Can lack of sex lead to divorce?

Suzi Godson / 24 January 2017

For many married couples the New Year means starting anew – without each other! We look at how sex, or a lack of it, can be a contributing factor to divorce.



Divorce is a difficult decision, and arguably harder when there’s no parental role to divert attention away from marital problems. 

Since 1991, there has been a 73% increase in divorces among people aged 60 and over – on average, the marriages had lasted more than 27 years. The Office for National Statistics puts it down to increased life expectancy, decreased stigma about divorce and greater financial independence for women, but societal shifts rarely influence individual decisions.

Reasons for divorce

The most common divorce factors are still infidelity; emotional, physical or substance abuse; general incompatibility and growing apart, but it is much more difficult to evaluate the impact of a slow decline. In 2004, a US study into divorce in mid and later life found that one in four divorcees couldn’t identify any obvious problems – concluding they’d simply fallen out of love.

Falling out of love is a romantic euphemism. Although it is true that couples who like each other can exist happily in an affectionate but celibate relationship, divorcing couples are rarely having sex – at least, not with each other. Whether it is a cause or a symptom of their conflict is never straightforward, but there is no doubt that an absence of any physical intimacy is a marital red flag that should not be ignored.

Find out how to make a sexless marriage work

The role of sex in a failing marriage

Sometimes one or both partners is upset and they withdraw physical contact as a punishment, or as a way of communicating their distress. 

Needless to say, it’s an unhelpful way of expressing feelings; the rejected partner is then nursing a grievance of their own and the bridge back to togetherness becomes even more difficult to cross. 

Physical barriers to sex can distance couples too, especially if there is a reluctance to acknowledge or address them. Often men with erectile difficulties or women suffering from drynesss, discomfort or hormonal imbalances would rather avoid sex than face explaining what is wrong to a doctor.

The sad thing is that most of the issues that erode marital satisfaction and sexual confidence can be resolved with the right help, but most unhappy couples wait an average of six years before accessing any form of counselling. 

Often, accepting that things are not as good as they could be is half the battle. 

We all want to love and be loved, and when two people make a conscious decision to try to repair or improve their relationship, renewed commitment allows them to rediscover a sexual spark that may have been missing for decades. 

So, if your relationship is compromised by an absence of intimacy, don’t bury your head in the sand. Do something while you still can.

Find out how relationship counselling can turn your marriage around

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