Can Happily Married People Be 'Just Friends'?

couple sleepingCan you have a happy marriage if you've stopped having intercourse -- if you're not having any more physical intimacy? How important is that for a couple to maintain their connection over the years? Does a "dead bedroom" ultimately mean a dead relationship?


We asked some sex and relationship experts for their opinions on how important physical intimacy is for a couple's happiness.

It's going to affect your marriage.

Dr. Dawn Michael, clinical sexologist and author of Intimacy Guidebook for Couples says this is a fairly common problem couples in long-term relationships deal with. Of course, she reminds us, sex doesn't always have to mean intercourse. There are many other ways to bring pleasure to each other. That said, Michael says going without sexual intimacy of any sort can affect your marriage.

It is rare to see two people who mutually do not want to have sex in a marriage and be happy with it unless they have a an open agreement where the other person is getting it elsewhere, and that can be tricky. I feel that when two people commit themselves to each other, it is both of their responsibilities to work on the intimacy, and if sex is difficult or you're not in the mood, then find a solution, try new things with each other, get help.

It can be worked out -- but it takes work and communication.

On the other hand, clinical sexologist Dr. Laurie Bennett-Cook says she's seen it work. "The key being that all amazing thing," she adds. "Communication!" That, and a lot of compromise. Most of the time, when the least-sexually-interested partner is the one dictating the terms of the couple's sex life, that creates obstacles and can lead to infidelity, Bennett-Cook says. However, sometimes another arrangement can work.

Some couples have found that opening up the relationship and allowing each other to explore and experience sexual situations outside the relationship actually helps to ease the tension between them. This, of course, takes a great deal of maturity between partners.

It's important not to ignore the fact that we're sexual beings, Bennett-Cook says, but that we all express that different ways. "Just as our preferences in ice cream flavors differ, so does our sexual expression." She paraphrases sex education pioneer Alfred Kinsey, saying, "Those who want less sex than me are prude and those who want more are perverted. We tend to judge based on our own perception," she says. "Sexual desires and styles can be worked out just like anything else. But being worked out includes that word ... Work!"

More from The Stir: 7 Sure Signs You're Headed for a Sexless Relationship

Sexless? Maybe. Loveless? Definitely not.

Winifred M. Reilly, marriage therapist and author of the relationship advice blog Speaking of Marriage also thinks a sexless marriage can be happy, under the right circumstances. "Yes, people can be happy in sexless marriages when they are consensually choosing not to have sex," she says. However, that relationship must still have love and affection.

"'Loveless' is a formula for loneliness and hostility or indifference, or both," Reilly says. "Most people in loveless marriages are deeply miserable." She believes it's important for a couple to confront the reasons why their marriage is sexless.

In a loveless marriage, Reilly says, "the lack of sex is a symptom of unresolved stuff between them that many couples want to resolve but lack the tools to do so." In some couples, sex is withheld as a means of punishment, or to leverage some kind of change. And while that's  common, it's definitely not recommended.

Sex isn't essential. Friendship is essential.

Emily Nagoski, author of Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Change Your Sex Life, says she has seen successful sexless marriages, but under certain special circumstances. "Most often it's because there are health issues that seriously impair one partner's sexual functioning, and so the other partner makes lots and lots of space for that to be true, valuing the relationship itself over sex," she says. "I've also seen it work in couples where both identify as asexual or 'low interest' in sex." For her the bottom line is: "Sex isn't essential; Friendship is essential."

It communicates our love and desire for each other.

Dr. Kat Van Kirk, licensed marriage and sex therapist and resident sex expert at, says she does occasionally see clients with more "companionate" relationships. She thinks it works if both of you are on the same page about not having sex. "In these cases, there is simply less of a priority on sex and more on shared activities and non-sexual affection."

In fact, Dr. Kat says, almost everyone in long-term relationships will experience periods of sexlessness due to anything from hormonal changes or illness or stress. But most of us will be sure to resume that bedroom intimacy as soon as possible because we recognize the role sex plays in our relationships.

"Generally, I do feel that sex is an essential component for most long term relationships," Dr. Kat says. "It serves the purpose of not only helping you feel more intimate with your partner but can be a stress reliever, sleep enhancer and can improve your overall mood. There are even health benefits like improved immune and cardiovascular functioning. Perhaps most of all it helps communicate our desire and love for our partner."

It's the way we express love for each other.

Family counselor and author of Success Love NOW Dr. Laurie Moore says there are occasionally couples who can make a sexless marriage work. "In some cases, for whatever reasons, their emotional needs are so important that not having sex is worth it." But that's extremely rare, she emphasizes.

Most couples need sexual intimacy. "It's our life force," Moore says. "It's the way we express love to a mate. It's our vitality." So when you're not having sex, there's definitely something missing. What she's found in most sexless couples is that there are communication issues and/or emotional issues they need to take responsibility for and work out.

"You have to look at what you need for yourself," Moore says, "and most people want to be able to make love." She compares sex to eating. "Of course you won't die if you don't have sex," she says. But it's almost as important.

What do you think? Have you ever known a couple with a sexless marriage in which both people were truly happy?


Image via bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

Read More >