One Bed or Two? What is Healthy Sex for Long-Term Couples?
Doing It Until We Need Glasses (Or Not)
There are a great many statistics – not all of them obtained scientifically – regarding the frequency of sex among long-term committed/married couples. A quick Internet search will yield a surprisingly wide variation in what is thought to be a “normal” or “healthy” amount of sex for married people. So much for Internet searches. That said, the most scientifically reliable data comes from the General Social Survey, which has tracked American sexual behaviors since the early 1970s. According to the GSS, married couples of all ages have sex an average of 58 times per year. But this number lumps 29-year-old newlyweds into the same survey sample as 70-year-olds who’ve been married half a century, and I’m guessing that those in the first blush of love tend to get it on a wee bit more than couples who’ve been together for twenty-plus years with two or three kids and maybe even some grandkids to show for it. Recent GSS studies support this, finding that couples in their twenties have sex 111 times per year on average, with that frequency dropping steadily as couples age – perhaps as much as 20 percent per decade. Basically, younger married couples have sex twice per week, give or take, slowing over time to once or twice a month with the occasional extra session thrown in to acknowledge birthdays, anniversaries, and major holidays. That said, the frequency of sex varies widely depending on health, available time, and external circumstances (new kids, caring for a senior parent, etc.), not to mention each individual’s very specific sex drive.
What is a Sexless Marriage?
Typically, a sexless marriage is defined as one in which the couple has sex fewer than 10 times per year. Approximately 15 to 20 percent of longer-term married couples fall into this category. By the way, lack of sex may or may not be an issue for couples in long-term relationships. Some couples who qualify as “sexless” are perfectly happy with their sex lives thank you very much. Once or twice a year (or not at all) is just fine with them. Perhaps these people just have lower libidos, perhaps there is a medical condition that prevents sex or the enjoyment thereof, perhaps there is an unresolved psychological issue that renders sex less appealing to one or both parties. Whatever the reason, sex just isn’t as high a priority for some couples as it is for many others. So a lack of sex doesn’t necessarily mean a couple isn’t deeply in love, attached and intimate in other ways, and happy with their marriage. It just means they’re not as engaged sexually as some of their friends and neighbors.
For others, an ongoing lack of sex can be indicative of larger issues that may ultimately lead to strife and separation. Numerous studies have shown that for some couples this is indeed the case, with lower sexual frequency in marriage corresponding directly with marital instability and thoughts of leaving a partner and/or divorcing. Sometimes one person’s sexual drive simply does not match that of his or her partner. This is a frequent issue in couples therapy. Sometimes both people have a desire for sex, but one of them does not want to have it with his or her spouse for any number of reasons, such as lingering resentments, lack of relationship intimacy, and no longer finding the other person attractive. In other cases, one partner’s lack of interest in marital sex may stem from underlying psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, low self-esteem, early attachment deficits, or unresolved trauma. It is not unusual for such people to turn to non-intimate sexual experiences (online porn, webcam sex, strip clubs, prostitutes, etc.) as these encounters can feel more intense yet less emotionally challenging than being sexual within a long-term committed relationship. Another reason some people lose interest in sex with a long-term partner/spouse is they’re having an affair. If they’re getting their sexual needs met on the side, there’s not much sexual interest left for the primary relationship.
Many “sexless” couples never had much sex to begin with. For others, a particular time or event – the birth of a child, an affair, physical illness or injury – slowed their sexual frequency. Sometimes people simply mature in ways that leave them feeling less sexual but still motived to seek out life-affirming, nonsexual intimacy and connection. Whatever the case, the ways in which sexual inactivity affects a couple over the long-run depend almost entirely on the specific emotional meaning the act of sex has for that particular couple, combined with each person’s specific sexual desires. If both partners are OK with less sex, so be it. But, as mentioned above, if one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t, a lack of sexual activity can evolve into problematic patterns best addressed by a well-recommended couples counselor or sex therapist.
Is Decreasing Frequency Inevitable?
Most of us know (or at least have heard about) one long-married/committed couple that is still hot for each other decades into the relationship. And good for them. For the rest of us, libido usually droops in tandem with our aging body parts. This is perfectly normal. Some of this decline in sex drive is physical in nature – diminishing testosterone levels, side-effects of blood pressure medications, etc. – and the rest of the decline is just plain old life distracting us from the joys of making love. We get stressed out at work, worry about our kids, and struggle to make this month’s mortgage payment, and because we’re so busy dealing with that stuff we push aside and/or devalue the importance of sex.
Happily, less sex does not equal less happiness and fulfillment. For most couples, especially couples that have been together for a few years, their companionship, mutual reliability, and sense of trust in one another trumps having a lot of sex. That said, if several months have passed with no sex and this lack of mutual erotic activity is troubling to one or both partners, the matter should likely be addressed with a professional present to help.
Discerning the Underlying Issues
With some couples, a little bit of effort is enough to rev the engines. For others, there may be physical, psychological, or marital issues that need to be worked out. In all cases, the initial step to take is an open dialog to determine the source of the problem. Possible causes can include:
- Physical issues: hormonal imbalance, serious illness, injury, etc.
- Stress: work, money, kids, daily chores, car repairs, community or political turmoil, etc.
- Resentment: unresolved anger directed at the other partner
- Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, childhood trauma, attachment deficit disorders, etc.
- Substance abuse or addiction
- Decreased physical attraction to one’s partner
- Secrets, which diminish relationship trust and emotional intimacy
Once a couple has identified the problem, they can decide what to do about it. If the issue is physical – the man has trouble maintaining an erection, for instance – a trip to the doctor can do wonders. Decreased physical attraction can sometimes be resolved with a makeover and/or an improved diet coupled with a regular workout regimen, but usually decreased physical attraction has less to do with appearance and more to do with unexpressed and unresolved unhappiness in the relationship/marriage. If this is the case, couples counseling might help. Therapeutic intervention can also help with stress, resentment, psychological issues, addiction, and the keeping of secrets.
Rekindling the Flame
As mentioned above, sometimes a little bit of effort is all that’s need to revive a flagging sex life. Oftentimes with sexless (or nearly sexless) couples, sex was great in the beginning, when everything that happened was new and exciting. The emotional connection through physical intimacy was powerful as the partners got to know each other’s bodies – learning, exploring, and experimenting. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way marital sex sometimes gets a little stale. It becomes routine, and routines can be boring. The good news is that for most otherwise healthy (read: happy) couples it’s relatively easy to spark a new fire. Below are five tips to help in this regard.
- Try something new. You’ve always had a certain fantasy but you’ve never acted on it. Now is the time to tell your spouse and ask if he or she is willing to try it. And if you’ve had a fantasy that you’ve kept secret all these years, so has your partner. Ask about it, and be willing to indulge it.
- Switch it up. Have sex in a different room of the house, or in a hotel, or on a cruise ship. If your partner is always the initiator, you take the lead. If you are usually the initiator, ask your partner to take the lead.
- Be romantic. Give your spouse a gift “just because.” Tell your spouse five things that you love about him/her. Plan a surprise date, and make sure it’s something he or she will enjoy. (Rather than dragging your wife to the sci-fi convention because you’re a huge fan of Star Wars, take her to the art museum to see the modern art that she loves. Instead of dragging your husband to the mall to shop for shoes, surprise him with a trip to the drag races.)
- Understand that physical intimacy doesn’t always mean sex. Recognize that cuddling can be as intimate as actual sex. Try holding hands and looking into your spouse’s eyes and listening to him or her. Flirt, tease, and touch, knowing that when you finally do get around to actual sex, both of you will be excited and ready.
- Schedule it. Set aside time for you, as a couple, to be both emotionally and physically intimate. Recognize that you are both busy and stressed out, and plan to take a relaxing bubble bath together or to give each other a massage as part of your sexual foreplay.
Is Marital Sex Optional?
Sex is a natural, healthy way for couples to bond emotionally. In many ways it is an important contributor to overall health and happiness. So it is probably not surprising that increased marital sex generally corresponds to increased marital satisfaction, and vice versa. That said, non-genital touch, massage, hugs, holding, and just plain talking openly and honestly are every bit as effective as sex in bringing us closer to our partners – sometimes more so. As long as both partners within a “sexless” marriage are open about their feelings and needs and mutually satisfied with the level of intimacy, the relationship can not only survive, but thrive.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters. He is a regular contributor to both PsychCentral.com and The Huffington Post, writing primarily about the intersection of technology with sex and intimacy. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and a personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, Mr. Weiss founded the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. Currently he is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others.
Weiss LCSW, R. (2013). One Bed or Two? What is Healthy Sex for Long-Term Couples?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 2, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2013/03/what-is-healthy-sex-for-long-term-couples/