Is Bad Sex A Good Reason to Divorce?

My friend Bethany kept falling in lust with men at her office.

This would’ve been fine, except that she was in a seventeen-year marriage with two teenaged daughters.

She was never physically unfaithful to her husband, Doug, but the cost in integrity was devastating.

Finally the inevitable happened. She fell in love with one of her co-workers.

Again, there was no physical infidelity, but hearts were involved.

She decided she’d rather end her marriage than have an affair. This is one of the things I love about Bethany, no equivocation, but in this instance I thought she was being rash.

Couldn’t she tell Doug what was happening? That the survival of their marriage was at DefCon 5? I was shocked to discover she’d been honest with Doug and he’d remained passive.

When Bethany divorced Doug, you’d have thought she was divorcing me.

We’ve known each other since our Study of Women and Men In Society class in Bovard Auditorium at USC circa 1986, and bonded over our shared experience of being children of divorce.

How could she consider leaving a marriage to, as she fully admitted, a funny, kind, committed man? 

“Doug and I don’t have sex,” she said.

“What does that mean, you and Doug don’t have sex? You mean, like, you have it once a month or so?”

“I mean, like, we haven’t had sex in two years.”

“Holy shit! I had no idea!”

“It’s not really something people advertise. And the last time we did it we had to get drunk and watch porn.”

“But why?” I asked, “Why don’t you have sex?”

“Because I’ve become his mother. We have an Oedipal relationship. Just minus the sex.”

Bethany explained that over the years she’d taken up more and more real estate in the marriage, or Doug simply did less and less, so she had to take over.

She managed their family schedule. She had the bigger job. She planned all their vacations, made all major decisions about their finances and their children.

“Is this because you’re controlling and bossy?” I asked.

She is controlling and bossy. And I can say that because so am I.

“Maybe,” she said. “But, I don’t always want to be the boss. Sometimes I really want him to take over.”

There certainly was one place where Doug was the boss and that was in the bedroom. He could control Bethany by withholding. My assessment, not hers.

When you’re a married person, other people’s divorces – from marriages that seemed solid and strong – can be threatening. If it happened to them it could happen to you.

I have a propensity to be the boss in my home and Bethany’s story was a wake-up call that always getting my way in my marriage could end up being a pyrrhic victory.

Fortunately, my husband, Henry, is willing to tell me when I need to “crawl out of his ass.”

Over time, I came to understand that in divorcing Doug, Bethany did something incredibly brave.

She took all the hits for breaking up her family; from her parents, her siblings, her children and her friends, myself included, in order to seek a fuller, more integrated life.

In the midst of the divorce, when Bethany had lost twenty pounds and couldn’t sleep and doubted herself, she clung to one simple truth, “I can’t live the rest of my life without passion.”

A passionless life. Not just sexless, but passionless.

We all need to have a passion. Whether it’s passion for our partner or spouse, our work, our children, our hobbies.

The lack of sex in Bethany’s marriage had eroded the passion of her spirit. She was living a rote, predictable, stagnant life.

It took time for me to see her situation objectively — divorce is always a personal trigger for me — and to realize I didn’t have the moral right to sentence her to a passionless life.

That was two years ago.

I look at Bethany’s life today. It’s not perfect. The man she fell in love with is no longer in her life and she’s not in a hurry to meet someone new.

She wants to better understand herself and not bring her daughters into a situation that won’t last.

She and Doug are incredibly amiable and excellent parents to their now almost grown daughters.

Funnily enough, Bethany’s life is sexless again, but this time it’s by choice. Which leaves room for passion and possibility.

Is bad sex a good reason to divorce?

49 thoughts on “Is Bad Sex A Good Reason to Divorce?”

    1. I know. The thing that really struck me about my friend’s story was the part about infantilizing her husband. I’ve really go to watch that myself. Fortunately Henry pushes back.

  1. Passion is the key word here. It’s impossible to sustain the passionate beginnings of a relationship, but having passion for each other goes so far beyond the bedroom – and having a passion for keeping a relationship going can be hugely important, too. I agree that two years is a long time to go without sex – but it’s much worse to go two years without passion…for something. I have friends who virtually never have sex – and they manage to be happy together because they have other things that they feel passionate about as a couple. I hope your friend finds what she wants!

    1. Hi Sharon — I agree about the difficulty in sustaining sexual passion in any long term relationship. Sex, for me, is completely mental and sex in marriage is important to me, so we try to shake things up from time to time (no wife swapping however) to find that original passion. What I love most about Henry (besides his generous heart), is his burning intellect. His sheer smarts are such a turn on, and his desire to continue to learn and stay engaged with the world. I have to try to play up to his game.

  2. It’s hard being married, a full time job that sometimes may not seem worth it. If you aren’t in love with your partner or don’t enjoy him in some way, I could see how you’d have to get out. Was your friend ever into her husband? Do you think she married too young?

  3. There is so much to comment upon here. I’ve seen a lot of friends’ marriages break up over the last couple of years for different reasons, and yes — it always makes me feel really clingy and insecure and I have to check with my husband to ask if we’re still OK (even though I think I know the answer, but maybe having those little checkups isn’t such a bad thing?) Good for Bethany.

    1. Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint (boy does THAT sound unsexy) and I think those check-ins are so vital. We’re like continents that can drift apart if we’re not diligent.

  4. No sex in the marriage? Absolutely – MOVE ON Girl! No one who needs passion should have to live without it. I have friends who seem content with no sex in their lives – and I can’t fathom it. Maybe when I am ninety I’ll get it, but for now I need me some sugar on a regular basis. It connects us and grounds us and releases tension. What could be better? If he is not giving you something-something then there are other issues at hand. Men’s penises respond directly to their mental state and self esteem. My motto “Happy wife, happy life. Happy chubby, happy hubby”

    1. completely agree. Both spouses need to make sure they are putting in the effort. If they aren’t, then it probably can’t be saved.

  5. It’s impossible to judge another woman’s choices. But, on the surface, it seems that if she was looking for passion, maybe she could have found a hobby. If she was into her husband before, she could be into him again but they’d both have to make the marriage the priority. I don’t know what the answer is, but as I’m on the verge of divorce myself (my spouse hit the road to follow his “passion”), I can only impart that this is a tough path and definitely hasn’t improved my sex life! Truly, I wonder if married couples in general have lost the will to prioritize the commitment we’ve made because it’s hard work. Again, I can’t judge, I was unhappy in my marriage but I do wish we had found a solution and managed to reconnect before it all fell apart.

    1. I know Bethany asked Doug several times if he’d be willing to go to counseling with her and he refused. And of course there are two sides to that story and I only know one of them. One thing my husband Henry said that really resonates for me is that “a marriage is only as strong as the partner who wants it the least.” I think for any marriage to have a shot both partners have to be fully invested. I’ve had relationships where I was the only one who was invested and try as I might I wasn’t strong enough to hold things together. I guess the bottom line is that life is messy.

  6. Oh my god, yes!!
    If it were up to him, we wouldn’t have sex ever. I usually have to barter for it. The longest we’d gone was 16 months – yes, I had given birth to twins in that time span, but again, it wasn’t because of MY lack of drive. It’s something that I struggle with all the time. I applaud Bethany for taking that leap. I’m not there yet, but I also know that I haven’t even reached my “peak” — the next 5 years will be the true test to see what I can live with, or rather live without. Ahem.

    1. Hello lady estrogen — It’s amazing how many women I know whose husbands chose to stop sleeping with them. I think this is more prevalent than we think.

  7. “But, I don’t always want to be the boss, sometimes I really want him to take over”.

    Ha ha! When? When the boss says so?

    Some partners want to be in a team, not a competition, and never get the hang of fighting against their team mate. Some bossy partners find being bossy so fulfilling that they boss their significant others into weakness & infantilism. Strength is a huge turn-on; bossiness is the complete opposite.

    How’s the husband doing now?

    1. Hi Marvin — I hear you. Being of the bossy genus myself I know it’s not all its cracked up to be. Doug seems fine, actually. Has a new girlfriend, so perhaps he’s no longer sexless.

  8. Wow. Now that’s an interesting read. I am torn about this one. And I, like you, have a trigger for divorces as well. Maybe it’s becasue my own parents divorced even thought I truly believe that was for the better.

    One of my triggers though is when people try to chaulk up divorce to “they married too young or they just grew apart.” Im gonna call BS on that. I got married at 22 and took a lot of flack from complete strangers that we married too young. I have to agree with what your husband said Shannon, “a marriage is only as strong as the partner who wants it the least.” The truth is marriage is work, like kids. You have to grow together or you will grow apart. It’s a daily choice of dying to your own selfishness and putting another person, whom you may not even like at that specific moment, ahead of yourself. Is that always fun and easy, HECK NO! But that was the one thing my hubby and I agreed on before we got married. We would always choose to grow together, no matter what that may look like. ANd frankly sometimes it looks like a bunch of therapy and some very scary knocking down of walls you have had up since childhood. But if your spouse checks out on you then you can only be responsible for your reactions to it.

    1. First of all, congratulations on your marriage. I recently wrote a post about my brother and sister-in-law’s successful marriage. They were 20 and 22 when they married and had never been with anyone else. They’ve been married now for 17 years and have three great kids. I’m really proud of my brother because he picked such a great woman. Now my sister-in-law on the other hand …

  9. It’s a tough situation. I wouldn’t say bad sex is a good enough reason, but usually bad sex is symptomatic of a larger problem. I think your Henry is right about the strength of a marriage. Everybody deserves love and happiness, and we’re each responsible for finding our own.

  10. From my experience, which is almost identical to Bethany’s, bad sex is a symptom, not the heart of the problem. When one person is weighed down with all the responsibilities in a marriage, there isn’t time for passion or sharing. I went to therapy alone, since my husband didn’t have time to join me, and made the decision to divorce alone, and after almost 3 years without a DATE (much less sex), I was finally purged and ready to have a healthy relationship again.
    In that time of self-imposed celibacy, however, I found that friendships took on a new level of intimacy, and there was great passion to be found in laughter and adventure.
    Boy, am I ever glad to have really good sex again, though. It has reaffirmed that it wasn’t just something wrong with me.

  11. I can tell you, no passion is a waste. No sex, that too. Unfortunately, leaving her husband didn’t improve her sex life and she may be looking a long time for Mr. Right unless it really doesn’t matter and over time that can become a problem. Sometimes people end up with someone because the time comes when no sex, no companionship, no relationship becomes unbearable and a person ends up with someone that quite possibly they should have left on the curb. Not that I have a right to judge. Just saying…I have a friend..that time came…Now she’s in a relationship with a man where his other woman is the bottle. They are in therapy but it hasn’t improved the drinking and he refuses to go to AA and there is no sex in the relationship and guess what, when he wants sex he is usually too drunk to perform and when she wants it he’s passed out….
    Although, except for alot of fighting, they seem to be okay otherwise. But sometimes the decisions you make do not make ur life better. I have to say too that sometimes being alone is better than being with someone. Although not too many singles agree with the mentality, they think they will find Mr. Ms. Perfect.
    Sorry for being longwinded…

  12. I have just stumbled across your blog. I have actually never commented on a blog ever! This post struck me huge! I am divorced for the same reasons of your long time friend. I too am bossy, was in charge of mostly everything, but didn’t necessarily always want to be. I was married to a passive man as well. We lost the passion about 5 years prior to the day I left. He chose to longer sleep with me because he didn’t want anymore children. A drunken weekend on an anniversary trip got me pregnant for the second time and shortly after her delivery he got snipped. You would think after the guarantee of no more pregnancies would bring back the passion but no. As much as I tried to spice up the lingerie, plan more trips away, make time for us it just didn’t work. I am strong and assertive, he is passive and calm. He did however manage to control something he thought he had a handle on in the marriage and that was money. He told my mother once that I would never leave him because I would always need him. We had nothing joint and he made quite a bit of money. I would say all around there was nothing healthy in my marriage. Apparently he forgot about my driven personality. I left. I am divorced with two beautiful little girls. I have however unlike your friend met a very passionate, strong, assertive man. He keeps me on my toes. Just what I needed. Good luck to her. We all wish to find a truly lifelong marriage and I don’t believe any of us get married thinking things will go south. It takes 2 to keep it going and I don’t think her ex or mine really put forth the effort and compromise even love it takes.

    1. Hi Kristen — thanks so much for commenting. Your story is very encouraging and I’ll pass it along to my friend. What I love about blogging is how much I learn as I go. There’s no right way to live. Life is messy. And we’re all truly doing the best we can on this journey, with no freakin’ map.

  13. I was in a bit of a different situation. I was in a 3 year relationship with 2 of those years virtually sexless and both of us in our mid 30’s! I felt like I was living the life of a great-grandma! It was horrible for me emotionally because I always felt undesirable and unworthy. Add to this my ex is an practicing binge drinker in serious state of denial and in constant need of caretaking and that made matters worse. My self esteem and self-worth dwindled to practically nothing and I began to be extremely co-dependant. So, I waited for him to do what he does best. He got another DUI and I waited for him to be sentenced. I tried sticking with it but at the same time without him constantly around I started being able to enjoy the small things in life like – buying myself a coffee and not worrying about the money I spend, putting on makeup again, fixing my hair.. or you know, showering after work without fear of being accused of cheating and not having to explian that I wanted to shower because it relaxed me not because I was having an affair. Ugh! Bad memories. But anyways, like I said – mine was a whole other world of dynamics but feeling like I was living in a passionless life, unloved and undesirable was the worst part of it. And even though sometimes I catch myself looking back and “missing” him, I take a look at myself in the mirror, wink at myself and take my sexy back. hehe..

    1. I am about 80% in the same boat…your post really brought a smile …when just yesterday I went to starbucks and bought myself a coffee and ididnt feel guilty…then to re affirm that my husband and me are just not right with each other, He calls me to tell me that the last week hes been in storm work that keeps him away . hes been talking to this house owner in her 40″ that invited him for drinks to thank him and he was going to do it this Friday on valentines…when he knows I had things planned… I have only been married 1 1/2 yrs. but our life together has been 80 % bad memories and 20 me being his mommy/ teacher/ psychologist:(.
      i admire your strength

  14. Wow. I have been struggling with this very same issue for going on 2 years now! It is so validating to hear I’m not alone! I have been so torn between leaving for my own sanity and staying together to keep my family in tact. I wonder how I will explain to my kids the importance of passion… That it was more important to me than keeping us together. Ugh.
    Thank you for writing this, and also to all those who commented. A decision looms…

  15. Hi. Glad I found this article. I totally understand where your friend is coming from. For the last 4 years my husband and I have been on a sexual roller coaster. At best, maybe a month or a few weeks of decent sex than 6, 8, or more months of nada. It wasn’t until I put the ultimatum of divorce on him that he’s actually tried. Now we play the blame game of “You shut me out. No, you shut me out.” I can’t live without intimacy. And he thinks intimacy is just about sex. The lack is killing our marriage. I can’t live without it anymore. So, good for your friend. It’s a hard thing to do, especially since everyone will judge you. But it does take 2 in the marriage. And only those 2 really know what goes on in the marriage.

  16. So much of this hits a nerve with me. I have been married to my husband for 24 years. In the early days it was a very passionate and exciting relationship. He was present at the birth of all our children and I think that experience completely killed our marriage. Between each child, we have 3, we didn’t have sex for about a year. Then making love was literally just to conceive. I think he found the responsibility of fatherhood overwhelming and he changed from being a caring and considerate partner into a very grumpy boring man. Sex became a thing for birthdays so twice a year on average and for the past 6 years not at all. Now our kids have left home there is nothing to keep me here. Like your friend I am a passionate woman and I need the intimacy that a sexual relationship provides. I believe that sexless marriages are much more prevalent than we realise. And I don’t think they make for happy people – whatever is said. I asked for counseling and my husband agreed he would arrange it. I am a very bossy woman but I work in our business and have no personal income so he needed to arrange this. Nothing happened for several months then one day I was rooting around in his office and I picked up his list of jobs. There, at the bottom of the second page, was “find counsellor”. That was the point I knew it was over. Now I have a lot of disentangling to do. To get out of the business, which means selling our home. But I will do it as I would rather live a celibate life of my own choosing than one which has been forced upon me.

  17. How did Bethany do something brave? Divorcing is the coward’s way out, not the brave person’s. Did she try to get marital counselling? Did she try to find a passion elsewhere in her life? Did she try to communicate to him that she wanted him to play a more pre-dominant role in the marriage? Did she try and come up with solutions to the no-sex problems?

    1. Actually she did ask her husband several times if he would go to counseling with her and he refused. I was initially very judgmental about Bethany’s decision, but with time I’ve come to understand it.

    2. Bethany did do something brave. A marriage cannot survive if one person is doing all the emotional work. My husband finds it immensely difficult to even experience feelings, much less share his feelings. He is a classic avoider of anything in the least bit touchy, difficult or emotionally-laden. How can you resolve issues with someone like this who is unwilling to do the work? We haven’t had sex in 3 years despite the fact that I have gone into therapy, read books, researched the internet and tried to talk about it with him until i am blue i the face. I’m exhausted and planning my exit.

      1. Hi Jane — you again! I do think Bethany was brave (and I didn’t agree with her decision in the beginning), but she tried everything she could with her spouse to remedy the issue and he wasn’t willing to change. Sometimes INACTION is more damaging than action.

      2. Jane, I really feel for you. I’m in exactly the same boat — my husband cannot talk about feelings at all, or anything to do with feelings. We actually went through about six months of couples therapy two years ago, and when the therapist would ask G to make an “I statement” about his emotions, he literally could not do it — he’d do everything he could to twist the topic away from anything with emotional content. It was incredibly frustrating for me, but also eye-opening. It’s a little weird, because when we first met, he started telling me he loved me much too soon in our relationship, which made him seem emotional and open then. Now I see it as a sign of an unhealthy relationship, pretty much from the get-go.

        Due to this lack of emotional connection, and what seems to me to be the unlikelihood of ever having a real emotional connection, we haven’t had sex in the time since we stopped getting counseling — because I don’t want it with him. I also have some of Shannon’s friend Bethany’s problem: Since my husband has not had any real employment/income in 11 years and I am the sole breadwinner, he also feels like my child rather than a partner — another reason sex with him seems highly unappealing.

        I stumbled across this blog entry while looking for “good reasons for divorce,” since my own passion-free marriage has got me thinking along those lines. Thanks for a great post, and for the food for thought in all these comments.

        1. Thanks for joining in the conversation. This is painful stuff. I wish you healing and happiness with whatever you decide to do with your marriage. xo S

  18. Hi, in the discussion, you sometimes make a distinction between passion and sex, and sometimes not. Is there one? How do you know if you’re still passionate?

    1. Thomas – interesting. Certainly there can be sex without passion so there is definitely a distinction. For me, in my marriage, passion ebbs and flows, but sex remains eternal.

  19. Hi. I have never responded to an article/blog before but just had to share my story! I welcome any comments. I got married at the age of 50- my first marriage, my husband’s third. After more unsuccessful relationships than I can count, I thought I’d finally found the right person for me- my husband is brilliant, kind, generous, easy-going, passive, quiet…too quiet. We were together 3 years before we got married so it wasn’t like I didn’t know him. We were close, counted on each other, traveled, had fun and had regular sex. 6 months after we were married, things changed. I got cancer (reproductive) and subsequently due to treatments and healing, was not able to have sex for 5 months. Husband was understanding and supportive. Sex never returned. It’s been 3 years since we’ve had sex…despite my talking about it, asking about it, trying to initiate it, and going to therapy. He says he’s so stressed out b/c of work but we have a vacation home we go to on weekends to relax… and still no sex. (We’ve owned this home since 8/2011 and have never had sex there) Now I’m thinking of leaving and your article & comments about passion just hits the thought home for me. I cannot stay with a man who can’t or won’t work on this issue with me.

    1. Hi Jane — it sounds like you know what you both want and don’t want to do. It sounds like you really feel safe with this man and probably love him very much, but it also sounds like no-sex is a deal-breaker for you as it was with my friend. Some women (and men) could probably do fine in a sexless marriage, depending on libido and other variables, but it sounds like this just won’t work for you. While it was incredibly painful for my friend to leave a safe marriage with a real friendship, and while her life isn’t perfect now, she has no regrets. I only hope the best for you.

  20. Wow, this is one of the more real, thoughtful discussions I’ve seen online about sex and long-term marriage problems! Thank you. It resonates with me, and I think it would with several friends going through similar issues. I just turned 50, and my only child just finished his 1st year of high school. It’s like I looked up and said, “Is THIS how I want to live the rest of my life?” Time now goes so quickly! I’ve been married for almost 20 years to a kind, generous man, who’s a good father. We’ve been through some major ups and downs, and I emotionally checked out of the marriage about a year ago. Needless to say, the sex has gone, too. I haven’t been attracted to him in a couple of years, even if I did go thru the motions occasionally. He’s a good man but I struggle over whether we’re now just too different…the simplest conversations feel like work, and even though we no longer fight, it’s like we don’t see many situations the same way at all. We don’t feel passionate about anything as a couple, though he’s trying. Even his dry sense of humor, which WAS pleasantly amusing, just leaves me cold now. I’ve stayed because I try to figure out what to do, and unfortunately, I am financially dependent on him, and frankly, there are a lot of good things about the life we’ve built. We have talked about counseling and yes, I should take ALL the steps I can to see if it can work again, but it’s extremely daunting. So Yes, I agree…both partners need to be invested, grow together or grow apart, and YESYESYES, I am a youngish, in shape, energetic 50 and want to enjoy sex again! As stated, lack of sex is a symptom of other problems…I’ve been good friends for over a year with another male where I DO feel wildly attracted. It’s easy, it’s fun…and nothing physical has happened. Where do I start with this mess??

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