Not having sex is bad. Having it when you don’t want to is worse.
There’s a scene in the movie Annie Hall, in which Diane Keaton and Woody Allen are each talking to their therapist about their relationship. When the therapists ask them how often they have sex, Allen answers, “hardly ever, maybe three times a week,” while Keaton responds, “constantly, I’d say three times a week.”
For many couples, this dissonance in levels of desire rings painfully true. And often, one partner ends up giving in to the other, simply to keep the peace. It might seem easier to go ahead and have a quickie, rather than risk a fight or hurt their partner’s feelings. But in the long run, giving in this way can cause resentment that eats away at a relationship. And in the worst case scenario, the pressure to have sex crosses the line into rape.
So, what to do? After all, a good sex life is vitally important to a couple’s happiness. Not having sex anymore is one of the surest signs that your relationship is in trouble; keeping sex hot in long term relationships is not only possible, it’s necessary if your relationship is going to survive.
If you’ve ever felt the pressure to perform – or wondered whether your partner was just trying to appease you by giving in to sex – here’s are some things to think about…
How much is enough?
If you’re hoping for a definitive answer here, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s no magic formula that tells you how much sex you should be having; it varies from couple to couple. But in general, studies suggest that the happiest couples have sex at least once a week.
The General Social Survey, a biennial study conducted by the University of Chicago, covers a wide range of issues, from religion to sex, and includes responses from a nationally representative sample across the United States. When researchers looked at the answers of more than 25,000 people who took the survey between 1989 and 2012, they found that most established couples had sex once a week, on average. Interestingly, frequency of sex and satisfaction with the relationship were correlated only up to a certain point: the more sex a couple had, the happier they were – but only up to that once-a-week mark. Couples who had sex more than once a week weren’t any happier than couples who only did the deed once a week – but when couples had sex less than once a week, their happiness declined.
A research study by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology confirmed this finding: “Although more frequent sex is associated with greater happiness, this link was no longer significant at a frequency of more than once a week,” explained Amy Muise, the project’s lead researcher. “Our findings suggest that it’s important to maintain an intimate connection with your partner, but you don’t need to have sex every day as long as you’re maintaining that connection.”
When ‘just do it’ becomes toxic
When advising a couple that’s stuck in a sex-starved marriage, some counselors recommend the ‘just do it’ approach. Marriage therapist Michele Weiner-Davis, who coined the term ‘sex-starved marriage’ and defines it as a relationship in which couples have sex less than 10 times a year, is one who takes that approach. She says sometimes you can’t wait for arousal to just happen organically – you have to get started first, and the arousal will flow from there (kind of like jump-starting a car).
But does that mean you should just make yourself do it, even if you don’t feel like it? Definitely not. Sure, sometimes you’re not in the mood, for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’re exhausted, maybe you’re rocking in old sweats and greasy hair and not feeling super sexy at the moment, or maybe it’s just been a while and you’re feeling unsure of yourself. But when you let down your guard and allow your partner to rub your feet or kiss your shoulder, you start to warm up. Before you know it, you’re into it. That’s the ‘just do it’ scenario. But if you’re not feeling it after giving it the old college try, stop.
Just because you’re married, or in a committed partnership, it doesn’t mean you owe your partner anything. There’s a pervasive idea perpetuated by our culture that says women should have sex with their husbands, even when they don’t want to, because men have a higher sex drive and somehow ‘need’ to be satiated. But having sex when you really don’t want to is never a good idea. It only leads to resentment, and discourages open communication. In a healthy partnership, couples respect each other’s needs and desires. Sometimes that means being open to letting your partner help you get in the mood – and sometimes that means listening to their ‘not tonight, honey’ and backing off.
Relighting the fire
If you find that you’re often not in the mood, and either continually turning your partner down, or giving in to sex when you don’t want to, look at why you’re not into it anymore. Often, there’s unresolved anger and resentment between the two of you that results in a lack of connection – and connection is at the heart of intimacy, both emotional and sexual. In general, you need to feel good about your partner in order to be turned on and want to get physical with them (with the exception of occasional angry sex, which, let’s face it, can be hot AF once in a while).
Take the focus off doing the deed, and instead put your energy into nurturing your relationship in other ways. Have a date night, where you both get dressed up and do something special; court each other the way you did at the beginning of your relationship. If there are issues that are coming between you, find a good couples counselor and try to work through them. Connecting physically in other ways, besides having sex, can help foster warm feelings as well. Hold hands while you binge-watch the latest Netflix series; put your hand on his leg under the table next time you’re out to dinner with friends.
If counseling, cuddling, and date nights don’t do the trick, it could be time to walk away from your relationship. Being stuck in a sexless marriage is bad news. It’s not only bad for your mental health, it’s terrible for your physical health too. But having sex purely as a service to your partner isn’t helping your marriage – it’s hurting it. You and your partner both deserve better.
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Comment: Do you ever have sex with your partner just to keep the peace?
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Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.