How Long Is “Too Long” Without Sex?

“How often do you and your partner have sex?”

It’s a question that comes up often, albeit tentatively, exposing some of our deepest insecurities about our intimate relationships.

Few of us haven’t wondered at some point: How much sex should we be having? What if we’re having less sex than our friends? Is our relationship doomed if we aren’t having enough sex? And what is enough sex anyway?”

These questions are inherently flawed, because how often we are having sex doesn't address whether or not that sex is good, bad, or dissatisfying. Nevertheless, the frequency in which we are sexually intimate can play a role in both our sexual and relationship satisfaction. So how often are most couples having sex? And what does that mean for our relationship quality and satisfaction?

The Most Common Response

Before addressing the different frequencies of sexual activity, and what that means for our relationship and sexual satisfaction, it's worth noting the most common frequency of sexual activity that average couples report having in bedrooms across the nation.

In a study of over 26,000 Americans, which was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, participants reported having sex 54 times a year, which averages out to approximately once a week.1 This reported frequency was found to be about 9 sexual interactions a year lower since a similar study was conducted in 1990. The sample included those who were single, dating, married, and cohabitating. When the authors looked at married couples specifically, the average sexual frequency was slightly lower, at 51 sexual encounters a year, or just less than once a week on average.

The Happiest Response

How happy are couples that have sex at the national average of about once a week? While most of us might be inclined to believe that more sex is related to more happiness, research suggests there is point of diminishing returns. In a study of over 30,000 Americans, published in the journal of Social Psychological & Personality Science, researchers examined the relationship between how often couples reported having sex and whether that related to their reported level of happiness.2 The researchers concluded that couples who were having sex once a week were the happiest, while couples who reported having sex 2, 3 (or more) times a week, were no happier than those having sex once a week. They still reported being quite happy, but the research suggests they were just as happy as couples who had sex at the national average.

So couples having sex at the average of once a week are happy. And couples who have sex more often than that are just as happy. But what about those of us having sex less than once a week?

The Potentially Problematic Response

article continues after advertisement

The study described above, which focused on sexual frequency and happiness, did conclude that those who were having sex less than once a week reported lower levels of happiness than those having sex once a week (or more).2 But according to other studies and experts on the topic, there is a considerable range of lower than average sexual frequencies. In one of the few studies on the topic of "sexless marriages," 16 percent of the 6,029 participants reported not having sex over the last month.3 The lead author of this study, Dr. Donnolly, has similarly estimated that 15 percent of couples have not had sex in the last 6 months. Using a slightly different unit of measurement, the author of the book Sex Starved Marriage, Michele Weiner Davis, defines a "sexless marriage" as one in which couples have sex 10 times a year or less.

The Reason You're Not Having Sex Matters More

The frequency with which we have sex receives a lot of attention because it's the easiest way to measure and compare our sex lives to our peers. But having lots of bad sex isn’t going to make anyone happy nor is it going to leave you feeling satisfied. It's important to recognize that the reasons we aren't having sex matter more than how often we are having it. That is, if we are fighting or falling out of love with our partner, not having sex could be a symptom of a much larger problem. However, if we are simply busy, sick, navigating parenthood, or identify as asexual (and the list goes on) then it may be more circumstantial and nothing to panic over.

It's important to remember that good satisfying sex, even if it's once a month or less, may be preferable to having sex once a week when it's not eliciting sexual pleasure or feelings of intimacy and closeness.

Sarah Hunter Murray