Indian women in sexless marriages are breaking their silence
“How am I a ‘loose character’ for wanting good sex with my husband?”
Her married friends’ sex lives sizzled, then why, Ashima G wondered, was hers fizzling? When she thought of sexless marriages, she imagined elderly couples who find it physically tough to have intercourse. Not healthy 40-something-year-olds like her husband and her.
“I started doubting myself. Maybe my postpartum body wasn’t desirable anymore. Maybe I spend too much time focused on our child. How important is sex in a marriage anyway?”
Ashima, now 56, looks back at the first four years of her 16-year marriage with the most fondness. Their sex life was great then. Excited newlyweds, they’d have regular date nights, take road trips, go out with their friends and get intimate 3-4 times a week. “That passion just faded away and I haven’t been able to figure out why,” she says.
It’s been four months since the last time she had any kind of intimacy with her partner. This switch in their relationship is familiar to Priyanka S, 61, and Malvika, 50* too.
“I thought it’s normal. The longer you’re married the less intimate you are. Three years ago, when my friend was complaining about not having had sex at all that month, I started thinking about my own marriage,” says Namrita, 48*. It had been over a year since she’s done the deed with her husband.
If we’re to believe the traditional narrative, then men, driven by animal instinct and high libidos, are always ready for sex. It’s the women who feign headaches, use sex as a bargaining chip to get their way or just aren’t interested. But that’s simply not the case, says therapist Shrishti Vaid-Kochchar. Most of the women we spoke to share the same desire for sex and intimacy with their partners.
“In our traditional culture, women were taught that sex was purely for procreation. So when they have these desires, they hold back, and feel it’s wrong. Men are supposed to be the initiators and women the objects of satisfaction, rarely the other way around. Women saying they want sex can be very shocking for some people,” adds Vaid-Kochchar.
Holistic wellness coach Luke Coutinho concurs. “Women have a sexual energy, and if suppressed, it can break out into anger, frustration and different conditions and diseases. Like a pressure cooker, if you don’t release it, it’s going to explode,” he explains, adding that his team often advises their clients to masturbate as a form of release.
“Women who are not in sexually fulfilling relationships, no matter what they say on the outside, they put themselves down — ‘I’m not attractive, they don’t like my body’, and the mind starts telling stories.”
But where to start, how to have these conversations and what to do with unresponsive, even aggressive responses from your partner?
What constitutes sexless marriages?
Intimacy varies from couple to couple. For some, having sex 2-3 a week is the norm, while for others 6 times a month is regular. “One person will complain that they have sex only three times a week. Someone else may hear that and say, oh, I wish I had sex that often and not just once a week, which for them is normal. Comparisons aren’t healthy and realistic. If both people in the relationship are happy, then that’s all that matters,” says Vaid- Kochchar.
What’s worth noting is if you can’t remember the last time you had sex, or if you’re initiating sex and constantly getting rejected. The issue comes with dissatisfaction, and that’s more difficult for women to voice.
Because sexual intimacy can take on so many forms and not just penetration, Vaid-Kochchar suggests you think about whether your needs are being met.
Why do married couples lose intimacy?
There are people for whom there’s not a lot of sex in the marriage, to begin with. For others, it’s easier to identify moments after which sex slowed down. “For women, it’s usually after childbirth. People refer to this as being in ‘mother mode’ where the flush of hormones makes your child your prime focus. Everything else is secondary,” says Dr Rukhsana Hashim, OBGYN.
It is normal for the frequency of sex to decrease after marriage with the growing demands of life. Establishing careers and parenting takes up so time that intimacy becomes an afterthought. Some couples bounce back after things settle. Others let it go.
Health-related issues can also lead to sexless marriages. Work stress can build into mental health ailments like depression and burnout. Stress can lower your sex drive. In some cases, you simply just get bored with your spouse and sex becomes rare.
Sexual dysfunctions can be a result of age-related ailments and the medication to treat the same. These include some decongestants, antihistamines, antidepressants, and medicine for high blood pressure. Malvika’s husband started experiencing erectile dysfunction seven years ago. She’s feels it’s a combination of medications and stress. “It was incredibly frustrating at first. He was embarrassed by it. I would still initiate sex but he would always say no and get angry.”
Every time she tried to talk to him about it, it would turn into a fight. She just stopped trying.
The silence of women in sexless marriages
“Nobody talks about the difficulties of sexless marriages. It’s like a slow poison that eats you up with growing frustration. We don’t talk about a woman’s desires. Because if she has sexual needs, then society brands her a kulakshani. A wayward woman who’s brought dishonour to the family name” laments Namrita* who shared her personal account and kickstarted this conversation in Tweak’s family of readers.
When Malvika tried to talk to her husband about seeking medical help for his erectile dysfunction, the blame was turned onto her. “We’d have huge fights. He would call me all kinds of names, say that there’s something wrong with me because I’m so sex crazy.” They never resolved it.
Ashima tried to bring the spark back into her marriage. She got fit after her pregnancy, invested in sexy lingerie and even hosted an impromptu date night, filling their bedroom with flowers and mood lighting and dropping her son off at her moms’ place. Her husband’s reaction? He was too tired and wanted to get some rest. “I took that night as the ultimate defeat.
“I gave up on intimacy in my marriage and focussed on myself. I spent most of my time looking after my child, picked up new hobbies and stay engaged in other ways,” she adds. Ashima says she hasn’t brought sex up again and neither has he. “Maybe someday we will address it, for now, I have to be content till he can be more open minded about it and agree to therapy.”
Since women are taught to be evergreen people-pleasers, female pleasure is often elusive in sexual relationships. Kanupriya*, 33, had an arranged marriage at 20 and didn’t find satisfaction in her sex life. “Sex would be over in minutes and I would lie there wondering if this is all there was to it,” she says. Frustrated, she turned to self-pleasure for many years after discovering the many pleasures of masturbation in a magazine article.
An online medical portal conducted a pretty telling survey about sexual dissatisfaction in 2015 and found that 72% of women in the group were dissatisfied with their sex life. On the contrary, almost 98 % of married men proclaimed satisfaction.
Kanupriya tried to get her partner to experiment but that only raised moral questions of her character. As more problems arose, theirs became a sexless marriage full of strife. She filed for divorce, citing sexual incompatibility and suspected infidelity.
The higher courts of our country have ruled in two separate cases, one file by a man and another by the woman, that abstinence and withholding of sex “constitute mental cruelty and could be valid grounds for divorce.”
For Kanupriya it wasn’t just about the lack of sexual satisfaction but the finger-pointing and subsequent harassment and questioning that came from her expectations. “Instead of him accepting he was bad in bed, doing something to make it better and even possibly having an affair, it was turned around on me being a ‘loose character’. Loose character for wanting good sex with my husband?”
When just communicating doesn’t work
Communication is the first step to overcome sexless marriages but coming from women in this situation, it can backfire. It may not be easy talking to your spouse, who is likely carrying their own baggage. Psychologist Rekha Sadana suggests creating a script that you can follow. “You can write it down beforehand if that helps you. Don’t make this about blame and be careful with your language.”
Instead of using “you are” and pointing out blame which can put your partner on the defensive, make it an “I feel”, “I think” and “we should/can” conversation. She suggests something like “Our relationship is very important to me and I feel we can improve on our intimacy and should work on it.”
If talking about it doesn’t work, seek guidance from a professional to help you word it in a manner that your partner would be more open to.
Try indulging in other activities that can build intimacy — cooking a meal, taking a dance class together, a couples vacation or romantic ‘staycation’ at home sans the kids. Try scheduling a sex night where you both indulge in foreplay, maybe some roleplaying and build it up with sexting through the day.
“This is more likely to work if both partners are open to bringing sex back into their relationship. It can happen with just one conversation, other times it needs multiple talks with your spouse and even a professional mediator to understand what’s causing it,” says Sadana, including seeking treatment for medical causes that may lead to low libidos and unsatisfactory sex.
A marriage without sex doesn’t mean it’s without love
If you’re not having regular sex, or sex at all, does that mean your marriage is over and headed for divorce? Not necessarily. It comes down to you at the end of the day. Sex, love and intimacy don’t always go hand-in-hand in a relationship. Priyanka’s libido dropped drastically when perimenopause hit. She got all the usual symptoms – low sex drive, vaginal dryness, flushing and night sweats. “I felt miserable and very unsexy.”
Her sex life had taken a big hit beforehand following her husband’s hip surgery after a car accident. The few times they had sex, it was painful for her. She sought guidance from a gynaecologist and employed lubricants but in their physical condition, it wasn’t as enjoyable as it once was. But the couple finds intimacy in other ways – cuddling, holding hands, caresses and more, to show each other love and affection.
While they do have sex sometimes, Priyanka doesn’t feel the lack of it as a major hindrance. “We’ve built a beautiful life together and have three grown-up children. He is the love of my life and I am his. We may not have a lot of sex, but love and intimacy is still there. We keep the spark alive in other ways,” she says.
Sexless marriages aren’t always a dealbreaker, and that’s alright, too. Each couple’s reality is different. Sex for some people can be the main form of bonding, expressing love and desire. Some find the expression in other acts and it doesn’t gravely affect their relationship. What’s important is that you and your partner are on the same page — open and honest, about discussing what comes in your next chapter, together.
*Names changed upon contributor’s request for anonymity.
A note of caution: These are personal accounts shared by women about their experiences with inputs from experts and professionals. If you are in a similar situation, we advise you seek help from a trained medical professional for the best guidance.