Which comes first, the happiness or the sex? One half of a couple told me a curious thing recently: In couples counseling, they'd been advised to have sex twice a week to foster intimacy while working on the relationship. I wondered not just about the merits of setting a minimal number, but also: Why twice? Twice is better than once and once is better than none, but how did we arrive at this idea that twice a week is a good amount of sex? Here is what I found out.
Big Caveat: Anyone who is happy with how much sex they are having, whether that is twice a week or twice a lifetime or every 12 minutes except the day after Taco Night, this is not about you. If the tacos ain't broke don't fix them. This is about couples for whom there is a discrepancy in libido and they cannot agree on how much they should be getting it on. One person wants it more, one wants it less, and they either break up in search of better sexual match or compromise on the amount of doin' it. When those people end up in therapy, it seems it's not uncommon to receive advice to shoot for twice a week.
Why? Is this because twice a week is simply the average? Or is there a biological reason people should have sex twice a week? The lore of sex, specifically when it comes to gender differences, is stacked with the idea that if anyone "needs" sex more, it's men for the release, whereas women are born ready to wheel into the transcendent mythical land of Doesn't Need Sex as Much. We know the latter isn't true, but what about the former?
I asked a urologist. Dr. Marc Richman cleared this up from a medical standpoint:
There is no medical reason why a man needs to have sex twice a week and I do not believe that recommendation is based on any legitimate scientific data. While it might be "normal" for the "average" married couple to have sex twice a week, I do not believe we have a true definition of "normal" sexual frequency in the urologic literature. Statistically speaking, twice a week may be a common sexual frequency for a large number of married couples but I certainly wouldn't consider that a "normal" scientific value per se.
He said that while he could understand the general recommendation to keep having sex while working through intimacy issues, that these benefits for both folks are more "psychosocial than medical." And that while he could also see that it might help men avoid sexual frustration, that this frequency is "arbitrary." In treating men for libido issues, he treats the couple as a whole to make sure they are both happy with the result.
"Personally, I would never tell a woman to have sex with her husband at any frequency to avoid frustration," he said. "I would tell both of them to work together with a therapist to achieve a happy balanced sex life where both of them are having their sexual and intimacy needs met."
That mystery solved, why would therapists push for twice a week? The reason: Reverse engineering, AKA, wishful thinking. In other words, happy couples report that they have sex about two to three times per week, so the idea is that by doing it twice a week, perhaps you too can glean the happiness of the happiest people. But doing what happy people do doesn't mean it will make you happy, because there's always the possibility that it's the happiness that leads to the twice-weekly boning, and not the boning that leads to the happiness, dig?
Acacia Parks, an assistant prof of psychology at Hiram College, and the scientific advisor to Happify (the company who created that infographic linked above about happy couples), agrees:
It is equally possible that some third variable drives both (so some third thing makes people both happier AND more likely to have sex 2-3 times a week), or that the relationship is synergistic (so being happy makes sex more likely and having sex more likely also makes couples happier).
From this, she cautions against concluding that simply having sex twice a week makes people happy, calling it an "overextension," and that such claims would need more research, like an experiment where some couples are assigned an amount of sex to have at random and others, a different amount.
The other experts in the fields of sex and relationship health I talked with share concerns that any baseline number on sex frequency (other than literally not doing it ever) is problematic. Here's why:
Dr. Claudia Luiz, Harvard-trained PsyaD and author of Where's My Sanity, says, "Giving a prescription for weekly frequency of sexual intimacy is an idea long promoted by sex therapists that is old and worn out. "
Instead, she says, figuring out this frequency is an exercise couples can do to "gain depth into each other's needs, desires and emotional wounds and barriers. Arriving at a number prematurely though, based on an external standard, kills off all the potential for knowing each other more deeply. Mutual, deep understanding, deciding how much sex each couple needs, leads naturally to greater intimacy and a desire to hear and please your partner — not deciding on a number and then doing your 'duty.'"
Vanessa Marin, a licensed psychotherapist and sex therapist in San Francisco, says the number one reason couples come to see her is differing sex drives. She thinks twice a week is terrible advice.
I'm pretty opposed to this advice for a number of reasons. To begin with, I've seen the crippling effects that these sorts of rules or guidelines can have on couples. We get bombarded by so many messages about what we're "supposed" to do when it comes to sex already ("be sexy but not slutty," "wait for him to initiate," etc.). Throwing another arbitrary rule on the table only makes people feel more anxiety. It becomes another way that they're not "normal" or not measuring up.
Furthermore, for couples that are totally happy with their sex frequency, this may create an issue where one didn't exist. Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, psych professor, and author, shared this concern:
My concern is then that a couple turns a non-issue into an issue because they are trying to keep up with the Joneses (no pun intended). Intimacy is also about communication and alternate forms of intimacy — the snuggle time on the couch, the regular kisses and touches. Having appointment sex twice a week may not be as good a stand in as regular touching. And of course then there are couples that may live long distance or even have varying work shifts — it gets risky when "quantitative rules" are put on a couple. I am a big fan of "as often as you can and it feels right."
Dr. Durvasula says he's seen it all in terms of what level of frequency makes people happy, and it ain't twice a week. "Some couples do it daily, and I once talked with a couple that believed in intense tantric sex and didn't have sex but once a month, but then multiple times per day for 3 days straight," he explained. "They seemed pretty connected and happy to me. Intimacy is important — make it more about the connection than the checklist."
Many of the people I communicated with said this checklist thinking detracts from the bigger issue: working on the connection that precedes a happy, mutually satisfying sex life.
"It is never about a specific number," said Frank Kermit, MA and dating and relationship coach. "It is always about the boundaries of the particular couple (for example, if there is any history of sexual abuse, or a sex-negative upbringing)."
And if a couple wants an idea of how often or rarely to get it on, they should be guided to arrive at that number based on them, not an average. "Whenever you give couples a finite number of times that they should be having sex a week, you're creating a goal that may not be right for them," says relationship expert and author April Masini, aka Ask April. "It's not the number of times couples have sex, it's the number of times it takes to satisfy each one of them, and then finding the middle ground between those two numbers."
And that middle ground requires negotiating limits, preferences, and boundaries. Kermit adds, "Some theories are: Always be at the limit of the person in the couple that wants the least amount of intimacy."
Still, you have to figure out what that level is and why. Adds Marin, "The couple may be having a power struggle that is surfacing in the bedroom. One partner may be going through biological changes that are affecting their arousal levels. The sex that they're having may be so unpleasant that one partner starts pulling away. Someone might be getting triggered by past sexual abuse. The possibilities are endless, and each couple needs individualized attention rather than canned, one-size-fits-all advice."
Most therapists agreed the silver lining here is that doing the actual work of figuring out what's wrong in the bedroom can lead to greater closeness, which leads to greater intimacy, which, voila, can lead to more sex.
"The opportunities for personal and relational growth are immense," says Marin. "Each couple needs to figure out what works for the two of them. A therapist can help guide this process, but shouldn't interfere by imposing arbitrary rules."
Another big caveat: Even though these experts dismantle the idea of sex twice a week, this should not at all be confused with suggesting that people should only have sex when they feel like it, and never just for the other person to compromise or cater to a partner's needs.
It's that the goal here is to figure out the underlying issues, not assign an arbitrary number to acheive, so that you can focus on what actually matters, reaching such a place of intimacy that you are, in fact, in the words of sex-advice giver of all givers Dan Savage, "game for anything."
But until you get there, don't sweat the numbers. Also, a little bit of fake-it-til-you-make-it isn't as bad as it sounds when it comes to sex. As Frank Kermit mentions, "If you want to protect the monogamy of your relationship, make the effort to sexually satisfy your partner, or risk pushing your partner away." Patricia Johnson and Mark Michaels, co-authors of Partners in Passion, Great Sex Made Simple, Tantra for Erotic Empowerment, and The Essence of Tantric Sexuality go so far as to recommend scheduling sex, but not in the absence of working on connecting first.
"We don't have a hard and fast rule about how often to do it," Johnson wrote me via email. "The ideal rhythm can vary a great deal depending on age, immediate circumstances, and a number of other factors. It's more important to be flexible and attuned to what keeps you connected as a couple. For this reason, we recommend scheduling sex and being sure to make it happen regularly. We know one couple who has sex every morning and has done this daily for over 25 years. One tryst per week may be enough to satisfy some couples and keep them erotically engaged. What we have discovered is that happy couples make sex a priority."
She says they recommend scheduling in large part because there's still this huge myth that couples should always be in the mood first before getting into the act. "Research is showing that desire often emerges simultaneously with sexual arousal and sometimes even after the body is turned on, especially in women," she says.
In other words, if you wait until you're in the mood, you might be waiting a long time. "If you waited until you were 'in the mood' to go the gym, your fitness and overall health would suffer," Johnson explains. "The same goes for your sex life, which needs regular exercise. This is literally true of the pelvic muscles, which can atrophy unless you work them frequently."
So there you have it: Use it or lose it, and be game for anything, but it sure as hell doesn't have to be twice a week.
Image via tashechka/Shutterstock.