If you’re in a romantic relationship, chances are sex plays an important role. It’s an intimate way of connecting that relationship experts say can often be the glue that holds two people together for the long haul. However, it’s quite common for sex to change over the course of a long-term relationship—both in terms of quality and frequency.
Relationship researchers and therapists call the early stage of a new relationship the “limerence” or “honeymoon” stage, which lasts anywhere from three months to two years, explains Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., sociologist and certified sexologist with the Sex Toy Collective. This is the stage that most couples thrive in—and this is true of men and women as well as non-binary individuals. “Hollywood knows this, and capitalizes on our longing, which is why many movies focus on the dramatic tension bringing couples together, but few showcase those sometimes awkward evenings when one partner tries to initiate sex and the other turns them down,” Dr. Melancon says. “During this stage, we’re flooded with hormones, chemicals and newfound excitement that leads very easily to sex (and lots of it).”
She also points out, however, that, at this early stage of a relationship, the couple often does not know each other all too well, which means each is on their best behavior and showcasing their positive qualities. “This makes it very easy to center our fantasies about the other person and the relationship in our view, so some of what we’re having sex with isn’t the actual person in front of us, but a romanticized, fantasy version of them and what this relationship might become,” she describes. “As we spend more time with someone, the early relationship hormones fade and real life starts to set in, so start to see the other person’s humanness and all of their imperfections.”
It’s also true that, as a relationship develops and time passes, other areas of life start to take greater priority, such as school, work, and family obligations, which is another reason why many couples don’t make it past the limerence stage. During this stage's end, a couple is often having less sex than they were before. “Some are destined to fail from the beginning, but others could have made it last if they understood this occurs in every relationship and how to deepen their connection,” Dr. Melancon adds.
One great way to keep the spark alive is by having sex—lots of it. “Sex is form of connection and bonding in addition to obviously providing us with (hopefully) a lot of physical and emotional pleasure that’s good for mind, body, and soul,” says Dr. Melancon. “During sex, we release a hormone called oxytocin, that has been nicknamed the ‘love hormone’ because it facilitates pair bonding among couples.”
So how much sex should you be having? And how long is too long?
The good news for most non-married or married couples reading this article is that experts say there’s really no one ideal sexual frequency; no one amount of sex that works for everyone. One couple may find that enough sex is simply one to two times a week, while another might find that enough sex is one to two times a month. In fact, it really depends on the couples, their preferences, and their life pressures. Research published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found that the average couple has sex about 54 times a year, which comes out to about once a week. And another study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that once a week was the gold standard for relationship happiness.
“Regularity of sex becomes a situation where couples can collaborate instead of compromise,” explains Elizabeth Marks, L.M.S.W. with Manhattan Wellness. “If one partner feels satisfied with having sex daily and the other feels satisfied having sex once a week, how they unite to to find joy in intimacy, potentially expanding their ideas and discussions around sex, can lead to both members of the couple gaining a sense of satisfaction and a grow the intimate connection.”
Simply cohabiting without sex is not enough. "If two healthy people are in a relationship, live together, and yet do not have sex, they sound more like roommates than lovers, points out," Monica Berg, author of Rethink Love and host of the Spiritually Hungry podcast. "'It’s just sex, and there is so much more to a marriage than sex,' some might argue, but a couple’s sexual intimacy is a reflection of the relationship."
There are a few stipulations, however, one of them being the postpartum period, or the one-year period after a woman has a baby. During the postpartum period, there is often a lack of intimacy in terms of sex. "With postpartum intimacy in relationships sex, in terms of vaginal penetration, requires medical clearance which depending on the birth of the child could range from a few weeks to several months to allow optimal healing,” says Marks. “That being said, after children hormonally the female sex drive naturally shifts, this could account for an increase or decrease in sexual desire.”
Life transitions can also have a massive part in sex drive, as well as each partner's sexual needs. “If one partner is feeling increased stress or anxiety, or feeling insecure within other realms of their life such as a job or financial concerns, this can hinder someone’s sexual drive or ability to connect intimately with their partner,” Marks says. “During these times, sexual activity can slow down, if not stall altogether, and last the entire span of the stressful period of time.”
Bottom line: Sex is important in a relationship.
It’s clear to see that sex is a vital part of any romantic relationship, as well as the relationship's well-being. There are physical benefits, emotional benefits and mental benefits. While we certainly can survive with a lack of sex, most of us won’t be thriving, notes Dr. Melancon. “Couples often differ in their levels of sexual desire and preferences regarding the frequency of sex, which is something to communicate about, and if there is a major discrepancy (i.e., one partner wants it daily while the other wants it weekly), then a couple must find a happy medium,” she says. “It’s also important to note that a healthy sexual relationship centers on communication, consent, and respect, so whatever a couple does sexually, and how often they have sexual interactions, matters less than how they approach their sex life.”
To prevent a sexless relationship, it's important that each partner is able to verbalize their needs, notes Shemiah Derrick, licensed professional counselor based in Chicago. "Although the conversation can be hard and awkward, it's necessary," she says. "Lean on the love and care within your relationship to get you through tough conversations." If you need support, she recommends seeking the help of a sex therapist to guide you.