Some couples are happy living apart in perpetuity, while others feel a rift in their intimacy if they aren’t sharing three square meals a day together. By and large, it seems that the best relationships are defined by how well two people can align their daily needs and hobbies to the contentment of both parties, and sex is no exception. A couple might need it as regularly as a shower, while others can hold off for weeks without feeling any differently.
But what if all your friends are bragging about how often they have sex and you realize that you and your boo are way off your usual schedule? At what point should you worry about how long is “too long” to go without sex in a relationship?
Naturally, there’s no easy answer. A 2018 study of 600 married couples found that a quarter have sex once a week, while 2012 research reported that about half of couples have sex at least four times a month. Either way, that leaves a pretty significant pool of the coupled population who are having sex far less frequently. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — problems only arise when one person wants more sex while the other won’t budge. In that case, Carol Queen, a sexologist for Good Vibrations tells me, it’s less about “how often” a couple bones and more about the reasons things are that way.
According to Queen, a couple’s sexual needs, their ideal frequency, whether they’re open or monogamous, the current context of their relationship and what role sex plays in their feelings of love and connection are among the most common factors that determine how often they fuck. Different life stages like having a baby, going back to school or taking on a stressful new job might also lead to periods of less sex, and physical or mental conditions such as anxiety and depression may cause temporary interruptions as well.
How long those periods last depends on the couple and the situation they’re in. Some only need a few hours or days to bounce back; others need months or even years to process more complicated things like body image, mental health or trauma. Either way, Queen says it’s important to look at why each member of the couple is concerned about the lack of sex. Is it because they’re trying to match some arbitrary norm and stressing themselves out because they’re not meeting it, or do they actually miss having sex with each other? “Those might be radically (or subtly) different conversations,” she says, emphasizing that it’s useful to assess how your partner sees things, too.
But beyond these temporary pauses, there’s another major reason for a decline in the frequency of sex: People in long-term relationships tend to experience a different type of desire than they did when they first got together. This is particularly true as they age.
Per Joan Price, award-winning author of Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex, there are two general types of sexual desire: responsive and spontaneous. Spontaneous desire is “generally hormonally driven, and is the biological urge that says, ‘I want to have sex.’” Meanwhile, responsive desire means that you may not feel desire before you start getting busy, but it might kick in as a response to physical stimulation. “As we age, we feel less of the spontaneous desire and more of the responsive kind,” says Price. “But so many people aren’t aware of that. They think, ‘Oh, I just don’t feel like having sex anymore.’”
“It’s ideal to have sex at least once a week for health benefits,” she says. “And when I say ‘having sex,’ I mean experiencing sexual arousal, pleasure and orgasm. It doesn’t have to be penetrative.” Scheduling sex allows pleasure to be a priority, as well as something special to look forward to throughout the week. But again, you don’t need to force it — if once a week feels like too much, tailor your appointments to the frequency that works best for you.
If scheduling sex isn’t your thing, you can explore your responsive desire by spending more time kissing, touching and experimenting with foreplay and sex toys — generally, whatever feels good. Again, some couples no longer have sex because intercourse is no longer pleasurable or exciting, but sex doesn’t have to be defined by penetration. The point is just to enjoy each other and ideally, orgasm — not to hit some sort of imaginary target of “fucks per week.”
That said, it’s important that scheduling doesn’t become a source of stress in itself. For example, there are several articles from writers who committed to having sex with their partner every day for a month. Some reported that it “saved their marriage” and that having more sex only made them desire it further, while others say the challenge almost caused them to break up with their partners entirely. How this plays out depends on whether having a schedule feels like pressure or fun.
Of course, there are plenty of couples for whom sex in any form just isn’t on the table anymore, and that’s fine, too. “There are relationships that have become non-sexual and they’re very happy,” says Price. “They’re called companionate relationships or companionate marriages, and they have agreed that sex isn’t an important part of what they do together anymore.” It’s only an issue when one person isn’t on board with those changes.
In such cases, Price says, you’ve got to work this out with your partner, potentially with the help of a professional. “When someone signed up for exclusivity, they usually didn’t sign up for celibacy,” she explains. Talking to someone like a sex therapist can help the disinterested party better relate to their own sexuality again, or potentially aid in laying the ground rules for an arrangement where the sex-interested party sees other people.
All of which is to say: When it comes to the question of “how long is too long,” try not to compare yourselves to other couples based on what seems “normal.” “Don’t let anyone tell you how much sex you’re supposed to be having,” says Price. “It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality. If you have sex twice a month and it blows your mind every time, fine, there’s nothing wrong, you’re not broken. But if you haven’t had sex for two years, let’s look at what’s going on.”
Whatever the source for your sexual infrequency, it’s best to have that dynamic be clear. Even if you’re not being physically intimate, talking about sex with your partner and understanding each other’s needs will probably make you closer in other ways. Maybe sex is no longer one of your hobbies or needs, or maybe it’s one of the most important — either way, you owe it to each other to make sure you’re on the same page.