There’s a popular perception that your relationship’s health can be measured by the frequency of your lovemaking. So it only follows that if you wanted to fine-tune your rapport, adding more sex ought to tip the scales toward greater satisfaction, right? Wrong—according to a new study that suggests that doing it more might actually make you less happy.
It’s not that sex doesn’t matter, of course. It’s that how much it matters—and how it does—is individual and subjective; what works for you may not work for someone else. Still, couples who can’t seem to find a good rhythm and frequency for sex are often told to try to have sex at a certain frequency anyway—about twice a week. That’s because counselors and therapists are hoping the unhappy couples can, in essence, by imitating the behavior of happy couples (who report sex twice a week on average) fake it until they make it.
Last year I interviewed several sex experts and therapists to investigate this claim. They all agreed that the advice to have “appointment sex” twice a week (no matter the desire of the couple) was not only outdated but also possibly damaging to the health of a relationship. Their thinking: Having sex out of obligation when the connection or desire isn’t organic could cause more anxiety, put the focus on the wrong thing (sex versus intimacy), and ultimately miss the point of the value in negotiating the amount that works for you as a couple rather than trying to keep up with the Joneses and their boners.
Now, a new study backs this up. At the Well blog at the NYT, Gretchen Reynolds reports on research published in the very non-sexily named Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon asked 64 adult hetero married couples how often they had sex and how good it was, while also taking their temperature on mood, energy, and general happiness.
Then, at random, half of the couples were told to double the amount of sex they had while the other half were instructed to keep doing it as usual. Bare minimum to participate in the study, you had to be having sex at least once a month. Which means those couples now did it—look out—twice a month, while couples getting it on at the maximum end of the spectrum allowed to participate—three times a week—would now be doing it, gulp, six times a week. This lasted for 90 days (coincidentally, this is also the length of time that it takes to get that beach body, am I right?) During this time, participants had to rate their new, presumably improved, more frequent sex online, as well as their moods concurrent to it.
Of interest: Not all couples were able to increase the amount of sex as instructed, but overall, frequency increased by 40 percent. And guess what? Just like making even a dime over $75,000 a year doesn’t make you happier, doing it more did not buy anyone greater satisfaction. Reynolds writes:
In fact, their well-being declined, especially in measures of energy and enthusiasm, as did the quality of the sex. Both men and women reported that the additional intercourse wasn’t much fun. The results surprised the researchers — but they probably shouldn’t have, according to George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon, who led the study.
‘‘It seems that if you’re having sex for a reason other than because you like and want sex,’’ he says, you may undermine the quality of that sex and your resulting mood.
We’re not surprised, are we? You know what having sex feels like when you don’t really feel like it but you’ve made up your mind that you’re supposed to, either to maintain some arbitrary notion of how happy you are at that moment or simply to please the person you’re with? Say it with me: Yawn.
This is not to suggest that you should never give it up for your partner—anyone who has been in a long term relationship can surely tell you that’s unavoidable at some point or another, and is part of the overall compromise system you’ve entered into by agreeing to put up with someone, and by forcing them to put up with you. But most of the time, you should be doing it because you’re feeling it, and your sex frequency should be determined by the two of you.
Which is why the study author told Reynolds to focus not on quantity, but quality. Reynolds:
Studies associating sexual frequency and happiness may have missed the underlying link between the two, which is the pleasurability of the sex. People who like their couplings probably have more of them, and it is the pleasure of the act, he says, that raises moods, not how often it happens. Faking it until you make it is a nice idea, and maybe it works in terms of dressing for the job you want or improving your attitude. But sex, for all its logistical simplicity, is complicated. (Though I have no doubt that you could not be in the mood for sex but commit to it anyway, and then find that soon enough you’re really into it, this should not be the basis for your whole approach—unless that’s really specifically what you’re into.)
What seems to work far better—an idea backed up by the therapists I spoke to last year—is that, rather than reverse-engineering happiness based on a number, couples should investigate why they aren’t having sex as much as you would like and go from there. And by understanding and cultivating conditions under which sex—mutually desired sex, that is—is more likely to happen, you subsequently unlock possibilities for more sex.
More sex leading to more happiness is a shortcut of an idea, and I’m sure we don’t like to see our shortcut boners wilt so unceremoniously. Like good sex, happiness takes at least a certain amount of work. But the good news is that there is at something you can do about it.