Are Married People Really Having Less Sex?
"Not tonight, honey, I have a headache," an out-of-his-league wife pouts to her twice-her-age, balding husband. "But you always have a headache," he groans to the live studio audience, which politely chuckles. "It's called marriage!" she snaps back. The canned laughter roars.
Is this stale sitcom joke a reality of marriage?
The sex lives of married people
There is some truth in the tired joke of married people having a lot less sex than their unwed peers. Of course, a couple's sex life depends on the couple. Getting hung up on the "average" amount of sex married people have or how much sex you and your spouse should have is only going to cause more problems.
"Relationship[s] evolve over time to fit the couple's routines and lifestyles. As that shift takes place, the dopamine-fueled excitement for sex tends to drop as couples focus on how to form their long-term life together," said JoLeann "Joey" Trine, a licensed clinical professional counselor who practices in Aurora, Illinois.
Life after the honeymoon phase
If you think back to when you and your partner started dating, maybe you were having more sex not only because your relationship was exciting and new, but also because you didn't know the next time you'd see each other.
This beginning stage of a romantic relationship (usually lasting about 18 months) is called the infatuation stage and is also known as limerence. During this time, the neurotransmitter agent phenylethylamine (PEA) releases norepinephrine and dopamine at a record-breaking rate, which can lead to most couples having more sex, explained Robin Finley, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Thriveworks Counseling in Greenville, South Carolina.
After limerence comes the attachment phase, which sometimes happens after a couple gets married.
"Couples are transitioning and arriving at a predictable relationship with stable, unexciting emotions. In my experience, many couples have difficulty, in the attachment phase, transitioning from 'new sex' to 'premarital sex' to 'married sex,'" Finley said.
Routines can be a turnoff
Studies suggest the decrease in sex after marriage in some couples is because of the decrease in novelty. Studies also indicate a married couple's sex drive can continue to plummet after having children, as the time a couple used to spend on sex becomes redirected to taking care of their kids.
"After getting married, one of the first things [to] occur is the development of a routine. Within this routine, we are often overlooking or disengaging with the things that once drew us to our partner or ignited the desire we have for them. Without novelty, intention or an emphasis on maintaining the connection, our desire levels may change," said Elyssa Helfer M.A., a clinical sexologist and sex therapist who practices in Los Angeles.
Scientifically speaking, a couple's sex drive can dip after marriage because of how our bodies use neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endorphins, which provide feelings of euphoria and excitement.
"When something is new and exciting, dopamine and endorphins are all over it. As people become more routine and start moving into more long-term associations, those [endorphins] may take a back seat," Trine said.
How much sex are married people actually having?
Experts define a "sexless marriage" as one in which a couple has sex less than 10 times a year; only 20 percent of married couples fall in this category, according to studies. A 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior looked at 26,000 people from 1989 to 2014 and suggests married, engaged and cohabiting couples had sex about 54 times a year on average. This study indicates in the first 10 years of marriage, couples have sex about once a week, but this rate decreases in the following years.
How do I know when my sex life is in trouble?
As with most things in life, comparing yourselves to others is never helpful, and your sex life is no exception. Putting an unrealistic expectation of sex on your marriage can only cause stress to your relationship. The only time you should be concerned about your sex life is when you and/or your partner aren't happy with the quality or quantity of sex you're having, Helfer explained.
"When couples let go of the idea that they 'should' be having more sex, they often feel immense relief," Helfer said. "It is crucial to embrace the natural ebb and flow of sexual interaction within a relationship. Couples should frequently discuss how they are feeling regarding the sex or lack of sex in their relationship. If they are both happy having no sex, then there is no issue whatsoever. However, if they are both desiring more and are struggling to make it happen, engaging in work with a professional may help."
What can I do to revive my sex life?
"If you can't verbalize your sexual needs, it's going to be difficult to solve the problem," Finley warned.
Communication is essential in a relationship, and good sex requires good communication.
"Hold a nonjudgmental space to hear what may be at play; having a constant high sex drive is not the norm," Trine said. "Figuring out how to prioritize intimacy in a new stage of life will come with some awkward moments and with some lumps and bumps along the way. Progress, not perfection."
There are also ways you can bring the novelty back to your relationship.
"One of the ways that we can revamp the desire to engage in sex with our partners is to see them in a new situation," Helfer said. "This can come from taking a trip together, engaging in a new hobby or even buying new clothes and dressing up for date night. Novelty often influences excitement, and when the adventure or commitment to new experiences in a relationship are not prioritized, we likely will not be craving our partners in the way that we once did."