No matter how blissfully happy a couple is, if one person wants a ton of sex and the other is fine only getting some every so often, problems may arise. But it can be pretty hard to know if you’re having sex “enough.” Even if you have open conversations about the subject with your friends, chances are you’re still working with a pretty small sample size. Luckily, science has done some investigating in this realm.
Here’s what the research says.
An oft-cited study published in November 2015 in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science pinpointed once a week as the magic number. After studying over 30,000 people, the researchers found that couples had sex around once a week on average, and what’s more, having sex that often was linked to an increase in happiness compared to having it less often. But interestingly enough, the study found no increase in happiness when people had sex more than once a week.
A March 2014 study in Social Indicators Research begs to differ. The study, which analyzed over 15,000 people, found that people who had sex two to three times a week were happier than those who had it once a week, and so on down the line.
These are great nuggets of information, but experts say you don’t need to change anything in your sex life based on these numbers.
First of all, this is correlation, not causation—the study authors can’t say whether having more sex made people happier or whether people had more sex because they were happier to begin with. But also, they’re studies, not universal commandments everyone must follow for a strong relationship.
“It’s hard, because I appreciate [these studies]. But what’s good for some couples is not right for every couple,” sex therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D., author of She Comes First, tells SELF. “For some couples, once a week is too much depending on where they are in life, and for others it’s really not enough.”
He’s not the only expert who advises against holding yourself up to pretty arbitrary standards. “It’s a common question—what frequency is normal? But I’ve come to believe it’s a comparison trap,” Megan Fleming, Ph.D., sex and relationship expert, tells SELF. That study in Social Indicators Research backs this up: People who thought they were having less sex than their peers were unhappier than those who thought they were having the same amount of sex or more than their friends, regardless of the actual numbers. “It doesn’t matter what’s normal for anyone else, it’s about whats normal for you,” says Fleming.
The truth is that the “normal” amount of sex in a relationship might differ for each person.
After you get out of the early-relationship phase when you need orgasms like you need air, your libidos will settle down, and it’s fine if they’re on different levels. “Most couples have a desire discrepancy,” says Fleming. This often happens because one person wants to feel connected in order to have sex, but conversely, the other person feels connected through sex, Fleming explains.
If you have the higher libido and feel like you’re not having enough sex (regardless of how much anyone else is having), all is not lost as long as you’re willing to talk about it. And yes, it can be hard—initiating more sex or striking up a conversation about what you need can “feel like crossing the Grand Canyon,” Fleming acknowledges.
But it can definitely be worth it. “Keeping communication channels open helps you create a relationship vision,” says Fleming. “You paint the picture of the relationship and sex life you want to have. It helps you see how you’re on the same page or unearth any differences or incompatibilities.”
Maybe what you need is not even more sex, but just a change of pace. “I ask couples to think about sex like food and decide if they need to vary the current menu or add new appetizers or entrees,” says Kerner.
And that gets at the heart of this issue, which is that overall, focusing on quality can fix any issues with quantity.
“It’s about having sex that feels worth having,” says Fleming, who notes that a lot of couples fall into sexual ruts, almost like they’re following a script. She recommends viewing sex as something that starts outside the bedroom and connecting in other ways to “keep the embers burning in a sense.” That method of connecting will likely make you both want sex more often. “It’s like the law of physics that something in motion stays in motion,” says Fleming.
And when it comes to the sex itself, Kerner suggests thinking about satisfaction rather than how much of it you’re having. “[Consider] whether it’s imaginative and exciting, new versus familiar, orgasmic and mutually pleasurable…metrics other than quantity that really come into play,” says Kerner. On the flip side, there’s definitely something to the whole “use it or lose it” idea, he says. “Sex ruts do seem to beget sex ruts, and couples who manage to stay connected sexually get into a feedback loop where they have more sex. It’s important for couples to make that effort.”
Sometimes it helps to completely take the pressure off of the actual sex part.
That’s why Kerner sometimes tells couples to indulge in 10 to 15 minutes of what he calls “arousal generation” two or three times a week. So doing anything that will turn you both on and make you feel close, but not thinking of it as something that needs to lead to sex. If you do end up having sex, cool. If not, also cool. “It at least creates an environment where arousal can potentially flourish,” says Kerner. This is especially important because for many women in long-term relationships, desire follows physical arousal instead of just happening spontaneously.
The bottom line is that a desire discrepancy doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Most couples can work through it, the experts say. The only time it’s truly not sustainable is when partners are so set in their ways they refuse to communicate or open themselves up to considering what the other person needs. Otherwise, a couple committed to creating a good sex life can pretty much always find a happy middle ground.