Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about sex. (That sounds bad, doesn’t it?)
It’s not what you think. My own life in that respect is just fine, thank you! But in the couples counseling work I do, sex is a big deal. Most of the couples I work with are married, and most of them are not having much sex. Some are not having any sex. Is “married sex” an oxymoron? And why?
It is remarkable how easy it is for couples to get out of the habit of having sex. As part of my general screening/evaluation interview with new couples, I always ask, “When was the last time you two had sex?” I’m often stunned when they can’t remember, not because they are suffering memory impairment, but rather because it has been that long. It’s not uncommon that it has been more than a year, or even more than several years. I’ve written about some of the reasons that couples stop having sex in another article “Not Tonight Dear” Why Couples Stop Having Sex (and what you can do about it)
What’s surprising is that most of the couples I see are not coming to therapy for help with sexual issues. You could argue that I don’t see a representative sample of couples, and I would agree. But even amongst my friends who are married, sex is a relatively rare phenomenon.
Recently the New York Times had an interesting article called “Yes Dear. Tonight. Again” about two couples who faced a similar sexual drought in their marriages, and who had an unusual response. One couple, the Muller’s, decided to have sex 365 days in a row. The other couple, the Brown’s, went for the more reasonable 101 days (or nights). The Muller’s book is called “365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy”, and the Brown’s book title borrows from the famous Nike line; “Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off the TV and Turned On Their Sex Lives for 101 Days.”
I haven’t read either book. What I found interesting was that both couples reported that their overall relationship improved by having more sex. It turns out that there is a high correlation between marital satisfaction and the frequency of sex. No one really knows if more sex makes people happier, or happier couples have more sex, or both.But the couples who wrote these books add a data point to the notion that more sex makes people happier.
How often do married people have sex anyway? From the Times article: “According to a 2004 study, “American Sexual Behavior,” by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, married couples have intercourse about 66 times a year. But that number is skewed by young marrieds, as young as 18, who couple, on average, 109 times a year.” So the youngest of couples are having sex about twice a week. And older couples are having sex quite a bit less, perhaps less than once a week. And some couples are having much less sex, such that they could count the number of times per year on two hands, without using toes!
So let’s assume that the causal relationship works in both directions—happy couples want to have more sex, and more sex makes couples happier. What can we do about this? Helping couples to be happier is outside the scope of this article, and is something that often takes couples therapy. But what about the other side of the equation, that of having more sex?
First of all, we need to consider some myths of sexuality. The first myth is that sex shouldn’t be planned and scheduled. I don’t know where people get this idea because we plan and schedule everything else good in our life. We buy concert tickets months in advance, we make reservations at good restaurants, we plan to attend our children’s school play. We plan to go to work each day.
Imagine if we applied the same model to daily life as we use for sex: “You know, honey, I just don’t feel like driving the kids to school today. I ate too much for breakfast, and I kinda feel fat, and getting behind the wheel will make me feel bad.” “Yeah, I don’t really feel like going to work today. I’m a little tired. I think I’ll just stay home in bed and sleep all day.”
This is what I call the Myth of Spontaneity. We wait for the sun and the stars and the moon to line up for both people in the couple, and then and only then can we consider sex. If anything else then gets in the way like kids or telephone or dogs, forget it. Waiting for everything to be ideal for two people greatly lowers the odds of having sex at all.
Instead, I suggest that couples make sex dates. (Or call them pleasure dates.) Sit down and talk about how much sex you would like to be having. What’s the optimal frequency for each of you? Compromise if you have different answers. Then pull out your calendars, and figure out times when you can plan to have sex. Consider other distractions like children, pets, jobs, etc. Every couple should be able to find at least one time a week where they have some time and some privacy to get intimate.
Then make it happen. As the Browns would say, Just Do it! No excuses. If you find there is always something getting in the way, consider what the issues are. Are there other resentments that are being expressed sexually? Are there sexual issues that need to be talked about and worked on? Are there issues of appearance or hygiene that can be addressed? Sit down and talk about what’s getting in the way, and if you can’t do it alone, then see a therapist to help talk it out.
Another myth is what I call One Size Fits All. This means that couples often think of having sex in terms of a standard sexual script; a little foreplay, maybe a little oral sex, a few minutes of intercourse, and off to sleep afterward. It is a full course meal or nothing at all. The antidote for this myth is to have a varied repertoire of sexual activities you both enjoy. Perhaps sometimes it is okay to have a quick snack, instead of the full meal, so to speak. If one person is tired, and one is feeling more amorous, maybe the tired person can be pleasured by the amorous one. Again, it helps to talk about these options. What does each of you like to do when you are not that sexually energetic? And sexy cuddling is okay too. Maybe you fool around a little, skin to skin, and no one orgasms, and that’s fine too.
Still another myth is what I call Not Tonight Dear. This is the idea that it’s fine to turn down sex whenever you don’t really feel like it since after all, you wouldn’t want to have sex if you don’t feel like it. The problems with this belief are multiple. First of all, most people are very sensitive about being rejected sexually. A “not tonight dear” crushes them. And then they are less likely to initiate the next time. Second, if both people say “no” often, it dramatically lowers the chances that the couple will ever have sex. And both people will decrease how often they initiate, further lowering the probability of successful sexual connecting.
What is the antidote? First of all, try to limit saying “no” to the extreme examples. If you are having a massive migraine headache, food poisoning, or something similar, I think it is fine to say no. The “no” response should be rare, less than once in ten times. In the Brown’s book “Just Do It” there is a story of one time that the husband was having a vertigo episode, but they still had sex!
Second, it is okay to say yes in a limited way. For instance, let’s imagine you don’t feel very turned on. I think it is okay to say something like, “You know, I’m not feeling very sexual right now, but I’m willing to play a little and see if that changes. Is that okay with you?”
Finally, if you really do need to say no, then offer a specific alternative time and place. For example, “I’m really tired tonight, honey, and I’d really rather make love tomorrow morning, is that okay?”And be affectionate and loving when you say it.
So let’s review. If you want to make sure that “married sex” is not an oxymoron in your life, then follow these guidelines:
1. Plan to have sex. Make dates to have sex, and keep the dates. Decide on your sexual goals, and then figure out the best times to schedule your “pleasure dates”.
2. Be flexible about the kinds of sexual encounters you can have. Sample from a varied menu of sexual options, and don’t be all or nothing about sex. Even sexy cuddling can be a type of sex and is better than nothing. Not all sex needs to result in orgasm for both or even one partner.
3. Avoid turning down sex more than infrequently. To paraphrase the Brown couple, Just Say Yes. This lowers the probability of hurt in the bedroom and keeps both partners willing to initiate because they know that rejection is infrequent.
4. Talk about your sex life, what works, and what doesn’t work. This is the only way you can improve things. And if you are too shy or inhibited to talk about it on your own, see a good couples therapist or sex therapist, who can facilitate this dialogue.
And having said all that, now I have to go, as I have a scheduled date with my sweetie!
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