What you need to know:
- What is the right amount of sex to have in a relationship? How long is too long without sex?
- And how can you get your groove back on after a sex drought?
Sex is an important part of marriage. It deepens the bond between partners and provides a pleasant feeling of emotional well-being, closeness and satisfaction. But what happens when there is no intimacy? Being in a sexless marriage can be frustrating. A union where there is no physical contact or desire for sexual intimacy can trigger a million negative emotions, especially if you have to see your partner every day.
Learning to survive in such a relationship is not easy. According to a 2016 survey by Georgia State University in the United States, 15 per cent of married couples had not had sex with their spouse in the previous six to 12 months. And in 2017, research by the Japan Family Planning Association found that nearly half of married couples had not had sex for more than a month, with no hope of this changing in the near future. Under Kenyan law, a marriage is considered to have broken down irretrievably if one spouse deliberately neglects or abandons their partner for at least two years.
While there is no clear definition, psychologists agree that sexlessness occurs when there has been no sexual intercourse between married couples in the past year or six months.
“It is always good to establish when the problem started and what contributed to it. There are many reasons that could contribute to this: Physical illness, medical conditions, low libido, or trauma in the past depending on the sexual violence encountered. Some people are not able to locate the source of the problem, but they have triggers that make them disinterested in sex. A professional therapist can help one trace the underlying issue,” says Dr Susan Gitau, a Nairobi-based counselling psychologist.
Despite the emotional pain that comes with a lack of intimacy in marriage, some victims choose to remain silent, hoping that their partners will change, but things often go from bad to worse. Four people who have endured a lack of sex in their marriages share their experiences.
The trauma of watching my wife give birth made me never want to have sex again.
James Otieno, in his early 40s, married for four years
When I met my wife in 2019, the sex was fantastic. We were a perfect match, completely compatible in personality and values. We had dated for three years and had a healthy relationship. We learned about marriage from our parents, our best couple and our pastor. Every day we envisioned a wonderful marriage that future generations would learn from. Things went wrong after I accompanied my wife to the delivery room in 2020. Since then I have lost interest in sex.
No one forced me into the delivery room, but watching the surgery was difficult. The sight of a surgeon's elbow deep inside my wife's abdomen isn't something I can easily forget. I was worried that both my wife and my unborn son would die during the complicated delivery. It was traumatising to see the body parts I had once regarded as tools for sexual pleasure suddenly become birth pits.
Since then, I don’t want any more children. Seeing my wife go through that was the worst thing ever. I recall every incident. It was like watching a car accident. You want to look away, but you can’t.
I treasure my wife and child so deeply and I promised myself to love them and be there for them always. Unfortunately, since that incident, I associate sex with pregnancy and the last thing I want is for my wife to fall pregnant again. She constantly complains that I no longer see her attractive since childbirth, but the truth is that I got traumatised and I no longer have any sex drive. I truly believe that our sex life would have been normal if I hadn’t accompanied my wife to the delivery room.
Five months ago, I shared my struggles with my wife, but she seemed not to understand. She became distant and shifted all her attention to the child. We constantly argue over the issue and recently I shared the issue with our best couple, who advised us to go for counselling. We are now in our second session and I am glad the therapist has helped us understand the issue at hand. It has not been easy, but I am committed to healing from trauma to save my marriage.
While childbirth can be miraculous, it can also be gory and traumatising. Men should be well prepared before accompanying their wives to the delivery room. It is not an easy process.
"To the world, we are a happy couple, but they are clueless that I am married to a gay preacher".
Janet Otieno (not her real name) has been married for four years.
We have a beautiful child, three years old. To the world, we are always busy in the bedroom, but the truth is that our marriage has been plagued by worries and arguments about sex. The thought of separation has often crossed my mind, but our love for our child and desire to have more has been too strong.
Also read: I feel trapped in this sexless marriage
I met my husband in 2018 at an event where he was preaching. My parents are very religious, so I had a very strict religious upbringing growing up, and I always wanted to be married to a pastor because I admired their commitment to ministry. When I met my husband, I thought he was everything I had ever hoped for in a man. He was caring and loving and showered me with affection, promises and gifts. Our courtship lasted for eight months. As our wedding day approached, my instincts told me that something was wrong because his house was always full of male visitors, often staying overnight. My male friends also warned me because most of my husband's conversations were comments about men's physiques.
For example, I once introduced my male colleague and he kept telling me how well-groomed and handsome my colleague was, and eventually insisted that I give him his number so that they could connect as friends. Weeks later, my husband wrote to him and started visiting him at weekends.
My colleague felt uncomfortable because he kept giving him gifts. When he told me he thought my husband was gay, I ignored him and thought he was jealous of our relationship. I kept telling him, "My partner loves people and is so generous and outgoing. When I discussed the issue with my husband, he cut off communication with my colleague and convinced me that my friend didn't have good intentions for our relationship.
We got married in 2019 and our wedding was glamorous. Our family and friends celebrated with us. As soon as we left for our honeymoon, my husband started to introduce me to something I'd never thought of practising. I remember him saying, "Have you ever tried anal sex? Let's be creative in the bedroom as a married couple. Otherwise, one may be tempted to do it elsewhere".
At that point I felt broken. I couldn't believe that the man I had trusted so much, despite ignoring the warnings of my instincts and my colleague, was not the person I had imagined.
For the sake of peace, I tried anal sex and after a month I felt it was too much as it contradicted my Christian beliefs. I struggled with guilt as we were role models for many, so I began to prepare for my escape. While I was planning, I began to experience vomiting, nausea and mood swings, and after a visit to the hospital, the doctor told me I was two months pregnant. This meant that I had conceived during our honeymoon. Although I was happy to be having my first child, I felt confused and wished the world would collapse and swallow me up.
The pregnancy was hard. I went through so much humiliation as he brought different men into the house. After I gave birth, he was openly reluctant to have sex and so far we have gone a year without it.
Sometimes my husband leaves our bedroom at night and goes to the spare room. As a pastor's wife, there is no way I can disclose the struggles I am going through because I know we will be judged harshly by the church we pastor and society at large. I really want this marriage to work and I have tried to talk to my husband. Early last month he became very defensive when I confronted him about bringing men into the house and sleeping in separate bedrooms, saying I needed to work on my insecurities.
After so much confrontation, he confessed that he was gay and asked me to accept him for who he was. After a deep talk with him, he revealed that he had struggled with being gay and that, as a pastor, he had to get married to hide his identity. I am still in pain because many people see us as a perfect couple and we are well respected in society, but I don't have the courage to share my story with people.
It hurts that I am in a sexless marriage because my husband is gay. I know I have lost my marriage and I am planning how to file for divorce and raise our child alone. It is a painful journey and I wish the Church could raise awareness about homosexuality because it is happening and its effects are so painful. I haven't told my husband yet, but I plan to as soon as I finish counselling so that I am emotionally stable to deal with it.
Sexual intimacy is the last thing I want to think about. I can go months without it.
Fatuma Njoki, mother of one, married for five years
Fatuma, 34, remembers being frustrated by her low libido when she was about 31, shortly after becoming a mother. At first she thought it was the normal drop in libido that many women experience after childbirth due to factors such as hormonal changes, dyspareunia (pain during sex) and stress. But Fatuma's sex drive never returned to what it once was.
"If I were single, I could go for seven months without any sexual activity. But I'm married and I'm angry and frustrated that I can't show my husband how much he means to me without sex being disappointing and painful. I have always communicated with my husband that my lack of sexual desire is not his fault, as I used to enjoy our intimacy. This has affected our relationship and my husband spends more time at home drinking alcohol.
"Although we express our desire and love for each other in other ways, such as travelling, it is no secret that sex is a vital ingredient that we hope to have regularly.
Lack of physical arousal makes sex very difficult and after so many attempts my husband suggested we see a doctor. When we visited a gynaecologist last month, we found out that I have ovarian cysts caused by endometriosis, which can make sex painful. I recently started the treatment plan and hopefully we will soon be able to enjoy our marriage.
"I want my body to want sex as much as my mind and heart."
For Caroline Njoki, 38, the noticeable decrease in her desire for sex came as a complete shock.
The mother of one had just celebrated four years of marriage and had previously been in a sexually fulfilling relationship.
"In February 2019, everything changed and there was a total mismatch between my sex drive and my desire to have sex. I love sex, but unfortunately my body was not ready. I was barely in the mood and couldn't reach orgasm like I used to. My daughter was three at the time and we were not ready to have another child. So I started taking the pill. I noticed that this was when my low libido started.
I tried watching porn, but I was hardly in the mood for sex. Low libido has made me more insecure in my marriage because I always think my husband might be having sex elsewhere. I keep asking for reassurance. Things became difficult and we only had sex once in eight months. At first, my husband thought he wasn't good enough for me and that was why I was never aroused.
He tried to address the issue and did everything he could to improve things in the bedroom. For example, he thought that the excitement of being somewhere new would make a difference to my sex drive, but nothing worked. Earlier this week we had a long talk with a gynaecologist about finding a permanent solution and we are hopeful that there will be a positive difference in our sex life.
Tips on how to cope when the passion is gone
According to Dr Susan Gitau, a counselling psychologist, being in a sexless marriage can be challenging and no one wants to admit that they’re in one. She says one should have the courage to talk about it with a trusted friend or therapist.
She offers the following tips to help couples fix intimacy challenges.
1. Accept your feelings: It is natural to feel dissatisfied by the relationship you once had. You may experience shock, pain, agitation, fear, and depression. Identify when the problem started and find ways to solve it.
2. Don’t blame: Do not blame your partner for the challenge. Work as a team and support each other in finding a solution.
3. Get a medical check-up and find treatment. You can also ask your doctor if it’s possible to switch your medication to something that doesn’t affect your sex drive or ability to have sex.
4. Handle the issue respectfully: Let your partner know that they can trust you. Find ways of coping with the situation such as using lubricants to reduce friction, discomfort, and irritation.
5. Seek counselling: An experienced therapist can help you deal with any past trauma and process any feelings of guilt, shame, and other emotions you might be experiencing.