No matter your relationship status, sex remains a complicated — and often touchy — subject. Although no one wants to admit it, people across all demographics are spending less time in the sack.
For couples who live together, married couples, and older people in general, the decline in how much sex they have is even more staggering, per a 2019 study of British adults and teens.
But how much sex should couples really be having? Research has shown that couples who have sex at least once a week are happier than their less-bedded counterparts. (A caveat: Happiness levels don’t rise with more time spent under the sheets.)
Still, that number doesn’t quite apply for everyone. And, ultimately, experts say how much sex a couple should be having depends on the couple itself.
How much sex should a couple have?
Once a week is a common baseline, experts say. That statistic depends slightly on age: 40- and 50-year-olds tend to fall around that baseline, while 20- to 30-year olds tend to average around twice a week.
However, Dr. Peter Kanaris, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist based in Smithtown, New York, warns that couples shouldn’t rely on the average as a metric for their own sex lives. He’s seen couples on every part of the sex spectrum, from those who have little to no sex to couples who have sex 12 to 14 times a week.
“What’s actually more important than for couples to get caught up in some statistical norm to match themselves to that is to look at this from a perspective of sexual satisfaction,” he told USA TODAY. “If a couple is sexually satisfied, then that’s the goal.”
Linda De Villers, a sex therapist and an adjunct professor of psychology and education at Pepperdine, agrees.
“There’s a certain amount of motivation to feel normal, whatever that means,” she told USA TODAY. “You should be sexual as often as both you and your partner feel good … If you can say it was satisfying and fulfilling, that’s how often you should be sexual.”
Should I be planning sex?
Despite the prevailing idea that sex is spontaneous and fueled by sudden desire, sex should be planned, De Villers says.
“If people have kids or commitments, it’s really helpful to have some planned sex,” she said. “If you don’t have planned sex, you’re much more likely to have no sex.”
And besides, she points out, most sex is planned anyhow. For instance, she says, before you go on a date, you pull out all the stops to make yourself presentable for a prospective partner.
“You had planned sex,” she joked. “The evening usually culminates at a certain point, and you knew damn well it would.”
What if one person wants sex more than the other?
That’s one of the most common problems Kanaris experiences in his line of work. It’s a problem that afflicts even the most successful couples, he says.
“When our intimate or sexual partner has low desire, it can be a blow to self-esteem and the ego of the other partner,” he said.
Worse, he says, the other partner may “fill in the blank” as to what’s causing the lack of sexual desire in the worst ways, amplifying their own insecurities and possibly further inhibit communicating.
He advises couples engage in honest, transparent “intimate communication” about their sex lives if they’re feeling unsatisfied.
“In my experience, you can find couples who communicate very well about paying the mortgage, taking care of the kids and other issues, but may (have) very poor or absent communication in matters of intimacy or sexuality,” he told USA TODAY.
What’s key, says De Villers, is being communicative and expressive about what you want sexually. “It’s important to learn to be sexually assertive and have sexual agency,” she said.
How else can I satisfy my partner?
De Villers points out that there are plenty of other ways to have sex without, well, going the whole nine yards.
“There are different kinds of sex that you can have,” she said. (Plus, they should be factored in the ‘how many times’ conversation.)
Non-penetrative sexual activities, she says, are more likely to be pleasurable for both partners, especially for people who are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. This is also true for LGBT couples, who tend to have non-penetrative sexual activities more than their heterosexual counterparts, De Villers notes.
What factors could be contributing to a reduced sex drive?
According to the British study, the “sheer pace of modern life” is a contributing factor for why couples are having less sex.
“The stress of modern life — just the day-to-day of how we live our lives — has a very negative impact on sexual desire,” Kanaris said. “Life moves in our modern age so much faster as recently as 20 years ago, certainly 25 years ago.”
But Kanaris and De Villesr also think there may also be individual and couple-specific factors that tend to be overlooked when couples evaluate their sex lives.
Medications, such as antidepressants, can inhibit libido.
“Environmental comfort” may also be a factor. A bedroom that is too close to the kids’ bedroom, or one that is not decorated to facilitate intimacy, may contribute to your partner not wanting to have sex.
Technology may also play a factor: De Villers says that playing with your phone while you’re with your partner detracts from your interactions, and makes for a worse sexual experience.
When should you go to an expert?
This conversation can be very difficult to have. In cases where one-on-one dialogue is unproductive, seeking a third-party expert, such as a couples’ therapist or a sex therapist, may be beneficial.
“If it seems like the emotions are too strong, and there’s defensiveness, and paradoxically, rather than with your partner, it’s easier to have it with a stranger,” said Kanaris. “And that can make all the difference.”
What are the health benefits of regular sex?
There are both physical and psychological benefits to having regular sex.
It helps sleep, it has cardiovascular benefits — according to a 2010 study, men with active sex lives are less likely to develop heart disease — and it has benefits for the prostate, says Kanaris.
Sex releases endorphins and creates a feeling of closeness between you and your partner, says Mary Andres, a University of Southern California professor in marriage and family therapy.
But not only does sexual intimacy foster a feeling of well-being, says Kanaris, it also can have positive effects for the immune system.