We see this question on magazine covers lining grocery counters every day. I read studies looking at the numbers all the time. Many of the studies focus on frequency of intercourse. But how good is that frequency?
As a sex therapist, I hear far too many stories of bad-normal-bad-sex. The kind of normal-bad-sex that is “another thing on my ‘to do’ list” kind of sex, or the “it’s been three weeks” kind of sex, or the “something is better than nothing” kind of sex. But what I’m really interested in is … who is having sex they love … with someone they love … and have been loving for a long time. What is their secret!! Inquiring minds want to know!
So I set out to cull the research and see if I could get a handle on what truly made a difference as far as sexual satisfaction and frequency was concerned.
Here is what I found out about whose got it good and why (according to what is being studied, anyway)…
First and foremost … Contrary to what pop-culture would have you believe, it is
Those who are in long-term committed relationships
Not those who are wild, crazy, unattached and swinging from chandeliers! A 2010 study out of the Kinsey Institute found that those who were unattached were 40 percent more likely to not have had sex in the previous year than those who were attached. In another study analyzing ages of 25 to 59, married folks were five times more likely to be having sex two to three times a week (25%) than those who were single (5%). While the complexities of life may change frequency over time, that frequency still exceeds those who are not partnered. Researcher Laura Carpenter out of Vanderbilt University says long-term partnered couples also become more skillful in how they nourish their relationship, both in and out of the bedroom. This adaptation occurs in part because of the maturation of their relationship in the next three areas:
Partners having the highest sexual satisfaction and the most frequency:
ONE: Feel respected and understood by their partner.
Partners are responsive to each other’s feelings. This usually comes down to listening to each other …
listening to hear not listening to respond
This also usually comes down to flexibly sharing responsibilities in running everyday life. Both research out of John Gottman’s lab and from sociologist Constance Gager from Montclair State University found variations on this theme. There is a sense of managing life and working out the details together – while also having a conscientiousness for preserving their overall energy. Partners feel like partners … on the same team … both mindful of their quality of life and quality of relationship.
Every couple gets out of sync at times,
and during these times one person, if not both, feel very alone and misunderstood. But this couple, soon finds a way to sit down, and re-balance their ship. One person sets their need to be understood aside for a moment and seeks to hear and understand the other. In doing this, they know the other will in time extend the same reciprocity to stop and hear them as well. There is responsiveness in both word and action.
TWO: They have found positive ways to respond to each other when one partner is not ‘up for it’.
Virtually every couple will have times, if not entire seasons, where one’s sexual appetite will be different than their partners. Like any other appetite in our life, we have preferences and those preferences can change. We have a hankering for steak or fish, ice cream or fruit.
We are more hungry or less hungry.
We desire comfort food, warm food, or fresh food. To expect our partner to be exactly like us all the time, would be as ridiculous as expecting them to want to eat the exact same thing all the time. So, in the same way as we might negotiate what restaurant we want to go to, we negotiate how we want to express our desire for pleasure and intimate connection. If a couple has a narrow vocabulary of how to talk about sexual touch and a narrow way to think about sexual touch,
the vulnerability of the desire for touch can feel very risky.
For example a person may only know to say, “Hey, you up for it tonight?” The ‘it’ is understood to be intercourse only. The partner, equally as limited in their language and understanding, and who is not up for intercourse says tersely, “Not tonight.” Behind this terse reply, is an inability to language the guilt, the expectation, the resentment, and maybe even the desire for something different. They only know how to say “Not tonight” –
but this is packed with a punch and that punch is felt.
This kind of interaction repeated countless times is very hard on a relationship. This is just as true if the person being ‘turned down’ responds harshly or negatively. A couple with more of a sexual vocabulary for both language and touch might say, “Hey, I’d love to have time tonight for some playful loving touch. You up for that?” The other who has limited energy, might say something like, “Well, I’m pretty pooped, but I’d be game for taking a quick shower together before bed and doing some fun touching there, then falling asleep to you massaging my body with that touch of yours I love.” If the person asking, only gets the response, “Well, I’m pretty pooped …”, she/he might respond with the suggestion, “Is there some way I can love on you tonight that would let you know how much I love you without the touch feeling demanding?”
Since they have a long history of ‘making love’ in multiple ways,
some with one or both moving through their arousal cycle, some with neither moving through their arousal cycle, some with intercourse, many without, yet all drawing them closer, all pleasurable and all fun, they can be adaptable, flexible and open minded.
THREE: They keep their individual lives rich and adventure alive.
They believe in touch, adventure and play. Several years ago when I was first working on my book (which hopefully will be out in 2016), I had the pleasure of talking with the family and sex therapist Esther Perel about her newly released book, Mating in Captivity, which has now become a bestseller. Her TED talk has over 5 million views. She hit a marriage nerve when she suggested we need adventure, risk, difference and novelty in our longterm relationships if sex is to stay enjoyable. She makes the point that togetherness, sameness, constancy, even security, have a way of breeding complacency – and in the arena of sexual desire, this drains the tank.
Sexual desire and eroticism is fed by excitement, joy, adventure, even adrenaline, chaos and anticipation.
If we are to keep this alive in our long-term relationships, we must keep our individual lives vital and growing in order to keep ourselves engaged and offering something essential to our relationship. As we grow, we invite our relationship to grow. This is also true as we experience new things together as a couple – try new things, explore new places, take new risks, conquer new challenges. Adventure, play, anticipation, growth is like mainlining vitality into our erotic energy both inside and outside the bedroom.
As contrary as it sounds, protecting play and adventure, for us personally and as a couple
is one of the best things we can do for our relationship.
The “Oh!” in “The Big O”
I would anecdotally add from my years as a couple and sex therapist, that those couples who are open to seeing their love and sexual relationship as a deeply spiritual endeavor, will at times describe transcendent experiences that are ecstatic beyond description. One man who had come through an intimacy retreat where I teach sacred sexual intimacy practices said after an experience with his wife, “I had no idea sex could be so powerful and spiritual. Nothing I have ever experienced, no porn, nothing, holds a candle to this. I only wish I had explored this side of sex before.” In America we display a very limited view of the capacity within sexual expression – one that is often void of being seen, known, loved or accepted. Instead it is simply a physiologically focused response to a pleasurable arousal cycle.
But sex can, and often is for those who risk it, so much more.
So there you have it … the truth about sexual satisfaction and sexual frequency. It all boils down to emotional, sexual, spiritual and relational health … the easy and the hard of it. The journey of life.