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Back when my New I Do co-author and I were doing research for our book and interviewing engaged couples about why they wanted to wed (most were already living together), one groom-to-be mentioned sex among the many reasons.

“You want to marry for sex?” his fiancee asked, somewhat horrified.

He immediately got sheepish as he defended himself: “Well, they asked us to check off all the reasons, so, um, yeah …”

I’m with him; most of do expect sex with some sort of regularity to be among the many perks of tying the knot — or any monogamous romantic relationship for that matter. Unless you have an open relationship or an adulterous one, monogamy typically limits who can sleep with.

But is sex a marital requirement? Does sex really matter all that much?

It clearly does to those spouses who want it and don’t get it, or not enough of it, as so many have written to this blog and The New I Do blog. And marital expert after marital expert, and couples counselor after couples counselor will likely tell you the same thing. According to the National Marriage Project, sexual satisfaction is even more important than kind words and acts in a marriage. When I reported on its findings, I basically agreed: “This is a no-brainer, too.

But, what if sex doesn’t matter?

Intimacy is not the same as sex

For one couple, it actually doesn’t. Married for 25 years, the couple hasn’t had sex for 20 years — and they’re OK with it, or at least that’s what they told the Guardian.

According to the husband, “we’re very cuddly and close to each other and still as interested in each other and do as much together as we ever did.”

Well, OK — who doesn’t appreciate “cuddly” and “close”?

The wife, however, as content as she was with the arrangement, had moments of wondering if she was missing out on something, but not because she believed she was; she was just concerned about what others thought:

It’s quite odd feeling you’re not interested in something that the rest of the human race is mad about, which is why I joined an internet support group for celibate couples. I don’t have to justify our marriage to other people, but it’s almost like I have to justify it to myself. … All sorts of sexual proclivities are accepted now, but being celibate in a relationship is still taboo. It’s only mentioned if illness or some other negative stops it, never as an ordinary way to live. Everyone puts all the details of their sex lives all over the internet now, and I’d love it if a famous couple would say they’re celibate. I still wouldn’t tell the world, but maybe I could stop feeling that our sexless marriage is a shameful secret.” tweet

I feel for both of them. Having a sexual relationship within a romantic partnership may matter for many people — I’m one of them — which is why I am fully empathetic to those whose sexual desires and needs are not being fulfilled in their marriage.

At the same time, there are are couples for whom sex is not all that. They deserve the same feels. They should not have to feel that their marriage is a “shameful secret.”

The Guardian article mentions asexuals — typically “misunderstood as a disorder, when it’s a sexual orientation,” according to Julie Sale, a psychosexual psychotherapist and chair of ethics for the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists.

Asexuals, according to the Asexuality Network, don’t experience sexual attraction — it’s just who they are. But for people who identify as celibate, it’s a choice — and that matters.

But does that mean their marriage is “less than”?

All the perks, none of the sex

One of the marital models in The New I Do is a companionship marriage, a model I have sometimes struggled to define. It seems to be a catch-all for marriages that don’t fit the “traditional marriage” model: it’s not about having kids, especially for the childfree, or  having kids together, especially for those who have already had all the kids they want. Beyond the child issue, it may or may not be about having sex. It may be a way for people who are friends and seek companionship with shared interests, with sex or not, to be privy to the legal perks and protections of a marriage license.

Which is why marriage is an individual thing — there’s no “wrong” or “right” way to be married as long as the couples themselves are satisfied. And that includes people who are not romantic/sexual partners. Author Jeanette Winterson believes we should expand marriage to include “communities where those who do not wish to marry or form one-to-one unions could live in congenial company, pooling resources and moving beyond both marriage and the binary oppressions of gender.” And, I imagine, with or without the requirement that there be sex.

Sex matters to me; it may or may not matter to you. Regardless, shouldn’t everyone else be free to enjoy their relationships the way they want to?

Want to learn more about companionship marriage? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow on Twitter and like on Facebook.

2 Responses to “What’s sex got to do with it?”

  1. Jono says:

    People SHOULD be free to define their marriage any way they want. I am in a “companionship” marriage, but that is not what I want. Like you, I want sex to be part of marriage. The problem is both partners have to want the same thing. When they don’t it becomes a problem until it is the elephant in the room. We’ll see where counseling gets us.

    • Rob says:

      If you want lots of hot sex then get out of your marriage. I have probably had more great sex since becoming single 3 years ago (I’m widowed) than I did in the last 20 years of my marriage. Sex with the same person gets real old after a few years, or even months. Plus if you are married she controls when you have sex. If you are single and your partner has a headache or whatever it is a simple matter to go get it somewhere else.

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