When it comes to sex, how much is enough in a marraige? How often should you make love?
We’re in the middle of our libido series on the blog this month. Last week I was asking higher drive spouses if they could be content if they had sex at the very least once a week, and there was some interesting discussion on that. My point was that when you’re having sex a healthy or average number of times a week, then if you constantly express disappointment and criticism with your spouse, you’re very likely to change the sex dynamic in your marriage so that your spouse doesn’t like sex. And then you’ll have it even less.
But all of that is predicated on the question: What is a healthy level of sex in a marriage?
Is there an amount that’s healthy?
Well, let’s start with my survey from The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, where we asked about frequency of sex by age. And I’m just going to take a picture from the book because it’s easier than recreating the chart!
So about 87% of under 25s are having sex once a week or more; 64% of 25-34s are; and roughly 55-60% of under 35-54s are.
When we look at how many couples make love at least three times a week, 38% of young ones do; 24% of 25-34s; and between 8 and 20% of older couples.
So most of us are at around the 1-2 time a week level.
Other studies have found similar things. A study quoted in Time Magazine in 2018 found that the average married couple had sex a little more than once a week.
Now we know how often people are having sex. But what is actually healthy? And how do we measure that?
That’s really the big question, right? Does it really matter what most people are doing? After all, most of us eat terribly badly. Doesn’t mean we should all eat a ton of sugar, just because most North Americans do. What matters is what is actually healthy.
In our recent survey of 20,000 women for our upcoming book The Great Sex Rescue, we found that frequency and marital satisfaction aren’t perfectly correlated. The women in the happiest marriages were not the ones who had sex the most often. Nor does frequency line up with sexual satisfaction exactly. The women who orgasmed the most were not the ones most likely to have sex the most often, either, similar to what a study from York University found.
Muise and her study team found that couples who have a lot of sex tend to experience better wellbeing. “Sex is associated with feeling more satisfied in a relationship,” Muise says. But beyond once a week, the wellbeing benefits of sex seem to level off. That’s not to say that having sex a few times a week (or more) is a bad thing. It just doesn’t seem to make couples any happier, she says.
So making love at least once a week is great; beyond that, it’s wonderful if you’re enjoying it, but it doesn’t necessarily result in increased happiness.
In a 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, they found that frequency of sex was not as strong a predictor of marital satisfaction as other things.
When spouses’ interpersonal behaviors, frequency of sexual intercourse, and sexual satisfaction were considered in tandem, all but the frequency of sexual intercourse were associated with marital satisfaction. When it comes to feelings of marital satisfaction, therefore, a satisfying sex life and a warm interpersonal climate appear to matter more than does a greater frequency of sexual intercourse.
Take all these things together, and what we find, I think, is that couples who are happy and healthy make love at least once a week. But beyond that, the key to the happiness is less dependent on the frequency of sex, and more on the quality of their relationship and whether they’re both enjoying sex.
So what do I think the healthy level of sex is in a marriage?
If I had to say, I would say 2-3 times a week, on average. But I’d also offer huge caveats. I think it depends on work schedules, on the age of your children, on health issues.
And I also really, really think that watching the calendar and thinking, “Oh, we need to tonight!” is not the healthiest way to be. Our survey found that when women feel obligated to have sex, sexual satisfaction plummets.
I think a marriage that has no sex for a week, and then sex every day for 4 days, and then skips a day and has sex the next day, is much healthier than one where you have sex every 72 hours, on the dot. When sex flows out of the ebb and flow of your relationship and your real life, and takes into account what people are experiencing, feeling, and thinking, then sex is going to be a lot more fulfilling and life-giving.
I also think it really depends on what level of sex you both want. In our focus groups for our upcoming book The Great Sex Rescue, we heard from a woman who initiated sex every 72 hours because that’s what she’d heard in the church that men needed if they weren’t going to lust or stray. So every three days on the dot she’d initiate it.
A few years into marriage she was feeling rather despondent, because her husband never initiated sex. He never made any overtures towards her. So she talked with him about it, and his response? “I never had time to! I’m just trying so hard to keep up with you!”
They had a long talk about why she’d been initiating that often, and he was appalled to learn that she was afraid he’d lust (which is what books like Love & Respect and Every Man’s Battle tell women). He assured her that this was not a problem at all. And as they talked about it, they both realized that neither wanted sex every 72 hours. They decided to just wait and only initiate when someone actually wanted it, and they’ve settled in to roughly once a week, and they’re both much happier.
Sometimes people have lower sex drives, and a lower frequency is okay.
I’d just say that if neither of you ever wants sex, that’s not healthy either.
Sex is a vital part of marriage, and if you’re living as roommates and don’t want to connect sexually, it’s important to find out why. Often it’s because unhealthy eating habits or inactivity have caused health problems, and it’s worth addressing those for all kinds of reasons. If there are other things keeping you both from wanting sex? Figure out what those are, and address them. You were meant to live passionate, abundant lives!
Are you TIRED of always being too tired for sex?
Now, what if the problem isn’t that neither of you want sex, but that you want sex at very different frequencies and have big libido differences? We’re going to tackle that over the next few days.
So how often should you be having sex? Let’s sum up.
Today, before we turn to tackling libido differences through the rest of the week, I wanted us to figure out what healthy sex frequency is.
- At least once a week is likely healthiest
- More than once a week can be even better
- BUT the key to marital satisfaction is far less about frequency and more about the quality of your relationship and the quality of sex.
While a certain frequency is great, it’s not like more is always better. (for all of you Generation X’ers who might get the reference, all I can think of right now is the Christopher Walken Saturday NIght Live skit about more cowbell).
Often we think the happiest marriages are the ones with the greatest frequency, but that’s not necessarily true, and the answer to marriage problems isn’t necessarily “have more sex.”
But then, sex can be wonderful and great and can leave us relaxed and feeling close and feeling awesome. So I say, why not make our default, “let’s try to have sex tonight!” And if things don’t work, that’s okay. But if our default were “yes” instead of “no”, maybe we’d get to that sweet spot of frequency!
What do you think? Do you think there’s a healthy level of sex in marriage? Let’s talk in the comments!
The Libido Differences Series:
- Can Higher Drive Spouses Be Content with their Sex Lives?
- How Many Times a Week Should Couples Have Sex?
- A Word to Low Libido Spouses
- 10 Questions for High Libido Husbands to Ask if Their Wives Don’t Want Sex (September 16)
- The Frequency Podcast (what our survey told us about sex frequency) (September 17)
- 7 Questions for Wives to Ask if Their Husbands Don’t Want Sex (September 18)
- How to Handle Rejection When Your Spouse Doesn’t Want Sex (September 21)
- 10 Things that Tank Women’s Libidos (September 28)
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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It’s really interesting how these things change. If I would have read this like 2 years ago I would have been a little upset and maybe said that I think the number should be higher.
Today my sex drive has plummeted. I barely care for sex. The last two times we had sex it has been like a month between. I don’t even get “blue balls”. I just don’t seem to care. There is a lot of emotional things going on I guess. She is pregnant and isn’t much in the mood so she doesn’t notice but I don’t feel like having sex. I guess kids and life in general take a a toll on you. And then other problems just make things worse.
Hopefully the desire comes back some day.
I’m sorry, Anon! Hang in there. When you have little kids, it is a different story. It can be very difficult. But give yourself grace as you just get through these years, and try to enjoy them, too!
Very interesting post, Sheila! One thing I’m wondering is what if you and your spouse have different assessments of how much sex you are having?
My husband and I started out our marriage having sex once a week but for the past 1.5 years, we’ve only had sex 1-2 times a month (I’m the higher drive spouse so I have definitely noticed how long it has been and I’m completely sure my assessment of frequency is accurate).
My husband and I recently had an odd conversation where he noted that we haven’t been having sex as often lately. I made the point that we haven’t been having sex as often for more than a year and he didn’t believe me! Does anyone else have this problem?
My husband and I agree we should have sex once a week. But I guess he apparently thought we were even when we weren’t. How do I get him to have sex every week with me when he thinks he already is (but definitely isn’t)?
It makes me really sad that we have sex so infrequently in our marriage. I always enjoy it and want to have sex again right away but I know I’ll have to wait at least two or three weeks. It’s really affected my own sex drive, it feels like it’s better to just not want sex anymore than to have to wait for weeks.
Oh, that’s so tough, Elsie!
I did do surveys of both men and women for The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and got pretty much exactly the same percentages of frequency based on age cohorts, so I think in general people report roughly the same? But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t an issue in your marriage.
If it’s that he does want to have sex at least once a week, and he’s not even noticing that you’re not, then scheduling sex may be the answer. It sounds really unromantic, but for many couples it can jump start a dead libido and help you get to a healthier frequency.
I do think it’s harder to be the higher libido wife, because low libido women get a lot of messages about how important it is to have sex with their husbands, and most of us have internalized that. But men don’t get the same messages. And then for sex to work, he has to be aroused and in the mood, so it is a different dynamic. I’ll be talking about this more for wives on Friday’s post!
I think there are a lot of variables, as you mentioned
that indivate how much sex feels right, or enough. There are others that you may not be aware of.
Having experienced something of a renewal of our sex life, we got to the 2-3 times a week stage with both of us in our mid 50’s. It was extremely satisfying, and I was on cloud 9, until something interrupted that frequency. Then I would be very hurt and fearful that it was gone. That went on for about a year, and then life stomped down on it hard, and it went to almost zero for about 18 months. In the early days of that drought, I was OK. I knew, or suspected that it would be a short season. When that season ended, or at least the circumstance behind the season had passed, I expected things to return to what they were before, and when they didn’t, the hurt and fear came back, but to a lesser degree. As you wrote about I just tried to reach a level of contentment, because I figured things had settled into what was “normal” for us and was unlikely to move very far from that mark.
Last night I decided to see if I could improve the quality while staying satisfied with the quantity and took a chance on ordering a trial of Tadalafil. It wasn’t as complicated as I thought, but when it got to the question of how much for a month, I was left wondering if I should order what I would like, or what would have been enough at our current frequency. I decided to split the difference.
I huess you could say that I am satisfied with once a week, would wish for 3 times that, and am reasonably hopeful for twice a week at least sometimes.
Your observation that things often come in seasons is so true.
I’m glad you have “reasonable hope!” 🙂
On your very last sentence did you mean to use the word “but”? I am struggling with the grammar.
I would insert a huge caveat: if you have a lot of problems in your marriage, sex makes them worse. This is especially true if you have communication or respect problems.
Yes, definitely, and we’ll be talking about that over the next week.
Because sex for most women begins with mental preparation, I understand what Elsie means when she writes >>it feels like it’s better to just not want sex anymore than to have to wait …<<
No one wants to get "worked up" for nothing. It's physically frustrating and emotionally painful. Sometimes it does seem easier to just give up, not think about it, not "want".
My husband and I (married 42 years) reserve weekend afternoons as "nap" time. This gives us something to look forward to on a regular schedule and if sex also happens during the week, it's an added bonus.
This, of course, may not be possible for families with young children; but for the rest of us, it is a wonderful way to show that you value your spouse and your relationship.
Separating this out into a second comment because it is a second thought:
People have studied the effect of money on happiness. For a lot of people, more money actually makes them happier! They are less stressed and feel better about life. They have fewer money fights with their spouse.
They have money for vacation, savings, emergencies, or the occasional fancy coffee. That effect levels off around $75,000 a year (adjust based on cost of living, student loans, ten kids, etc.).
Above that, it’s likely that the effect disappears through a combination of high marginal tax rates, longer hours, more job stress, and (forgetting the exact term here) adjusting to your new standard of living.
What that tells me is that, broadly, there are two categories of earnings: “enough” and “not enough.”
Haven’t done studies, haven’t seen studies, but I imagine there is a similar effect with alcohol: a few drinks a week may be enjoyable and take the edge of stress, but there is a declining value after that point, and even a point at which more is worse.
Likewise… it’s not surprising that there comes a point at which more sex does not, broadly speaking, correlate with increased marital satisfaction; however, below that point, more (satisfying, good) sex makes for a happier marriage.
When it comes to being happy, there just has to be a point where you’re satisfied. That doesn’t mean you can’t want or try for more; it just means that if you don’t get it, you’re okay with it. (This is sometimes really hard for me.)
This is it exactly, Jane! Thank you.
There is a lot of truth in that Jane,
but I think you would have a hard time convincing someone who had been truly impoverished that too much money would make them unhappy. As someone who has endured both hunger and sleep deprivation in the course of my training, I can tell you that the same applies to sleep and food. It doesn’t seem like you can ever have enough after enduring those things, until you actually do get enough. Have you ever been truly thirsty. I have, and I drank so much water that my body couldn’t handle it. I knew it was too much, but I couldn’t stop myself from drinking more.
I think the same applies to sex. Actually, I know from experience that it does.
As for sex deprivation: I didn’t have intercourse until my late 30s and have never had an orgasm. Are you really trying to tell me that you’re more deprived of sexual pleasure than I am, or that I don’t understand what it’s like to want pleasure that isn’t forthcoming?
I didn’t make any comparisons at all. I certainly don’t know what it is like to walk in your shoes, any more than you know what it is like to walk in mine.
I am sorry if I offended in some way. It was not my intent.
Is it an actual sin to fake an orgasm for several years with your wife?
Well it’s a sin to lie…and if you aren’t explicitly lying, I don’t know…it’s still not healthy. Marriages should be built on openness, and a willingness On both sides to have the tough conversations.
Thats one thing I can’t bring myself to do because I know what will happen
I think a lot of it depends on the quality of sex being had. If the sex is really amazing quality-wise, my husband and I find we’ll be good for the next 3-5 days… like, our libidos won’t even be recharged enough and wanting it again till the better part of a week has passed. If the quality was subpar or it was just a quickie, he’ll usually be okay for the next couple to several days, whereas I’ll be wanting more the very next day and then start to get frustrated/passing aggressive (aka my version of sexually frustrated) if we don’t have sex again and I orgasm to a satisfactory degree. We find we’re both more frustrated and short-fused with each other on weeks where we can only squeeze in a brief quickie (& for us, most of the time, quickies mean only he cums and there’s little foreplay). We know, in an ideal world, we’d be having quality, relatively lengthy sex every other day or every 3 days, which would then lead to us feeling more connected and more patient and loving towards each other. That’s something we’re working towards. Some weeks it happens but most weeks it doesn’t. It really just all depends on our schedules and energy levels. It’s something we’re working to improve. My husband is also trying to be more conscious of and act on his sexual impulses more, since he’s really good at pushing that out of his mind and not initiating.
(Married almost 6 years, together for almost 11. Both age 30 with a 3yo and a 1yo.)
We fall in the 3-4x a week category. Both 38 years old, married 17 years, with kids from middle school to toddler age. Actually I don’t think it’s even that frequent, though I guess statistically it is? Quality definitely matters, we rarely have quickies (where it’s just for him), we usually have “full” sessions where we both climax… I don’t think I could feel satisfied with just once a week, personally. And for me, I do prefer sex to happen consistently, not like the example Sheila gives (no sex for a week, then sex for four days straight, etc) because it makes me feel connected to my husband, like even if life gets crazy, we will still prioritize our intimate life on a regular basis. And I think part of that is that sex definitely gets better and easier after being married for longer, versus being newlyweds and maybe things don’t always work so good.
I would enjoy sex more frequently, I think my husband’s inactivity and generally being overweight put a dampener on his drive. I feel so undesirable. But then recently I can’t connect with him at all, because we were ready to start trying (not trying, but just not preventing) to have a baby, and he changed his mind! Sex feels so dead after that, and it’s a forbidden topic, I can’t talk about children now.