Easily one of the most common questions I get in my role as a sex and relationships expert is about sexual frequency. “My husband and I only have sex a couple of times a month, is that normal?” or “We have sex once a week, should it be more?” or “We haven’t had sex in 3 months, are we doomed?” It is in our nature as humans to compare ourselves to others as a benchmark for whether or not we’re doing it right. However, the answer to all of these questions, despite their variation, is “it depends.”
Sexual frequency concerns are so common because they’re easy to quantify; it's easier to count how many times you have sex in a given week, month, or year than it is to figure out how often you might feel like having sex. This makes it easy for us to use frequency as a marker of sexual relationship health, even though that can be misleading. Frequency just isn’t the same for everyone and you can’t compare sex lives without considering the context. When it comes to sex, there’s really no such thing as “normal.” It can be helpful to ask yourself these three questions to gain insight into whether your sexual quantity can tell you anything about the actual quality of your sexual relationship.
1. What is your normal?
Relationships change over time for a whole host of reasons, but most couples tend to get into a rhythm of some sort. If you’ve noticed that you are off your rhythm when it comes to frequency, that might be an indication that something is a bit off. Take some time to think about what normal is for you within your relationship. Are you having sex more or less frequently than that these days? Has something changed to lead to this shift? Or maybe ebbs and flows are what is normal for you; that’s also totally normal. Just get to know what your relationship rhythm is so that you’ll be able to tell when it goes off track and, importantly, know to bring it up to your partner to get back on track.
2. What else is going on?
Several things can impact sexual frequency. Transitional periods are particularly hard on our sex lives: the transition to parenthood, the transition to a new city, the transition to living together, etc. Research has shown that the transition to parenthood can be particularly hard on sexual frequency not only due to the stress of this transition, but also due to the physical changes that happen during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. One study found that first-time parents’ level of new parental stress was tied to their sexual satisfaction a year after the child is born, especially for first-time mothers. Another study found that the transition to parenthood isn’t as hard on sexual satisfaction, but does impact frequency because partners need to redefine sexual intimacy to be less focused on traditional definitions of sex.
Transitional periods can be tough on sexual frequency, but so can other aspects of the relationship. Have you ever noticed that when you’re particularly satisfied in the relationship, you’re having sex a lot more frequently? Or maybe it's the frequent sex that is fueling the bump in relationship happiness? It is hard to say which comes first, but scientists have long demonstrated a clear link between our sex lives and our relationships. This makes sense: Why would you want to have sex with your partner when you’re not super thrilled with them? So take a look at the relationship to see if that might have something to do with a shift in sexual frequency.
3. Are you satisfied?
Studies have shown that quality is far more important than quantity, especially for sexual minority couples. One study examined same-sex couples and compared them to mixed-sex couples; they found that the duration of each sexual event was far longer for same-sex female couples than for any other group and that may play a role in higher sexual satisfaction. So even if you have a lower sexual frequency, it is helpful to examine how satisfying each of those sexual events is. If you’re getting a big dose of satisfaction out of each sexual event, you may not need the same frequency as someone who is getting less satisfaction but greater frequency.
Now, although I’ve spent all this time indicating why frequency doesn’t really matter, a really interesting study was published about the gold standard frequency within which happiness happens. They found that once couples engage in sex more than once a week, sexual well-being does not increase. However, couples that engaged in sex less than once a week did experience a decline in their well-being. So if you’re goal-driven and need some number to keep in mind despite it all, this is the most convincing argument for meeting a minimum threshold of once per week.
A version of this post also appears on the Coral journal.
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Leavitt, C. E., McDaniel, B. T., Maas, M. K., & Feinberg, M. E. (2017). Parenting Stress and Sexual Satisfaction Among First-time Parents: A Dyadic Approach. Sex roles, 76(5-6), 346–355. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0623-0
Sylvie Lévesque, Véronique Bisson, Mylène Fernet & Laurence Charton (2019) A study of the transition to parenthood: new parents’ perspectives on their sexual intimacy during the perinatal period, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/14681994.2019.1675870
Laura M. Vowels & Kristen P. Mark (2020) Relationship and sexual satisfaction: a longitudinal actor–partner interdependence model approach, Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 35:1, 46-59, DOI: 10.1080/14681994.2018.1441991
Blair, K. L., & Pukall, C. F. (2014). Can less be more? Comparing duration vs. frequency of sexual encounters in same-sex and mixed-sex relationships. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 23(2), 123–136. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjhs.2393
Muise, A., Schimmack, U., & Impett, E. A. (2016). Sexual Frequency Predicts Greater Well-Being, But More is Not Always Better. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(4), 295–302. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550615616462