There might be a lucky few who never experience the fizzle, but for most couples who’ve been together for years it’s almost a rite of passage – the realisation that you feel more like roommates than lovers.

You share a bed – and the kids are proof you once used it for something other than sleeping – but these days there’s very little rolling between the sheets.

There’s just falling into bed exhausted after a long day and then rolling out of it in the morning to tackle work and kids and chores again. Vicky* and Bruce*, who’ve been married for 15 years and have two kids, say these days they have sex “about once or twice a month” on average.

Vicky nevertheless describes their marriage as strong and regards her husband as her best friend. Sex is great when they have it but neither misses it all that much and it isn’t an issue, she says. They’re lucky, experts say. The dwindling of physical intimacy is by far the most common problem reported by married couples – and for many it results in not only a physical but also an emotional disconnect they don’t know how to bridge.

“Couples lacking sexual intimacy are far more prevalent today than we think,” says Karmen Hutton, a Cape Townbased clinical psychologist. It’s possible for a relationship to survive without sex when the friendship, love and emotional connection are strong enough to make up for the lack of sexual intimacy, she adds.

But if things are one-sided, with one partner wanting sex more frequently than the other, a relationship can flounder. Here’s what you need to know to navigate this tricky issue.

Intimacy matters

While sex is important in a relationship, intimacy is the glue that holds it together. This includes both physical and emotional closeness. Emotional intimacy comes from sharing your thoughts, feelings and expectations – and when you have this it often makes physical intimacy more meaningful.

What’s important to keep in mind about physical intimacy is that it doesn’t refer only to sex, Hutton says.

It’s about connecting with your partner on a physical level and includes any form of intimate touching, such as holding hands, cuddling, hugging, kissing and caressing.

If you’re doing these things, you clearly feel emotionally close to each other – and having this connection is what makes it possible to have a strong relationship without plenty of sex.

Ideally, you need physical and emotional intimacy in more or less equal measure for a healthy, thriving relationship, Hutton believes. But this is rarely the case and that’s where things get tricky.

It’s common for one partner to value one type of intimacy more than the other. It’s also challenging to maintain physical intimacy when you’re juggling child-rearing, running a household and having a demanding job.

But deep down you’ll know if you and your partner share that special intimacy that keeps a relationship going through the toughest of times.

It’s in that look you give your partner from across the room, and in the special wink or smile you get back. 

When sex becomes a chore

You love your husband but when you feel his hand caress your hip as you crawl into bed at 11pm all you can think is, “Please, not now!” Don’t panic if this is how you feel some times – or even all of the time. It doesn’t necessarily mean your marriage is in the  doldrums. “

Couples who’ve been together a long time are often stuck in certain patterns and roles,” says Jodi de Lijster, a Cape Town-based therapist.

You both have jobs, there’s the school run to do, homework to be supervised, supper to be cooked, a house to be cleaned.

“Things become mundane and domestic chores and tiredness take over,” she says. “You don’t have fun anymore and lose that sense of spontaneity, which often includes physical intimacy.”

The daily grind can chip away at your sex-life until couples find they have to schedule sex because it so rarely happens on a whim.

Things also become problematic when sex is more important to one partner than the other. “In this case sex often becomes a chore for one partner,” De Lijster says. “This isn’t healthy as it can lead to a build-up of resentment, which can lead to one or both partners shutting down emotionally.”

While it’s possible for a couple to be physically intimate without sex, it’s the exception rather than the norm.

“Some relationships do survive on that but both partners need to be in agreement on it,” De Lijster says. “Both partners’ expectations need to be met for it to work.”

So what do you do when sex feels like a chore? Or when you want sex more often than your partner? Talk about it, says Anele Siswana, a Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist and lecturer – and talk about it away from the bedroom.

It’s a sensitive subject that can be difficult to broach, so take the pressure off by ensuring you’re in a relaxed frame of mind.

“Go on a date night or even a long walk together,” Siswana says. You’ll both be more relaxed and hopefully feel freer to talk about your feelings and expectations. Think about how you’re going to express what you want to say and make sure it doesn’t come across as a complaint.

Make suggestions about what you think needs to change rather than issuing demands. Focus on listening to your partner rather than on trying to get your point across – you’ll be amazed at what this does for the way you communicate with each other. 

Open and honest communication really is the basis of any relationship,  Siswana says. And while it might not be romantic, make peace with having to schedule sex sometimes. If that’s the only way it’s going to happen, do it.

How much is enough?

Surveys have been done, studies undertaken and statistics bandied about.

A recent US study says the average married couple has sex 68 times a year, which is more than once a week.

The same study found 15-20% of couples have sex less than 10 times a year – which the researchers defined as a “sexless” marriage. But there’s really no magic number for how often a couple should be having sex. “Forget about ‘normal’, ” says Tammy Nelson, a sexologist and author of The New Monogamy.

“Normal is a setting on the washing machine, nothing more. What’s most important is that you learn to have empathy for your partner and accept whatever their needs might be, even if they’re different from your own.”

Keep in mind also that what was normal for you and your partner in the early days of your relationship won’t be normal 10 years and two kids later. Ultimately couples must figure out what works best for them, De Lijster says. 

“Every couple is unique and what works for some might not work for others.”