You might have noticed an increase lately in posts and articles with advice about ways to connect with your partner now that you have more time together. It’s like people just assume that now that you have more time to spend with your partner, your sex life will see an uptick in activity. Yet, here it is, Day XXX of the COVID-19 quarantine, and the boom boom room is just being used for sleep or work. Unrealistic expectations about how much sex couples should be having – especially now, as we hunker down together – can lead to anxiety.
When couples ask me how often they should be having sex, I respond by asking, “How often do you want to have sex? Are you satisfied with the type of sex you are having? Do you and your partner check in about your sex life regarding frequency, satisfaction, or kinks?” Usually, the answer is ‘No’ or thoughtful silence. Very rarely is the answer an enthusiastic, 'Yes’. The ‘Yes’ couples are not usually asking this question. Not simply because they are having sex several days a week, but because they are satisfied with their sex life, in whatever way it unfolds. So, the short, not-so-fun answer to, “How often are we supposed to have sex?” is, “It depends,” along with a reminder that comparing one’s own relationship with ‘the average couple’ runs the risk of putting one's own preferences last.
For those readers who insist on a standard, I’ll offer the result of a 2015 study which set out to explore if more frequent sex was associated with greater well-being and relationship satisfaction. Researchers found that this association was true for couples who had sex once a week. Interestingly, their research found that couples who had sex more than once a week were just as happy as couples who had sex once a week. That is to say that having more sex did not make couples substantially happier. However, couples who had sex less than once a week reported being less happy in their relationship. Again, these are the findings of just one study. I repeat: How often you and your partner are supposed to be having sex depends on your specific needs and desires.
Sex is rarely just about sex
It is important to acknowledge upfront that there are non-tension related reasons why a couple may not be having sex. We know that at the beginning of a relationship, sex tends to be more consistent, adventurous, and novel. Some people experience, with time and as they become more comfortable with one another, a natural, un-worrisome decline in their frequency of sex. Sexual interest can wax and wane for many people but often a couple will experience this at differing times. Although a decline does not necessarily cause for alarm, not having sex might indicate displeasure and disconnection, a lack of curiosity, increased frustration, or decreased desire, amongst many other things. Here are a few reasons that clients have shared with me:
"Everything is stressful right now and who has the time for sex?!”
“My anxiety and depression, seriously."
“I want to [insert kink] and they aren’t into it.”
“There’s so much pressure around sex, I feel anxious about it.”
“I don’t feel noticed or desired by them anymore.”
Many of these statements express concerns ranging from emotional factors, mental health and mood disorders, differences in desire and expectations, kinks and fetishes, work/life balance, and performance anxiety. Add to that the uncertainty and stress caused by COVID-19 news and you can imagine how difficult it can be to acknowledge an ongoing or recent concern about sex in your relationship.
I can’t stress how important it is to get curious and ask questions instead of avoiding, complaining or having a tantrum when your partner is not in the mood. Being made to feel that sex is a duty is a quick way to feel coerced, turned-off, and resentful. Instead, the words to associate with sex are consent, explicit communication, enthusiasm, fun, curiosity, and reciprocity.
No more wishful thinking and mind reading
The truth is that many people believe that things will simply get better with time. You may play a game of subtle hint dropping, thinking that your partner is as frustrated as you are. Or, you may make assumptions about what the problems are and already feel defeated. It takes work for things to get better and talking about difficult topics can be enlightening, pleasurable, and productive when you challenge your thinking around it and use the right tools. Here are a few tips for getting the conversation started:
I recommend that couples discuss sex as consistently as they discuss other mundane concerns like finances, work issues, planning for dinner, and parenting. If you’ve started to quietly wonder where the sex has gone in your relationship, that’s a sure sign that it’s time to talk about it. But first, think about any factors that you control that are contributing to your concerns. Have you been tired, ill, stressed, turned-off, feeling disconnected, resentful, etc.? Reflect on the reasons that send you running when you think about having this conversation. Do you fear rejection, being dismissed, not feeling safe, or conflict? Get curious about that. Then think about your wants and needs, both about the relationship and sexually. How do you want to feel before, during, and after the conversation? What would you like the outcome to be? Increasing your self-awareness will help ease some discomfort and acknowledging that this can be a tough conversation will go a long way.
2. Getting started
Try having the conversation in a neutral area of your home, preferably outside of your bedroom. It might be nice to walk and talk or chat while sitting in the living room. Try inviting your partner into the conversation instead of jumping right into it. And over are the days of, “We need to talk” cliffhangers without immediate follow-up. Let your partner know upfront what you want to talk about. You can say something as short and to the point as, “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about our sex life and see if we are on the same page. Could we talk about it during our walk in the park tomorrow?” Being direct, mentioning a goal, and offering a time sets the tone, helps ease anxiety and allows your partner time and space to collect their thoughts.
3. What to say
Use ‘We’ and ‘I’ statements to decrease feelings of being attacked or criticized. ‘We’ statements are important because any issue in a relationship is an issue for the couple, not an individual. Even if the leading factor of why there has been a decrease in sexual interest and activity is related to an individual, both people have to show up and put in work in order for a change to happen. ‘I’ statements are helpful when talking about how you feel, used to feel, and want to feel. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t talk to me and you push me away,” try something like, “I have been feeling disconnected lately” and, “We aren’t talking as much anymore.”
4. What to do
Feeling like a space or topic is not safe will not promote a productive conversation. So set ground rules around how to speak to one another, discuss boundaries, decide what to do if either of you become escalated, avoid blame, center accountability, stay on topic, and pay attention to your tone and body language. And remember to listen empathetically to better understanding one another's experience and perspective. Being curious and asking questions for clarity and to deepen understanding work towards building connection and intimacy. Remember: Never walk out on one another if things get too heated to remain productive. Instead, agree to take a 30-minute break and come back to the conversation when you’ve had some time to cool off.
5. Other things to know
There is a difference between being physically and mentally interested in having sex. Some people might think about having sex, become interested and aroused at the thought of having sex, and then want to have sex. Others may not think about having until they are physically aroused and turned on. These are the differences between spontaneous and responsive desire. Too often people label themselves with an arousal or desire disorder because they are rarely in the mood, when instead their mind and body need a physical reminder for sex and intimacy. There are also sexual identities that can give language to an experience of decreased or no interest in sex that may better explain and validate your experience. For example, a person who identifies as asexual does not experience sexual attraction and may not have sexual desires, feelings, or urges.
Your sexual concerns may not be related to specific issues in your relationship. If you and your partner were satisfied with your sex life until being stuck at home now, that too is normal. Feelings of uncertainty, changes in routines, too much time together, not prioritizing your time together, mood changes, and exacerbation of mental stress all play a role in our desire and interest in sex. So again, talk about it and put a name to what you are thinking and experiencing, and make a plan to address it.
Intimacy is not limited to sex and sex is not limited to penetration. You and your partner can explore sex and intimacy in a variety of ways, from hand holding, cuddling, kissing, massaging, playfulness, having meaningful conversations and anything else that you find to be intimate. This is especially helpful to remember if you and your partner have not been having sex and are trying to get back into doing so. Take it slow because trying to ‘just start’ having sex takes time and can feel awkward.
Remember: no two individuals or relationships are alike. Determine if you are committed to being curious about your relationship, figure out what is and is not working, identify what kind of support you need to explore the concern, get it, and then get to work!
Rafaella Smith-Fiallo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and owns Healing Exchange LLC. She specializes in supporting healing after sexual violence, building self-esteem and confidence, and teaching healthy sexuality to individuals, those in relationships, and within supportive group settings. She also cofounded Afrosexology, a sex-positive, pleasure based sexuality education platform.