Co-Author: Dr. Barbara Winter
Are you asking yourself how much sex you really should be having in your marriage? Do you wonder how much sex is enough? Or, if you are “normal” compared to others? Might there be a magic number? Furthermore, how important is sex? If you are asking these questions, you are not alone. These are common questions asked in the office of a couples therapists and sex therapists.
It’s risky to cite statistics on sexual satisfaction for a few reasons. This is because much of the data is from self-report style surveys, so, we really aren’t 100% confident about the accuracy of the results. While it is important to have an initial reference point for different groups of people (since that is what we do as social scientists), it is typically not what someone is really asking...
People actually wish to know if their relationship is healthy. They are wondering if they are enough for their partner or if their partner is indeed enough for them. They are wondering if “too much” or, typically, “too little” sex is at issue in their relationship. Sometimes they are not just wondering. In fact, they are terrified that their relationship is in jeopardy of this concern.
The question about sexual frequency typically comes when one partner is less satisfied with the amount of time that is spent in the bedroom.
Having a “discrepant desire” level, where one partner wants more or less than the other, is a common phenomenon between two people in a committed relationship. It can also be that both partners are displeased with frequency in which they engage in sexual interaction.
The good news today, however, is that marital satisfaction is not simply a function of sexual frequency and certainly not frequent sex.
In fact, nowadays married couples are looking at the quality of their sexual interaction and not just the quantity.
What does the research tell us?
First and foremost, the research on marital satisfaction is fraught with difficulties. This is often due to the design of the experiment or the way in which data is collected. Nonetheless, people still need something as a gauge, so we can at least take a look at what we have available:
- In the 90’s research studies found that 40% of couples had sex 2-3 times per week, and that frequency dropped with age and length of marriage.
- Generally, there is a decrease in both frequency and satisfaction as couples are together longer.
- Sexual frequency diminishes in a relationship as well when we consider other factors such as work, chores, children, physical or physiological factors, other relational issues, and so on.
- Sexual frequency and sexual satisfaction are both inversely correlated to divorce rates. In other words, as one rate rises, the other goes down.
- A research article published in November of 2015 that looked at over 2400 married couples found that the more sex a couple had, the happier they were. Interestingly, though, there was a cap of one time per week.
Why the once a week cap?
This cap can be viewed as the economic equivalent of the “law of diminishing returns”; when you add more employees to get a job done there is an increase in productivity to a point and after that point efficiency drops. So, sex once or twice a month might not be sufficient but more than once per week is not either. In fact, in another recent study, couples who were instructed to double the amount of sex they were having were no happier than they were before (with their usual rate of sex). Furthermore, they reported less enjoyment of sex. With the law of diminishing returns, there seems to be a downside to too much sex.
We know sexual satisfaction is better at certain stages of relationships. We also know that life gets in the way. It is up to each couple to set their own personal standard and be okay with it. This is what is most critical when considering sexual satisfaction. It’s not about the number per se, but your experience of that number.
Couples who ruminate as to whether or not their frequency is “normal” are those who are likely dissatisfied and may indeed be below the curve. Yet there are couples, typically, but not always, older and longer married couples, for whom infrequent sex is just fine.
What if our desires are mismatched?
Discrepant desire can become a real problem—more often quantitatively but sometimes even qualitatively.
For those whose sex lives are challenged, there are steps you can take. For one, assess your relationship outside of the bedroom. Are you achieving intimacy there--both physical and emotional intimacy are imperative to your connection. This, by the way, will often lead to sex. Whatever your love language, whether it be one-on-one time, gifts, kind acts, kind words--nurture it. If your only love language is sex, you need to work on this.
Couples therapist traditionally suggest things like scheduling sex, changing the venue, going on a trip away from the family space, spicing things up or even reenacting your dating sex. Scheduling sex works for some and not others as do the other suggestions. With testosterone levels highest in the morning, that may be an option for some. If that is ineffective in boosting you into the bedroom, then seek the help of a sex therapist, but not without first ruling out any physical or physiological issues.
Sexual desire can be impacted by several things:
- medical disease
- family obligations/children
- physiological problems or body image issues
- sexual beliefs and attitudes
- physical attraction
- relational issues
- psychological issues (depression/anxiety)
- situational concerns (for example, how you feel about your partner at that moment)
If you have had a “dry spell,” for some, merely engaging in sex can get you back in the game. It will get your rhythm going again and help the flow of bonding hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin. You can revive and repair the disengagement you are feeling. Since intimacy and sex are intertwined, sometimes this is all a couple needs to get back on track.
Remember, it’s not the number that is important to those who are curious, but the meaning of the question. Staying married is hard enough in the context of today’s challenges and life’s distractions. Those challenges tend to migrate into the bedroom. So as we remain committed, or married, we can be just as happy with less sex. The overall quality of the relationship takes precedence over the bedroom. If you can waddle or dance through the years of more sex, you can make it.
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