How Important Is Sex in a Relationship, Really?

WE’VE ALL SEEN breakup scenes in movies and TV shows that involve a line about how the couple hasn’t had sex in months. Therefore, we often interpret a dip in sexual frequency as the first sign that something is wrong in a relationship, and that if we’re having a lot of sex, our relationship must be on fire.

You might be wondering how important sex actually is in a relationship. Are you doomed if you’re not doing it as much as your buddy who constantly brags about his love life in the gym locker room?

The answer is: not necessarily.

We tend to think of frequent sex as a telltale sign of a healthy relationship, thanks to everything from pop culture to patriarchal ideas around pleasure. “That’s not real,” says sex and relationship therapist Rachel Wright, MA, LMFT. Sex drives vary from person to person, meaning people can feel satisfied with vastly different sexual frequencies. Plus, if you fall under the asexual umbrella, you might not desire sex at all. (Society wrongly assumes that “everyone is sexual, meaning that they experience sexual desire,” Wright adds.)

Here’s what is real: The importance of sex in a relationship depends on how much you value sex.

How important is sex in a relationship, really?

There are several health benefits to having consistent sex. According to the Cleveland Clinic, sex has been shown to relieve stress, sleep better, and boost your immune system. Studies have also shown that the less sex you have, the more likely you are to separate from your partner. But if you and your partner don’t have as much sex as Larsa and Scottie Pippen allegedly did, don’t panic! That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doomed.

The reality is, sex in a relationship is as important as you say it is. The time to worry is when there’s a discrepancy in how you and your partner value sex in a relationship. Think of sex like any other shared value; if one partner really wants to become a parent someday, and the other doesn’t want kids, they might not make the best match. The same goes for sex: “If someone thinks it’s very important, and the other one thinks it’s unimportant, they’re gonna have problems,” says Nicole Prause, P.h.D., founder of Liberos, a sexual biotechnology company.

What makes sex more important to one person than another?

Discrepancies in how couples value sex could come from a number of factors—libido being a huge one. Factors such as mental and physical health conditions, age, stress, medications, and hormonal imbalances can affect how much you desire sex, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about a change you’ve noticed in your sex drive.)

Different patterns of desire can also lead to some people wanting sex more often than others. Desire can be triggered by your environment, or just arise randomly. “Around 75% of cisgender men experience what’s called spontaneous desire, meaning that they could just be walking down the street, and all of a sudden, they’re like, ‘Oh, sex, I want that’,” Wright says.

The other 25% experience what’s called responsive, or contextual, desire. This means that a certain stimulus causes a leap in sex drive. It could be that “all the dishes are done, or if the kids are away, or if you’re on vacation,” Wright says. “Those things then create the context in which thinking about sex is possible.”

FYI, it’s important to note that the studies Wright is referring to only consisted of cisgender men, excluding those who identify as LGBTQ+. Inclusive research needs to be done within different sexualities before generalizations can be made about the prominence of different desire types. There’s also lack of studies surrounding those who identify as asexual, defined as having little or no sexual attractiveness to others, or lack of interest in sexual activity.

How do I talk to my partner about our sexual frequency?

Feeling disconnected with your partner surrounding your sex life can happen. The key is talking through it and coming up with a plan, Wright says.

First, figure out where you’re aligned and where you’re not when it comes to how often you’re having sex. If there are differences in what each feel is the “right” amount of sex to be having, ask yourselves where that notion of “rightness” comes from. Do you genuinely crave more (or less) sex, or are societal pressures just making you feel that way?

A discrepancy in desired sexual frequency can also be contextual. Maybe one person is an early bird who likes morning sex, and the other is a night owl who likes doing it before bed.

It’s also worth exploring desire types, Wright says. Maybe you’re into some kind of kink that your partner isn’t into, or maybe your partner wants to try something you don’t want to try.

Once you label the disconnect, talk about how it makes you feel, and explore solutions that help satisfy everyone, Wright says. If your partner has a lower libido and doesn’t want to have sex as often as you do, is that okay with you? If not, would it help for you to masturbate more? If so, is your partner okay with that? How can they help you feel satisfied without necessarily participating? These are the kinds of questions you can ask and answer together.

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