04/17/2012 11:03 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2012

What's Going on With All the Sexless Marriages?

Why is it that love and sex are so often at odds? Or is the issue rather that losing interest in sex has something to do with marriage? Because if I hear one more married guy matter-of-factly justify sniffing out other women with, "I'm not attracted to my wife," or have one more woman scrunch up her face and say, "Ew, no," at the mere mention of sex with her husband, I don't know if I will be able to resist my urge to ask why not.

Sexless marriage is no longer a taboo topic, or one that lurks in the shadows as it once did. Articles, studies, books and forums are popping up everywhere, and we are learning that it is not an uncommon occurrence at all. But which comes first, the proverbial chicken or the egg? Is the marriage sexless because it lacks love or is the reverse true? Does the absence of one cause the disintegration of the other? Or have we simply misunderstood the relationship between sex and love by expecting them to go hand-in-hand? Surely, many married couples love one another who do not have sex, while others no doubt have sex in the absence of love. Cause and effect in either direction is difficult to establish. But, I think it is safe to say that marriage = love = sex is not a given. Not by any stretch. We only have to note reality to see how true a statement that is.

Often, the stress of marriage is blamed. That's probably the first clue. What stress? People long for relationships to enhance their lives, to love and be loved, to learn, to share and to grow. I mean, after all, it's love. It should feel good. So what's with the stress? Is it actually the reason or is it a symptom reflecting a deeper root cause? Because really, shouldn't sex and love reduce life's stresses rather than add to them? Maybe the problem is with the social construct of marriage itself. There are so many rules, so many ways you "have to be," so many pretenses attached, is it any wonder that the roles forced upon husband and wife cause one to lose his/her appeal after awhile? If you're acting out "happily ever after," unhappily, it's just not sexy.

I'm not saying all marriages are a bust. I think like many other things in life (if not all), it's probably an 80/20 breakdown. Twenty percent of the time marriage is for love, the kind of love that excites sexual interest and where the restrictions of marriage don't get in the way. My parents, an ex-boyfriend, my best friend and a coworker are in that 20 percent. The other 80 percent... Well, you know, it seems obvious. In fact, in my own unofficial count, of 13 couples I know, just three of them enjoy having sex with their spouses. That's almost 25 percent.

In broader terms, it is estimated that anywhere between 15 and 20 percent of marriages are sexless. That's after over 50 percent of them fail and end in divorce, which doesn't count the number of people who stay in their marriages miserable and imprisoned, lonely, and longing for real love and the opportunity to express that love through sexual intimacy.

To confuse things further, what I hear more often than not is, "Don't get me wrong. I love my wife..." -- or husband, as it were. "I'm just not into it," he or she says. So there is love, at least sometimes, yet they rationalize getting a different kind of love outside the marriage in the name of "The romance is gone." But, that's what I want to know. What happened to it? And what kind of love is so selfish that it involves that kind of deceit? Maybe we should marry our best friends and have sex with the people who turn us on, because it seems like that's what's happening.

Now, I get platonic love, and I understand sexual love too. I also know what having love in your heart feels like as well as how physical love inspires the desire to touch. Once, I even had a boyfriend describe a weekend together as "soulful." Did that mean his soul came alive? Or maybe he felt mine. Who knows? Then there is that "real connection" you hear people describe as spiritual love. No matter what kind of love it is though, breaking promises, going back on your word and lying about it can't possibly be one that counts.

The problem is that marriage forces love into a singular, finite, unforgiving, inflexible model that allows no room for any other kind. There is one expectation, imposing what you can feel and what you can't. Period. In some ways, it prevents us from being human.

So, I ask, do we need the institution of marriage to love and be loved? I don't think so. In fact, it may make it worse.

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