When our kids were little, my mom friends and I would pour some wine and occasionally, the talk would turn to sex. For a spicy topic, our conversation was pretty tame — basically, we’d confide how often we had sex with our husbands. We’d sympathize with our sisters who hadn’t connected in months and marvel at the mamas who got busy a few times a week.
We didn’t discuss what actually took place during our intimate encounters or ask if it was a yummy, mutually satisfying experience. Back in those exhausted post-partum/pre-school days, we were all having a lot less sex than we’d had before kids and simply doing the deed checked the box on the to-do list. Frequency was our barometer of a healthy love life, or at least the only measure we were willing to talk about.
But is the quantity of sex really so critical to a fulfilling relationship? Does doing it on the daily make you much happier than coming together, say, every full moon?
A group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon set out to find out. They conducted a study, published in 2015, that was the first of its kind to research the connection between sexual frequency and happiness. They took a group of married male-female couples, divided them into two groups, and asked one group to double the frequency of their weekly sexual intercourse. Then they analyzed their baseline happiness, using the other group as a control. The results? Increasing the frequency of sex had no measurable effect on happiness. In fact, people who had sex twice as often actually experienced a small decrease in happiness. The researchers didn’t conclude that sex made the participants unhappy, rather that it was seen as a duty or chore instead of something they initiated themselves. The popular “just do it” advice that works for some couples didn’t hold up here.
To investigate these dynamics, I consulted with Amy Freier, a Certified Sex Therapist and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor at Enliven Couples Therapy in Chicago. When I asked Freier how important frequency is to a good sex life, she put it bluntly: “It’s pretty irrelevant.”
Irrelevant? Come on, there must be a minimum amount of sex a couple needs to have before they slip into the abyss of a sexless marriage, right?
“The traditional definition of a sexless marriage is 10 times a year or less,” says Freier. “I stay away from that, because I have couples in my practice who are thrilled with the quantity and quality of their sex — and it’s four times a year. It’s not even an issue. It’s less about quantity and more about how you feel about it.”
Freier’s main focus is on the energy and enthusiasm partners bring to the bedroom. She helps couples discover what she calls their “erotic map,” beginning with the individual. “If you’re not connected to your sexuality, it’s really hard for another person to connect it for you.
“I ask clients, when do you feel most sexy, sensual, and connected? When do you feel most alive in your body and when was the last time you felt that way? For a lot of people, it’s a long time ago.”
Once both partners have identified what lights them up individually, Freier helps them design a plan that makes them excited to have sex and brings mutual pleasure. All couples need to have this ongoing conversation because our bodies, life situations, and emotions are always changing, and so must our lovemaking if it’s going to stay satisfying. Teaming up to enhance the quality of your sex life can have amazing results, says Freier. “The change can be insane from a pleasure standpoint and feeling a sense of ownership. It also transforms the connection outside of sex; you’re on the same team. Sex can be really, really healing.”
The results of the Carnegie Mellon study support this. Says CMU research scientist Tamar Krishnamurti, “The desire to have sex decreases much more quickly than the enjoyment of sex once it’s been initiated. Instead of focusing on increasing sexual frequency, couples may want to work on creating an environment that sparks their desire and makes the sex that they do have even more fun.”
So this year, don’t worry about how often you and your partner hook up. Instead find ways to amp up the excitement and pleasure of your experience. I recently compared notes with my older, wiser girlfriends and at this point in our lives we all agreed — quality of sex beats quantity hands down.
While every couple is unique, here are some ideas that are worth a try:
- Be curious. Non-judgmental curiosity is the best boost to a couple’s sex life, says Freier. Investigate what feels good to your body, what are your fantasies, what are you each longing for now? Curiosity can lead to some amazing discoveries between partners.
- One of the most common problems for couples is their differences in desire. “It’s nearly impossible to find your perfect sex match,” says Freier. By identifying your individual turn-ons and turn-offs, you can create a situation where both of you are relaxed and excited for sex. It might mean a different time of day, a new location, or an inspired solution for dealing with the kids.
- Be aware of the energy you’re bringing to your intimate time with your partner. It’s important to connect to the erotic part of yourself, give yourself pleasure throughout the week, and bring that energy to your partner. Positive, enthusiastic energy is a turn on. “It’s very rarely about the physical technique, and more about the energy,” says Freier.
Other Ideas From Make It Better
- Scientific Secrets for Better Sex
- For Better Sex, Explore Your Fantasies
- Sex After Kids: 4 Ways to Make It Happen
Marjie Killeen is a freelance writer who has been covering sex and relationships for Make It Better since it began. She is a regular supporter of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and is a member of the Human Rights Campaign.