eight months later.

4. "Let go of the norm."
Robert, 61, hasn’t had sex with his wife, Laurel, in twenty years. They met in college and had regular sex until their third child was born and she stopped wanting it. After “the white heat of getting together,” her lack of desire “felt like a bait and switch.” He “got angry and took it personally.”

He “tried everything,” including flirting to provoke jealousy, reading advice books, and going to couple's therapy. Therapy helped them separate the lack of sex from the rest of their marriage, but it couldn’t restore his wife’s libido. Robert recalls: “The therapist never said, ‘It’s okay that she doesn’t want to have sex.’ Maybe that would’ve given Laurel more support … If what makes sense for two people isn’t the norm, it’s better to let go of the norm.”

He wonders sometimes if it “would’ve been healthier to have blown up and split fifteen years ago” — but they’re still together, and he’s never had an affair. “It seems absurd to throw everything away just for a couple of hours a week … It’s not like my wife is interchangeable with someone else,” Robert says. “Everything else is superb. We go on romantic vacations and have a great time, but there are no erotic undertones.” 

5. "Women do want sex."
The first time Ed, 30, spurned sex, Christine, 29, told him, “My feelings are hurt, and we need to discuss this in every detail.” Christine, “a fly-off-the-handle kind of lady,” says, “If I want something, I can ask Ed for it. His confidence is one reason I can talk to him.” Her previous boyfriend was insecure, she says, and “would’ve been devastated” if she brought up his libido. But Christine and Ed, now engaged, openly acknowledge that her sex drive is stronger. 

They used to have sex every date night, but now that they live together, “It’s not like we can skip seeing each other because someone has a sinus infection or diarrhea.” He thinks nothing of not having sex for two weeks — which she says is “way too long” for her. The infrequent sex has made her question their plans to marry: “If we’re not having enough sex when we’re young and don’t have kids, are we screwed?” But beneath those doubts is the “certainty” of her love for him.

“I was taught a billion things that are wrong, including that guys want more sex,” Christine says. “I kept thinking, I’m the girl. Why doesn’t he want me? But sometimes women want more sex. He’s not rejecting me. I think the important thing is, how are couples communicating?”

6. "I took it to heart."
“No sexual contact can potentially be okay, because sexual connection demands an ‘us,’ and sometimes a person needs to close off their own energy and feel their own wholeness again,” Alexander, 34, says. But “emotional affection and physical touch are bundled together.” After eight months, his once passionate sex with Nina had “withered” as she “distanced herself emotionally.” He’d try to initiate, but she’d decline and “get annoyed” when he tried to talk.

Alexander remembers Nina calling him “lost, wishy-washy, not man enough.” He says, “I tend to be quite self-critical, so I took it to heart.” He felt “degraded,” but at the same time, he says, “I know it pushed me to look at some things and be a better man.”

“I’m only surprised by how long I kept trying” to recover the lost intimacy, Alexander says now. “I cared for her. I wanted to work it out.” At the time, he talked to female friends about the situation, but now he’s found men with whom he can discuss emotional issues. “Men deal with these vulnerable situations by themselves,” he says. “It’s not really a masculine thing.”

7. "The quality is being together."
“I would have sex at almost any moment, but my husband’s one of those cerebral types — if he’s making progress with work it’s the last thing on his mind,” Devorah, 31, says. She and Gary run a shop and have a 3-year-old. Gary stays up late working, so they often go ten or more days without sex.

She wishes he would prioritize going to bed at the same time: “I just want intimacy. I don’t care about the quality of the sex — the quality is the moment, being together.” Devorah used to strategize about their work schedules, soda intake — anything affecting their energy levels — and she “felt responsible” for his pleasure. After their son was born, she “got less patient with being responsible for everything.”

When they do find time for sex, Devorah says Gary will come in two minutes and then promise to “rock her world” next time. "I’m not betting the farm on it," she thinks. “He knows if he spends five minutes before sex I’ll come as quickly as he does,” she says. “So if he ejaculates rapidly he wasn’t that focused.”

8. "I’ve accepted myself."
Before she got married, Susan, now 48, asked her doctor, “Is there something wrong with me?” because she always wanted sex. “The doctor said some women have higher sex drives than some men,” Susan says, “And I do! From my first time I thought, Wow, I love this!

Susan and her first husband, Jack, had sex three times a day at first. “I wanted sex every day,” she explains. “The way I feel close to someone is the kissing, hugging, intimacy.” When the frequency dwindled, she felt “neglected” and tried to talk with Jack. She dressed up in sexy lingerie, to no avail. Eventually, Jack became jealous and accused her of cheating whenever she went out; still, he never initiated sex. Susan withdrew — and during their divorce, for the first time, she didn’t want sex. After nine months of marriage, her next husband, eleven years her junior, started declining sex. Again Susan wondered, “Is there something wrong with me?” Again, the marriage dissolved.

Her current, boyfriend, 59, “listens and understands.” She says, “I told him right away: 'Sex and intimacy is an important part of what I need … I’m older and have accepted myself. If you can’t accept me, I’ll move on.'”

9. Lost confidence.
A few years ago, Tasha, now 38, reconnected with an ex with whom she’d enjoyed “an active, spontaneous sex life” for years. But during their years apart, Tasha had been diagnosed with diabetes and gained weight. “When you’re way overweight you just don’t have that energy,” she explains. “He wanted it every day, and I just couldn’t do it.” Her ex still found her attractive, but, Tasha says, “I need to look a certain way to feel a certain way.”

“It didn’t matter what he thought; it mattered what I thought,” she says. “I recognized it from the first moment we tried to be intimate. I just didn’t feel comfortable anymore, and if you don’t feel comfortable you don’t really enjoy yourself.” He noticed, too, and told her she’d lost her confidence.

She continuously declined sex with a bevy of excuses, and eventually ended the relationship. “It was better to let him find someone else, she says. “At one point we had a great relationship, and I wish we had that back, but … I wasn’t the person for him anymore.”

10. "Fading away."
Last year, Jay’s estrogen imbalance dampened his previously strong sex drive. He “had no interest in anything sexual,” and so his girlfriend Yvette “had to go without and go through the emotions of not being wanted,” Jay, 37, says.

“Men feel like men when they please someone. I get a psychological boost from sex, from satisfying a woman, feeling like a man, so I started feeling like I was fading away, the way people in Back to the Future pictures fade away,” he says. He started hormone treatment, and his drive returned, but not until after they’d broken up.

11. "Rabid calculations."
For the first several months, Rita, 30, and Dan, 35, had sex multiple times at night and in the morning. “I was privately a little disappointed if it was fewer than five times,” Rita says. “We’d tease each other about being insatiable.”

They lived separately and planned date nights, but after a year, Dan “would look at the ceiling, arms crossed, eyes closed,” or “he’d roll over, and I’d just stare at his back.” He’d wave off her touch. “I’d do these rabid calculations — counting the days until I’d be back and could try again,” Rita says. 

“I was so comfortable asking for what I wanted in terms of sex, but it was scarier to point out that he was closing me out,” Rita says. “I couldn’t form words about wanting closeness — I was scared of asking for too much and scaring him off.” Sex was “a little safer to ask about.” 

Rita suspected he didn’t want to be with her. Dan continuously cited fatigue and said they’d talk another time. “I was in his bathroom when I finally couldn’t avoid seeing that there was a serious problem,” Rita laughs. “I hugged my face into a towel, crying, totally insanely trying to be comforted by the towel’s softness. I went back to the bedroom pretending I was fine. I still don’t think I know how to be vulnerable enough to ask for what I need.” 

12. "Are we broken?"
Claire, 31, and her husband, Vince, 32, have sex about once a month. Every couple of months, “panic sets in,” and Claire “ascribes all this meaning to their droughts,” asking, “Are we broken? Are we destined for divorce?” Then they’ll “have amazing sex and realize, Oh! We do like each other! We are okay!

The frequency of their sex decreased alongside a dip in Claire’s body image several years ago, after they’d been together for three years. She feels better about her body now but still rarely craves sex. “Porn is my ally,” Claire says. To take the pressure off her, she makes sure Vince has time to orgasm alone every day. “Ideally I’d have an increased libido. It used to plague me, and it’s still a nuisance, but it doesn’t feel like the end of the world,” she says.

She’ll periodically share her panic, but he never brings up a lack of sex: “He’d be too afraid of hurting my feelings or pressuring me. I want to say he’s fine with it, but I can’t say with certainty.”

13. "A method of revenge."
Working “grueling long hours” and weekend shifts at a restaurant job wore out David, then 33, but Liza, 29, worked nine-to-five and had plenty of energy. She’d try to initiate sex, especially during the weekends. David says, “I tried to force myself, but it didn’t work. She could tell my heart wasn’t in it.” Still, he insists that his work schedule was the only factor behind the drought, not some broader problem “with what he was taught about relationships.”

“It was a very difficult subject to bring up,” David says. Even though they did their best to discuss their waning sex life, “nothing changed,” so they “quit trying to talk about it.” He says,

“It definitely affected the way I related to Liza. If I wanted sex and she didn’t, I’d accuse her of [withholding] as a method of revenge.” 

14. "For the sake of the marriage."
“I wish I could feel lust. It would solve so many problems,” Beth, 44, says, “It’s a dynamic relationship issue between two people, but fault is always placed on the person with less interest.” Beth, 44, and Rich, 48, are constantly “trying to manage the discrepancy” between their libidos.

When their first child was born, Beth “became completely consumed with the baby, nursing constantly,” and “Rich’s status dropped on [her] list of priorities.” Once she wanted to sleep pressed against him, but now, “with the baby all over [her] all the time,” she “wanted some physical space” in bed.

After talking with other mothers, Beth sees hers “as a universal experience,” but her husband is “convinced everyone else is getting some.” Beth says, “He feels like I don’t love him enough, although he might not perceive it in those terms ... We’ve tried everything, but I can’t just conjure up desire.” Sometimes when he says or does something that annoys her she’ll think, “There goes your chance for tonight.” Once they’re having sex, she does enjoy it. “I do what I have to do for the sake of the marriage,” she says. 

15. "Am I boring?"
“I’m having the sex I want to be having,” Lucas, 29, says, “but lately it’s become clear that the honeymoon is over. We’re poor and living in a cramped, swampy apartment. If it’s been a few days I worry we’re not connecting enough … I wonder, Am I boring? … I’m constantly vigilant about not losing each other to television, work, porn. I want to create time together that’s active, not passive.”

When he was in graduate school, they lived in a shared apartment with little privacy. “Greta needed more than I was able to give her — I’d be tired. A couple of times she asked if I found her attractive, because I wasn’t showing interest,” Lucas explains.

They agreed early on “that sex is a responsibility we have to each other,” Lucas says. “The familiar does become mundane,” he adds, but it’s important “not to hold all sex up to some standard of transcendence. After five minutes I’m always into it.”