Too Wupped for Whoopee?

A surprising percentage of couples in committed relationships have little or no time for sexual intimacy. It's not just fatigue that's putting the "ex" in sex. Researchers point to causes both physical and psychological.

The problem of committed partners having little or no sex is very real - and more pervasive than people may believe. According to a widely cited estimate from 1993, 16 percent of married Americans have not had sex in at least a month. An unknown additional percentage have sex only once or twice a month, which most experts say qualifies as low-sex.

Not having physical closeness is a real barometer that something is wrong in the relationship. People who don't have sex are unhappier, and they are more likely to leave the relationship.

Denise Donnelly, a Georgia State University sociologist reported in the Journal of Sex Research that certain demographic traits and other indicators are associated with sexually inactive marriages.

She analyzed sample responses from 6,029 married individuals from a study called the National Survey of Families and Households conducted by University of Wisconsin in 1993 and found the odds of infrequent sex rose the less time couples spent together, the fewer kids they had, the older they were and the less they argued about sex.

How often is often enough?

Good and frequent sex nourishes relationships. Sex energizes the marital bond.

Sex - intercourse and other forms of erotic touching - is an essential part of a healthy marriage. Some couples who have sex rarely or not at all can still have a satisfactory relationship, but they are a minority.

Experts say individuals' need for sex varies tremendously, and there are no normal or optimal frequencies for sexual activity. Donnelly said average couples have sex seven or eight times a month.

On the other hand, the landmark 1994 "Sex in America" study by the University of Chicago found that Americans have sex about once a week. But statistical norms may hold very different relevance for singles in a budding romance or for couples who wed 30 years ago.

Research consistently shows that sexual activity ebbs with the duration of marriage. "It's quite clear that over time we do get bored with our sexual partners," Donnelly said. "But age shouldn't be something that limits people" from an active sex life.

Young or old, married or unmarried, experts caution that there is no magic number of times weekly that couples ought to be "doing it." Only individuals themselves can determine whether they're left sexually wanting. If the person says `I'm not having sex, and it bothers me,' then it's a problem."

Joy Davidson, a certified sex therapist in Seattle and author of Fearless Sex: A Babe's Guide to Overcoming Your Romantic Obsessions and Getting the Sex Life You Deserve , cautions couples to be honest about their true level of desire for sex. Couples who have stopped having regular sex - whether it's been months or years - may be in denial about how troubled they are by it.

"They say, 'We cuddle. We're still best friends,' " Davidson said. "It's a way of justifying the status quo. Deep down, at least one of them really wants a sexual relationship."

Why bedrooms become boring and barren.

There are multiple reasons why couples forgo or avoid sex. Sometimes the cause is medical. Premature ejaculation, for instance, is one of the most common sex inhibitors for men. Even when the condition has been treated, some men may continue to feel anxious about their performance, leading them to shun intimacy.

Side effects from medication can also be a culprit. Antidepressants can impair libido or make it more difficult to achieve orgasm. Menopause decreases women's sex-hormone levels and vaginal lubrication, which can make intercourse painful and less appealing.

It's unknown how many sexless marriages and relationships have roots in medical vs. non-medical causes. But in the past decade, clinical and pharmaceutical advances such as Viagra have helped to spark a scientific focus on sexual dysfunction.

It isn't always easy to tell whether lack of sex is a symptom of a relationship in distress or the other way around. But when couples who once enjoyed a robust sex life gradually abstain, chances are that something in the relationship has gone awry.

Donnelly's study of involuntary celibates has found that couples seldom cease having sex abruptly. The majority of sexless relationships evolved slowly. Donnelly's research was based on a survey of 82 people recruited over the Internet. The group was composed of a variety of people single, coupled and married.

Partners cited a variety of reasons why the sex stopped: affairs, pregnancies, loss of desire, drug or alcohol abuse. Others blamed physiological reasons, such as when one partner gained weight or lost his or her looks.

McCarthy notes a leading problem is unequal appetite for sex. In such relationships, one partner always wants more sex than the other, triggering a potential cycle of rejection and resentment. This pattern, left unaddressed often forms a trap. The less sex people engage in, the lower each person's desire falls.

Punishment and power plays.

Conflict and anger formulate common ingredients in low-sex relationships. For instance, newly married couples sometimes become disillusioned with their partners, leading to sexual alienation. Holding out sexually is a way for the partner to demonstrate hostility. Similar situations can occur when couples move in together.  The relationship clock (stage 1: euphoria  1-3 months.  stage 2: disillusionment 4-6 months; stage 3 negotiation and compromise; stage 4: shared goals and redefinition) starts over again with each major adjustment like cohabitation, children, marriage and sometimes moving. Unlike the first year of a new relationship, the stages generally pass faster, if survived, the second or third time around.  Stage two and stage three are the break-up points.  If the relationship is not based upon a strong foundation, few couples will survive a relationship clock rerun more than once or twice.

Davidson, the Seattle therapist, said that women in particular may resort to denying sex as a form of punishment or power play. She said that if one spouse is working excessive hours, for instance, the neglected partner may pull away sexually out of resentment, which could give the workaholic spouse justification to further stay away.

McCarthy said couples should be honest in examining the state of their relationships. It could be that the spouse with supposedly low libido is having cybersex or masturbating frequently, he said. Or one partner, more often the woman, may want and need more sexual intimacy but is hesitant to initiate touch, "especially if it's intercourse or nothing."

Then there are transitory causes for reduced sex. Studies have shown that postnatal depression can cause women to have sex less frequently three months after delivery, and that their enjoyment of sex can drop significantly nine to 12 months after childbirth.

As for the popular DINS theory, Hyde's research found no link between how many hours a woman worked and how often she had sex. In fact, Hyde discovered that career-motivated women had intercourse more often than any other group of women.

Fatigue was the strongest predictor of diminished sexual desire in women, Hyde found. And women who are homemakers reported feeling just as tired as women who worked full time.

Keeping the flames burning.

Therapists are unanimous in their belief that the flames of marital passion should be kept burning at all times.

"There are a lot of reasons why the sex stops, but once it happens, it's hard to ignite it," said Davidson, who has just released a book on the subject. "Not having sex becomes very comfortable and very familiar."

McCarthy said couples should keep touching each other erotically, learn to pleasure each other and, frankly, sometimes just do it.

"Sex is like anything else in life. The more you get into the rhythm of doing it, the more comfortable you are doing it," he said.

McCarthy believes that the marital link is paramount in any family - even busy ones filled with work and kids.

"The most important bond in the household is the husband and wife bond. It's important not to let that go," he said. "You are going to be better parents if you are a better couple."

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