Part 1: Couples in Unconsummated Marriages

Unconsummated marriage is a term that is used to describe a situation in which sexual intercourse between a married man and woman has not yet taken place.  The exact prevalence of this phenomenon is unknown, but is thought to be more common in more traditional and religious cultures. This may be due to several factors including lack of information, insufficient premarital education, a cultural context strongly proscribing sexual behavior, and the expectation that intercourse take place immediately after the wedding, necessitating a radical shift from sexual abstinence to sexual intercourse. The term “unconsummated marriage” therefore, is somewhat self- limiting in that it implies a social problem rather than a sexual one. It also fails to take in to account the distress of  so many couples in committed relationships who are not married, do wish to achieve sexual intercourse, and for one or a combination of reasons, are unable to.  Unconsummated relationships, therefore, is a more accurate and inclusive description.

Whether a couple is married or not, when both the man and the woman in a relationship have made the decision to have intercourse, yet despite their attempts they are unable to accomplish the act of vaginal penetration, the relationship may be impacted in profound ways.  Some couples turn sexual intercourse in to a mission, attempting every position, lubricant, and well intentioned advice to have a glass of wine or a tranquilizer , in order to  “achieve their goal.” These couples often use goal oriented words, referring to sex as “attempts” and the outcome as a “failure” or “success”. Other couples may avoid attempting intercourse out of anxiety or fear of replicating past negative experiences. Among couples in unconsummated marriages who do not have sexual intercourse, there also exists a wide continuum of intimate and sexual behaviors. Some couples may refrain from physical intimacy, others may enjoy a great deal of physical affection without it becoming sexually arousing, and others may enjoy all sorts of sexual activities including oral and manual sex but precluding intercourse.

Another feature that varies amongst couples is the amount of time they exist in the reality of an unconsummated relationship before seeking professional help. Some couples, particularly in traditional societies where there is a communal expectation that intercourse takes place shortly after the wedding, will seek professional assistance after only a few trials. Other couples live together for years, even twenty or more, before deciding to deal with the issue. There are also differences in the amount of distress couples feel about the problem. Some couples, in particular those who enjoy a satisfying intimate life without intercourse, may be less distressed. Also, within the couple, one partner may be far more distressed than the other, creating conflictual relationship dynamics which eventually may require the help of a couples therapist to resolve. Finally, the trigger for seeking therapy may vary amongst couples. Some couples are inclined to seek treatment immediately upon realizing a problem exists, sometime because of religious or communal expectations as noted, or simply, because they just want to “be normal”.  Other couples may seek treatment when they want to start a family. Another couple, particularly in a relationship where one partner is distressed about the situation and the other is less so,  may turn to treatment as the result of an ultimatum issued by the more distressed partner that they deal with the issue “or else”.

Part 2: Couples in Unconsummated Marriages

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