The first thing to remember is this: Some relationships will die in their sleep. When you’re in the throes of a lust-filled, wide-eyed romance, you feel like the only way it could end is if it gets cut down prematurely: a strike of lightning in the middle of a clear day. In reality, the likelihood is that the end will be far more prosaic: a small sickness that creeps and grows, until it’s eventually too much.
In terms of a litmus test for how well things are going, it’s very easy to just tally up the frequency with which you have sex and compare it to what it was like in the early days. According to a study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour, Americans are having less sex than ever — particularly married Americans — and yet arguably society is more sexualised than it has ever been. How do you coalesce the two in your own head? You make excuses, you rationalize, and if that fails, you look for support. Luckily, it’s 2017, and no matter what problem you’re going through, the internet is on hand to remind you that people are going through similar. In this case, specifically, Reddit is on hand.
Welcome to Dead Bedrooms, a 45,000-member subreddit for people in failing relationships; a de facto support group for those whose sex lives have plummeted, but who haven’t yet turned off the relationship’s life support. From newlyweds to long-term couples, all genders, all ages, all grappling with insecurity, depression and fear — all directly attributed to how much action they’re getting.
It’s hard reading. In one recent post, a regular member pleads that she just wants her SO (that’s “significant other” — Reddit is pretty hot on ’90s MSN-style nomenclature) to pay her any sexual attention whatsoever: “It seems like the kind of thing other people in other relationships just get to have. For me, it’s just a wild fantasy.” In another, a woman complains that her husband will only have sex with her if she agrees to film or photograph it — and this is after he’s already been unfaithful. Scroll through the pages and you’ll see titles like “Desperate for *some* sexual intimacy,” “I’m at the absolute end of my rope,” and one that’s just: “How fucked am I?”
It’s weird to consider that the overriding feeling of the group is one of grief, but really, that’s exactly what it is. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It’s all here as people grieve for the death — or impending death — of their relationships. And according to ToughKitten, a female DeadBedroomer who credits the group with helping her leave her marriage and now acts as one of the moderators, “those who remain in sexless marriages rarely come round to acceptance.”
Another moderator, SimianSupervisor, who has also found solace in the group, told me that most of the moderation is focused around the anger that people feel toward their “denying partners,” and trying to limit that: “At the end of the day, though, we need their input and perspective from the other side in order to ever have a chance of understanding what’s going on.”
This separates Dead Bedrooms from, say, the “incel” (involuntarily celibate) movement, which, though it began in a similar fashion, descended into violent misogyny and men’s rights activism thanks to the echo chamber of certain internet forums, and was a key motive for Elliot Rodgers’ killing spree in Isla Vista, California, in 2014. “The redpill community does make evangelical attempts here; we make it front and center of our moderation to protect our subreddit from that,” ToughKitten said.
Which is not to say that Dead Bedrooms is totally free from misogyny. In one post entitled “Learn from my mistake. Please,” a man talks about how his sex life ended as soon as he put a ring on it. Immediately the replies become very accusatory. Words like “ambush,” “trap” and “bait and switch” are used to refer to the wife in this scenario. This kind of post is far from an outlier; similarly many men post when their sex lives take a backseat after the birth of a child. In situations like this, mods will often kick in to explain how healing from childbirth and then breastfeeding can mean that yeah, they won’t have sex for a while, and they’ll just have to be patient.
Across the board there’s a kind of cognitive dissonance at play — people unable to see the reasons for the breakdown of their relationships while simultaneously being faced with pages and pages of similar experiences. Unsurprisingly, on Dead Bedrooms, many responses bear the same message: “get out.”
But it’s rarely that simple. People’s reasons for staying range from not wanting to break up a family, to hoping things will change, to not having a large-enough support network to feel comfortable making the transition. There are also those who find a way to make the relationship work without the need for an active sex life, as in the cases of more and more Americans showing a willingness to experiment with non-monogamy.
In a way, Dead Bedrooms is as much a halfway house as a support group — a place where people can figure out what’s going wrong with their relationships and make a decision as to what to do next. That decision could be to stay and work on it, or find the determination to make a clean break.
The choice is never as easy as it seems. Breaking up with someone, even if the relationship is in tatters, is rarely a defiant, thrilling “fuck you” to a bad partner. It’s hard. It’s having to look at something you used to love, that used to be vibrant and alive, now a shadow of its former self, and choosing to pull the plug.