The Suffocating Loneliness of Singaporeans in Sexless Marriages
Top image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

“There are times when all I long for is a hug,” writes Malcolm*.

He’s spilling his guts on Reddit, the only place he feels he can be honest about his marriage under the cloak of anonymity. 

Here, he gets vulnerable, talking about feeling unwanted by his wife and feeling unloved when he sees happy couples. 

Malcolm is a Singaporean in his 40s who has been married for over ten years. He can’t remember the last time he had sex with his wife. He tells RICE that it’s been “too long”. 

Sexless marriages are an “unspoken and very common occurrence”, he believes. About a year ago, he started posting about them on Reddit—he mainly lurks around local subreddits such as r/Singapore, r/SingaporeRaw, and r/askSingapore—and he’s connected with several other users going through the same experience. 

It’s hard to estimate the number of sexless couples or what is an average or healthy amount of sex. But a 2020 study by an NUS professor found that Singaporean married women have “a lot less sex than they desire”. 

Sex sexless marriage singapore
Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

According to the study, married women aged between 25 and 29 have sex an average of 3.7 times per month, while the number dipped to 2.6 times for those aged between 30 and 34. The 657 married women surveyed said they’d ideally have twice the amount of sex. 

Malcom’s theory: There are even more out there in Singapore having less sex than they’d like.

“It’s often taboo to talk about sex or shameful to admit to others that one is in a ‘sexless’ relationship, so we do not have a clear picture of the frequency of sexless marriages,” says US-based therapist Katie Gilly. “In my practice, of the couples that I work with, about 50 percent are in ‘sexless’ relationships.”

Malcolm’s story aside, I’d always thought sexless relationships were primarily associated with the elderly. This is generally true according to the research out there. But as someone who’s hitting 30 this year, I’ve also played Aunt Agony to friends with unsatisfying sex lives more than a few times.

Each time, I’m left wondering: why do relatively young people with decades ahead of them stay in relationships where they are having little to no sex? Of course, we’re talking only about relationships where neither party is asexual—if sex isn’t your thing, more power to you. 

For the rest of Singaporeans who do want to have sex but can’t get any from their partner, it’s a doubly frustrating experience when they’re reluctant to open up about it.  

When Sex Dries Up 

There is good reason, however, why there are hot-blooded youngsters out there with non-existent sex lives. 

Stress, fatigue, and marital satisfaction are significant determinants of sexual activity and frequency, says another NUS study. It’s probably no wonder, then, that anecdotally, it’s common to hear of sexless relationships. 

We are, after all, in a city where so many are stressed, tired, and sleep-deprived. Interestingly, there is a potential correlation between the widespread use of antidepressants and a decrease in libido. 

Attraction, or loss of it, is another contributing factor for a few interviewees. It can be hard in this era of body positivity to admit that looks play a role in a relationship—you run the risk of being called shallow or superficial. But sometimes, it’s just reality. 

Jonathan’s* marriage has been sexless since 2020. There doesn’t seem to be a single factor. “I think it was just a slow shift away from making time to have sex when we both got busier with our careers.” 

Contrary to the study where couples reported having more sex during the Circuit Breaker period, Jonathan says being holed up together at home didn’t spark more sex. 

“Maybe I just wasn’t attracted to her after some time because we just let go of ourselves during Covid and stopped taking care of our appearances at home.”

In Malcolm’s case, the lack of sex isn’t for the lack of trying. Years ago, he tried to initiate sex but faced repeated rejections. Other avenues, such as planning dates and maintaining his looks by going to the gym, did nothing to reignite the passion in their relationship. 

“I gave myself an ultimatum. I told myself I would stop asking forever upon the tenth ‘No’. It has never been brought up since from either party,” he says.

“I don’t think therapy will work anymore too. She’s probably asexual—nor do I feel sexually attracted to her anymore.”

Why Stay? 

To be clear, there are perfectly happy romantic relationships where sex isn’t in the picture. It only becomes an issue when people aren’t on the same page about the frequency of sex in their relationship—or find it too difficult to even broach the topic. 

Intimacy consists of more than sex. It also includes the emotional and physical (but non-sexual) connections between partners, Dr Martha Lee, a relationship counsellor and clinical sexologist, tells Yahoo

Sex sexless marriage singapore
Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

“A lack of intimacy in a marriage is like a neglected garden—it withers away,” says Dr Lee. “It can lead to emotional distance, resentment and even the erosion of the foundation that holds the relationship together.”

Some, however, are still on good terms with their partners despite the lack of sex. 

Chloe*, 39, tells RICE that she’s been through couple’s counselling with her husband to tackle their lack of intimacy. They’ve identified the birth of their daughter over three years ago as their biggest stressor. But things haven’t improved in the bedroom, and she’s resigned to celibacy for the foreseeable future. 

“I think being intimate, supportive and loving your partner the way they expect to be loved (like following their love language) far outweighs the need to have sex. At the end of the day, when we are old, the sex will be gone anyway. What’s left will be the conversations to be had.” 

Others are less optimistic. In the absence of sex, Malcolm says, his romantic relationship with his wife is dead.

“It’s a purely familial relationship now—all the usual daily stuff, chores, kid, meals—minus any physical contact and intimacy.” He’s staying in the marriage purely for his child.

To satisfy his intimacy needs, he had a two-year extramarital affair with another woman, he confesses. She was also facing relationship issues, and they both knew their relationship had an expiry date.

“Honestly if I wasn’t married with a child, I would have divorced and started afresh with her. I saw my child being born into this world, and I totally cannot bear having my child growing up in a broken family.”

They eventually parted ways after ending the affair, and he tried to fill the void with escorts. But it hasn’t been the same for him.

“I do very much think that sex without [emotions] just feels totally different. They’re only able to help with the lust part and getting it over and done with.”

Malcolm is all too aware that what he’s done is morally wrong, but he contends that he was feeling depressed and unwanted. He just wanted to “be cherished” by someone else, he says. He claims he wouldn’t mind if his wife were to do the same. 

I don’t detect any regret from Malcolm for his infidelity. According to him, it’s what he and the woman—who’s now happily married—needed at the time. He’s also resigned to living a double life for the foreseeable future to satiate his needs, he says. 

Jonathan, on the other hand, hasn’t gone as far as cheating on his wife. But the 34-year-old says he’s considered it—something he never thought he would do. 

“It’s hard because I actually really want to have sex! It really affects me because I keep thinking to myself if I will have sex ever again. I love my wife, but we are missing such an important part of our relationship, which is romantic and physical attraction.”

There’s probably no such thing as a perfect relationship, nor is it possible to find someone who checks all your boxes. We know that it’s possible to have a good relationship without sex. But when does this lack of intimacy become a justifiable reason to leave someone? 

Even if people do stay, though, it doesn’t mean they haven’t ‘quiet quit’ the relationship, as Malcolm has.

Sex sexless marriage singapore
Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE File Photo

The Desire To Be Desired

A huge obstacle for many sexless couples, I gather, is broaching the topic when you’ve lost attraction to your partner. How can you bring it up without making them feel bad about themselves? How do you do it without seeming like the villain? Sex is often closely tied to self-esteem, after all.

Chloe tells me that even though she and her husband of nine years point to caring for a young child as their reason for celibacy, it still affects her self-confidence. 

“It exacerbates my feelings of not being good enough. Not attractive enough, inadequate, and that we are no longer in love.”

As for Jonathan, he doesn’t know how to tell his wife he’s not attracted to her. 

“I think she knows that it is partly because of her looks that I am not attracted to her anymore. Body image is also quite sensitive to her, so I try not to explicitly say anything about it. But yes, that is the truth behind why I don’t feel like wanting to have sex with her.”

“Talking about it opened up other parts of our marriage that felt lacking, and we discussed that. But I don’t think we can ever fix the sex part unless she makes the effort.”

Stereotypes can make it harder for sexless couples to be open about their sexual hurdles. 

We often assume that when it comes to sex, men are straightforward—they always want it. And that women are often the ones denying them sex in sexless marriages. In some cases—such as Malcom—that holds true. 

Men can find it hard to talk about sex because they’re expected to be always ‘on’. And when they aren’t, they’re sometimes made to feel like something’s wrong with them. 

Women like Chloe, on the other hand, might find it hard to admit that they want more sex due to pervasive double standards. Women are often sexualised, but when they want sexual pleasure, they’re still judged

Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE file photo

Malcolm admits that besides the person he had an affair with and Reddit, he hasn’t talked about his sexless marriage with anyone else. 

“It feels like an embarrassment that such a thing is happening. I don’t think I can share such a thing with anyone else.”

His reluctance to open up about his sex life is probably one that stems from the Asian predilection to associate sex with shame. The Western world saw the onset of sexual liberation movements in the 1960s. Meanwhile, in Singapore, we’ve still got a significant number of parents who sweep the topic under the rug and leave sex education up to our schools. 

When I wrote about Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) testing some months back, Dr Tan Kok Kuan of Dr Tan Medical Centre shared with me that there’s still “a huge knowledge gap” in the general population when it comes to sexual health with some still believing in outlandish myths like dousing their genitals with Dettol to stave off STIs.

Sexual health is already hard enough to talk about for the average Singaporean. What more sexual satisfaction or the lack thereof?

Uneasy Compromises

Does the absence of sex mean a relationship is bad? The answer is no, according to Chloe and Jonathan.

Even though she hasn’t had sex in over three years, Chloe maintains that she and her husband are still good for each other. “It’s just hard with a third party—aka our child.” 

Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

Jonathan, too, says that he loves his wife and has great memories of their relationship. 

At the same time, he’s torn between staying and leaving her. “I don’t want to break her heart by leaving her. But I really do think I want to start afresh because I cannot imagine the rest of my life without intimacy and physical love.” 

From my conversations with my three interviewees, at least, it seems that it is the fear of judgment that keeps some sexless relationships together. 

The fear of leaving his child with a “broken home” is something Malcom’s brought up. Jonathan, too, fears being seen as “toxic or shallow”. 

“I imagine it will be so shameful and embarrassing for us to tell our families and friends that our marriage fell apart because I just wanted to have sex with other people. But I guess at the end of the day, it’s true.” 

Sexual incompatibility looks different for every couple, and it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker for everyone. But what if sexual incompatibility is your dealbreaker? We often stay in relationships because we fear hurting the other person—I’ve been there. In the end, it does more harm than good. 

You’re essentially making the choice for them and staying with them out of fear or pity. If things do eventually end, they’ll likely feel blindsided.  

Often, it’s not just about sex. It’s also about being wanted—something you can’t get from escorts or masturbation. Sometimes, making sure your needs are met necessitates a touch of selfishness. 

But being selfish shouldn’t mean disregarding the well-being of those around you. Instead, it should involve prioritising your own needs while remaining mindful of how your actions may impact others. It’s about communicating openly and honestly with partners to create a mutually fulfilling partnership. 

Sadly, it’s not always clear-cut in real life. 

“People say communication is key in relationships, but what if being open and truthful really hurts our partner’s emotions and sense of self?” Jonathan ponders. 

“I’m still trying to find the answer.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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