Love and Lust

Marriage, we often hear, grows less sexual with every passing year. Yet research shows that long-term couples often have vibrant sex lives, even more than their single counterparts. Here's how to keep the lust alive. 

The Ins and Outs of Sexual Frequency

How often do gay and straight couples have sex after commitment?

People have a lot of questions when they learn that I study sex and relationships. One of the most common questions people ask is how often couples typically have sex. This question generally comes from the person’s desire to learn if they are on par with other couples’ sexual frequency.

A few large-scale studies in the U.S. provide some sense of how much sex couples are having in their relationships. Married couples report having sex, on average, seven times a month (slightly less than twice a week).1 But, not surprisingly, sexual frequency differs with age and relationship duration.2 In one study of 16,000 American adults, the typical participant reported having sex two to three times per month, but those under the age of 40 reported having sex slightly more often (once a week).3 Regardless of age, couples also tend to have sex more frequently in the early stages of their relationships. Among couples in the first two years of their relationships, 67 percent of gay couples, 45 percent of heterosexual couples, and 33 percent of lesbian couples had sex three times a week or more. The numbers drop off somewhat with time: for couples who had been together 10 years or longer, 11 percent of the gay couples, 18 percent of the heterosexual couples, and 1 percent of the lesbian couples were having sex that often.4

People may have good reason to worry about the amount of sex they are having in their relationships – having more sex is linked to positive outcomes. In a recent study, researchers found that more frequent sex buffers against the negative consequences of neuroticism.5 In addition, both men and women report greater sexual satisfaction and higher levels of overall relationship happiness when they have more sex.1 But, this goes both ways: satisfied couples have sex more often and frequent sex leads to increases in sexual satisfaction.

One problem with estimates of sexual frequency is that they often only consider the frequency of sexual intercourse. Many different activities are considered sex (e.g., oral sex, genital touching) and expanding definitions of sex may be one way to broaden your sexual repetoire and create new opportunities for sexual enjoyment. In addition, in a recent study of long-term couples, the frequency of affectionate behaviors such as kissing, cuddling and caressing were also associated with increased sexual satisfaction for both men and women.6 In fact, affection (hugging, kissing, holding hands) was a more important predictor of intense love for both men and women in long-term relationships than sexual intercourse.7

If a person’s desire to compare themselves to others motivates inquiries about the average sexual frequency, this could lead to negative consequences. People who frequently compare their relationship to others’ feel less secure and less satisfied in their relationships.8 So, the answer to the question of how often couples typically engage in sex is that it varies and comparing your own sexual frequency to that of others may not be beneficial. Put another way, if you’re happy with how often you’re getting some (and with the quality of these activities), then it doesn’t really matter what others do.

This article is an adaptation of a previous article I wrote for the web site Science Of Relationships.

1Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, H. J., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

2Call, V., Sprecher, S., Schwartz, P. (1995). The incidence and frequency of marital sex in a national sample. Journal of Marriage and Family, 57, 639-652.

3Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2004) Money, sex and happiness: An empirical study. Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 106, 393-415. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9442.2004.00369.x

4Blumstein, P., & Schwartz, P. (1983). American couples. New York: Pocket Books.

5Russell, M. V., & McNulty, J. K. (2011). Frequent sex protects intimates from the negative implications of their neuroticism. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 220-227.

6Heiman, J. R., Long, S. J., Smith, S. N., Fisher, W. A., & Sand, M. S. (2011). Sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife and older couples in five countries. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 741-753. doi: 10.1007/s10508-010-9703-3

7O’Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Huddy, L., & Mashek, D. (2012). Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are it’s correlates? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 241-249

8Smith LeBeau, L., & Buckingham, J. T. (2008). Relationship social comparison tendencies, insecurity, and perceived relationship quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 71 – 86.

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Love and Lust