For my first column upon returning to Lifehacker, I have masochistically decided to address one of the trickiest questions I get asked as a sex therapist: “How much sex should I be having in my relationship?”
Illustration by Angelica Alzona/Lifehacker.
Nothing evokes panic about keeping up with the Joneses quite like sexual frequency. We all seem to be obsessed with making sure we’re having just the “right” amount of sex.
Maintaining an active sex life on top of all of everything else we have going on in our lives can feel overwhelming, so many of us try to comfort ourselves by clinging to concrete things such as numbers.
But the truth is that there is no magic number that will work for every couple. I’ve worked with couples who thought sex every day was too little, and couples who thought sex once a month was too much. We’re just different.
Nonetheless, it is possible to figure out what level of frequency works for your relationship. Here’s how.
Forget About the Honeymoon
Let’s get this popular myth out of the way immediately: The sexual frequency you have at the beginning of your relationship (the “honeymoon phase”) typically isn’t sustainable. When you’re in a brand-new relationship, you don’t have any of the complications you have to deal with in a long-term relationship. Unless sex is incredibly important to you both, and you’re both steadfastly devoted to making a lot of effort, don’t set the early months as your goal. Roughly half of that frequency is a more manageable standard.
But Think About Other Relationship Stages
It can be helpful to look back at your (post-honeymoon) relationship history, especially if you’re in a long-term relationship. Sex lives naturally ebb and flow, so there are bound to have been high and low points. On the timeline of your relationship, when were the two of you the happiest with your sex life? Do you remember any specific details about your sex life at that time? For example, maybe you used to have regular sex dates on Friday nights, or you used to spend most Sunday mornings in bed. These periods can give you more realistic ideas of what to shoot for.
Expand Your Definition of Sex
Most couples — heterosexual couples in particular — get caught in the trap of thinking of sex as just intercourse. People in same-sex relationships tend to have broader definitions of what constitutes sex. Can you guess which group consistently reports greater sexual satisfaction?
If you think of sex as just intercourse, your sex life is going to get boring and routine quickly. Fortunately, there are so many other options. Oral sex, manual stimulation, mutual or solo masturbation, anal play, nipple play, sensual massage, playing with sex toys, teasing, fantasising, roleplaying, sensation play and other activities are all sex too. When there are more options on the table, sex naturally feels much more enticing and satisfying.
Focus on Quality Sex
Having sex solely to hit a quota is rarely pleasurable. Unless keeping up with the Joneses is a thrilling part of your sexual roleplaying, I recommend paying attention to quality over quantity. In my experience, when couples are having sex that’s satisfying for both of them, a comfortable frequency naturally emerges.
Take the time to think about your favourite sexual memories with your partner. What does good sex mean to you? Does it mean having orgasms? Feeling emotionally connected? Working your way through a book of sex positions? This is obviously a huge topic, but try to identify three to five qualities that are important to you, and share them with your partner.
Respect Each Other’s Needs
People always ask me about sexual compatibility, but the truth is that you’re never going to find a partner with whom you’re perfectly sexually compatible. Even if you both magically knew you needed sex twice a week to be exquisitely happy, who is to say that you’re both going to want sex on Tuesday at 8PM and Friday at 11PM? Every couple is going to have to navigate differences in their sexual needs.
In my experience, couples are happiest when they each feel that their needs are important to the other. This is not about fulfilling each other’s every whim; it’s about hearing what your partner wants, acknowledging that you respect their needs, and doing your best to work with them as a team.
If your partner generally has a lower level of desire than you do, that might mean masturbating more frequently. Or it might mean making the effort to support your partner in removing the roadblocks to their desire (for instance, helping them have some alone time every once in a while, or taking some responsibilities off their plate).
If your partner has a higher level of desire than you do, that might mean opening yourself to being intimate even if you aren’t totally in the mood. This is where that expanded definition of sex really becomes important. You might not be open to intercourse, but maybe you are open to getting your partner off with your hand, or talking dirty to them while they masturbate.
Make the Effort More Frequently Than You Feel the Desire
Real talk: Most of us don’t prioritise sex as much as we want to. We’re busy. We’re tired. We’re overwhelmed. We’re lazy. Sex is easy to put on the back burner.
As big as I am on trying to help my clients acknowledge and honour themselves just as they are, I also firmly believe that sex is something that requires active, ongoing effort. Sometimes that means trying to get in the mood even when you’re feeling tired or lazy. Effort is a huge part of what helps us show our partners that we respect them and their needs (as well as respecting ourselves and our needs!).
It’s also important to keep in mind that most people don’t feel the desire for sex until they have already started doing something physical. A lot of my clients even tell me it’s not until sex is over that they realise, “Oh wow, that was fun. I always forget how much I like sex.” My recommendation is to try to engage in some sort of physical touch about twice as often as you feel the interest in having sex. If you wind up getting in the mood, go ahead and have sex with your partner! If you don’t, it’s still great to have more touch in your relationship.
The bottom line is the effort you’re both willing to make to open yourselves to physical intimacy is way more important than the actual number of times you wind up having sex. Having sex exactly three times per week, every week isn’t necessarily going to make you happy. What will make you happy is knowing that your partner respects your needs, and that you’re working together as a team to find a middle ground between your needs.