The truth is, determining what’s “normal” for your sex life is rather complicated, because your normal might be completely different from another person’s normal.
“The one truth shared among married couples about sex is that they think everyone else is having a lot more of it than they are,” says Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough. “While the frequency of sex in a marriage varies depending on the age of the partners and the duration of the marriage, on average married couples have sex once a week.”
Still, you may start to worry when things hit a screeching halt between the sheets. So the question still stands: How often should happy couples really be having sex? We talked to several relationship experts to figure out the magic number, why it fluctuates, and what a healthy sex life should look like.
Why do dry spells happen, anyway?
For the record, dry spells are super common. “Every relationship without exception experiences dry spells and they occur for a wide variety of reasons,” says Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast. Having kids, getting swamped with work, being stressed out, dealing with a health issue, feeling wiped out, getting poor sleep, and taking certain medications (like antidepressants) can all play a role in your libido, she says.
Stress is one of the biggest factors, says David Ley, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specialises in sexuality issues in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “When the world is so stressful, it’s hard for many people to be sexual,” he says. “Some people have increased sex with stress, but for many, it just shuts them down.”
And sometimes, “life gets in way,” says Logan Levkoff, PhD, certified sex educator. “People are busy, exhausted, and prioritize people and things other than their partner.” However, she adds, “just because it happens doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. A little intimacy goes a long way.”
The benefits of having regular sex with your partner
As you might guess, it’s a good thing to have regular sex with your partner. “Frequently being intimate with your partner allows for bonding and connection,” says Debra Laino, DHS, a board-certified relationship therapist and sex educator. “This is really important in relationships. It allows each person to feel desired and cared for.”
Having sex regularly has also been linked to several health benefits, like feeling happier and even living longer, Ley says. Studies show that having sex can lower your stress levels and improve sleep, relieve tension in your relationship, and give both you and your partner a greater willingness to discuss your sexual desires, fantasies, and expectations, O’Reilly adds.
“We also need to remember that sex is a form of communication,” adds Hokemeyer. When you’re regularly intimate, you’re able to translate to your partner that you see, hear, and value them. When this form of communication breaks down, relationships can struggle, he says.
Finally, having sex simply leads to sexual satisfaction. “Pleasure begets more pleasure,” Levkoff says. “One orgasm can lead to more.”
So, how often do happy couples have sex?
There is no hard and fast rule for how much sex you should be having. “It depends upon the needs or libido of each partner, and their ability to negotiate that with each other,” Ley says.
It’s worth nothing that younger couples tend to have sex more frequently than older couples, who have been together for decades and are in the advanced stages of their lives, says Hokemeyer. Older couples have sex less frequently and often develop other forms of intimate expression to keep their marriages rewarding, he says.
“For some couples, it’s less about frequency than quality.” O’Reilly adds. “You define your own version of a healthy sex life. It’s up to you to decide what works for you,” she says, and then effectively communicate that to your partner.
While there’s “so much variation” in what a healthy sex life looks like, Laino says that the average couple between the ages of 26 and 55 has sex once a week. In fact, 2015 research published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found that of 30,000 couples studied, those who had sex more than once per week didn’t report feeling any happier than those who simply did the deed once per week. As for the couples who experienced sex less than once per week? They did report feeling less fulfilled in their relationships.
But remember, these numbers aren’t exactly rules. “The most important thing for an ideal situation is that there is communication and both parties are in agreement with the amount of sex in the relationship,” Laino says. “Communicating about expectations, needs, wants, and desires is super important.”
And it doesn’t have to be just about penetrative sex, Levkoff says. “Holding hands, kissing, and touching are all important, too,” she says.
When should you worry about lack of sex?
Major red flags include not wanting to have sex at all, your partner not wanting to have sex, or not caring if you have sex ever again. You might also be concerned if you can’t even remember the last time you and your partner were intimate (including kissing or holding hands) or you feel distant from one another, Levkoff says.
Any of this means “it is time to check-in,” she says. And, if you feel like you’re just not communicating well about the topic or it feels aggressive or unhealthy, you may need to see a therapist who can help guide you on how to work through it.
Again, a dry spell or low libido can be caused by tons of factors, including problems in the relationship, excessive stress, and even health issues like an underlying sleep disorder or depression. For that reason, try not to compare your “normal” to another couple’s “normal,” Hokemeyer says. But remember, it is important to take note when things feel off, so you can get to the bottom of the issue—and go back to enjoying a healthy sex life ASAP.
The bottom line: Only you and your partner can determine how much sex you should be having. That means if your friend reveals she has sex several times a week with her partner, but you and your partner are happy with a once every other week basis, don’t sweat it.
Additional reporting by Nicol Natale. This article originally appeared on Prevention US.