We've all heard jokes about the frequency—or infrequency—of married sex. Are these jokes based on a kernel of truth? Do married people really have less sex? If so, why? And if you are married, what can you do to sustain a long-term, satisfying sex life?
Do passionate relationships become fundamentally different when you get married? In some ways, our relationships change, but many differences between married and unmarried couples are advantageous for spouses. For example, married individuals report stronger relationship satisfaction than cohabitating counterparts. And although sexual frequency is usually positively associated with relationship satisfaction, cohabitating couples report more sex but less relationship satisfaction than married pairs (Yabiku & Gager, 2009). Further, married couples are more committed to one another than cohabitating pairs. While cohabitating couples are likely to end a relationship if they are dissatisfied with their sex lives (Yabiku & Gager, 2009), married couples are more likely to stay together even when they are not having as much sex as they would like. It is important to recognize that some individuals—especially women—who are dissatisfied with their sex lives actually desire less sex in their relationships rather than more (Smith et al., 2011).
Some of the decline in marital sex may be due to a sense of a loss of novelty or habituation to your partner (Call et al. 1995; Rao & Demaris, 1995; Yabiku & Gager, 2009). You may not be bored with your partner; it may instead be that married individuals might not perceive the need to have sex as often. Cohabitating couples initiate sex more frequently and may also expect sex more frequently (Byers & Heinlein, 1989; Call et al. 1995). Once the frequency of sex declines, a couple may grow used to that decreased level of sexual activity (Call et al., 1995). Interestingly, people who remarry actually report having more sex than counterparts who are in their first marriages (Call et al., 1995). This increase in sex found in remarriages may be due to the novelty of a new sex partner or it may be that people have simply left unhappy marriages for happier (and sexier) relationships.
“Some people say, 'You know, sexually, it’s more exciting when you’re single.’ I don’t know about that. You ever try to have sex with two little kids in the same house?” –Jeff Foxworthy
If you have children, you will immediately understand Foxworthy’s statement. Married individuals are more likely than cohabitating counterparts to have children, and those children can definitely interfere with plans for a passionate evening. Further, due to the demands of child care, individuals with children may experience increased fatigue and therefore decreased interest in sex (Rao & Demaris, 1995; Yabiku & Gager, 2009). Yabiku and Gager suggest that married individuals spend less time having sex because they devote more time to other activities, including child care. (That’s one way to put it. Another was eloquently phrased by my friend Matt, who recently said to his wife, “Not tonight, honey. I’m so tired that I’m just going to go to sleep and hope that I dream about having sex with you.”)
“Honey, they don’t call it a job for nothin’.” –Samantha, Sex and the City
Similar to the demands of children, the demands of a career may also interfere with sexual desire. Cheung et al. (2008) found that Chinese women who work full time reported less frequent sex. However, other researchers have found that both men and women who work more also report having sex more frequently (Gager & Yabiku, 2010)—and some have found no relationship between work and the frequency of intercourse (Call et al., 1995).
“Gay people got a right to be as miserable as everybody else.” –Chris Rock
Because the frequency of sex often depends on the desires of both partners, and because men report more frequent sexual urges than women, gay men do report having sex most frequently among types of couples, followed by heterosexual couples and then lesbian couples (Peplau, 2003). We await future research to see if sexual frequency declines in same-sex marriages in the way it seems to in opposite-sex marriages.
“What’s a man’s definition of safe sex? When his wife’s out of town.” –Comedy Central
While this joke refers to married couples, cohabitating individuals may report engaging in more sex than married peers because they are more likely to cheat on their lovers (Yabiku & Gager, 2009). (Gay men report more sex with individuals other than their primary partner than do heterosexuals and lesbians (Conley et al., 2013).)
"I've been married so long I'm on my third bottle of Tabasco sauce." –Susan Vass
The two factors that appear to most strongly influence sexual frequency are age and marital duration (Rao & Demaris, 1995). Married couples tend to be older than cohabitating peers—and with age come changes in hormone levels and an increased likelihood of illness or sexual dysfunction (Cheung et al., 2008; Yabiku & Gager, 2009). Further, marriages tend to last longer than cohabitating relationships. Future research will be necessary to determine whether coital frequency declines in longer cohabitating relationships as well (Call et al., 1995).
So What’s a Married Couple to Do?
We will all age, regardless of our relationship status, and many of us hope for relationships that last well beyond the “honeymoon period.” To sustain a satisfying sex life we need to focus on the factors we can control:
- If you have children, set aside some kid-free time for you and your spouse. Hire a sitter on a regular basis, or take a long lunch break.
- Your marriage is important. If you need to, schedule time for intimacy just as you would schedule time for an important task at work.
- Talk with your spouse about his or her sexual desires. Make sure you are on the same page with respect to the desired frequency of sex as well as the types of sexual behaviors you desire.
- Although you may not be able to make your spouse "novel," you can add novelty to your usual sexual script. Try varying the location of your trysts, consider wearing something different, applying a novel scent, listening to romantic music, etc. If you have the means, visit an exotic destination.
- Work on your marital satisfaction. More satisfied couples share more sexual intimacy (Call et al., 1995). Take some time to decide what you can do for your relationship to make you happier as a couple. Recent research shows that positive non-sexual behaviors like saying “I love you” or complimenting your spouse can lead to an increase in sex, as well as an increase in romantic satisfaction (Schoenfeld et al., 2016).
- Stop ruminating about the frequency of sex. Research shows that the quality of marital sex has a stronger impact on relationship satisfaction than the quantity (Schoenfeld et al., 2016).
- Keep your sense of humor. My favorite joke about married sex, which inspired this piece, comes from my friend Katie. I happened to run into her at the grocery store and we talked together for a while. She stopped in the “family planning” aisle to buy some condoms for herself and her husband. While looking at the different options she picked one up and quipped, “These must be the condoms for married me—very few in the package and they don’t expire for a looonnnggg time.”
Byers, E. S., & Heinlein, L. (1989). Predicting initiations and refusals of sexual activities in married and cohabiting heterosexual couples. Journal of Sex Research, 26(2), 210-231. doi:10.1080/00224498909551507
Call, V., Sprecher, S., & Schwartz, P. (1995). The incidence and frequency of marital sex in a national sample. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57(3), 639-652. doi:10.2307/353919
Cheung, M. L., Wong, P. C., Liu, K. Y., Yip, P. F., Fan, S. Y., & Lam, T. (2008). A study of sexual satisfaction and frequency of sex among Hong Kong Chinese couples. Journal of Sex Research, 45(2), 129-139. doi:10.1080/00224490801987416
Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Valentine, B. (2013). A critical examination of popular assumptions about the benefits and outcomes of monogamous relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(2), 124–141.
Gager, C. T., & Yabiku, S. T. (2010). Who has the time? The relationship between household labor time and sexual frequency. Journal of Family Issues, 31(2), 135-163. doi:10.1177/0192513X09348753
Peplau, L. (2003). Human sexuality: How do men and women differ? Current Directions in Psychological Science,12(2), 37–40. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.01221
Rao, K. V., & Demaris, A. (1995). Coital frequency among married and cohabiting couples in the United States. Journal of Biosocial Science, 27(2), 135-150. doi:10.1017/S0021932000022653
Schoenfeld, E. A., Loving, T. J., Pope, M. T., Huston, T. L., & Štulhofer, A. (2016). Does sex really matter? Examining the connections between spouses’ nonsexual behaviors, sexual frequency, sexual satisfaction, and marital satisfaction. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, doi:10.1007/s10508-015-0672-4
Smith, A., Lyons, A., Ferris, J., Richters, J., Pitts, M., Shelley, J., & Simpson, J. M. (2011). Sexual and relationship satisfaction among heterosexual men and women: The importance of desired frequency of sex. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 37(2), 104-115. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2011.560531
Yabiku, S. T., & Gager, C. T. (2009). Sexual frequency and the stability of marital and cohabiting unions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(4), 983-1000.