Is Sex Important in a Relationship? Here’s What Experts Say
Experts reveal how important sex is in relationships and how to have a sex life both you and your partner enjoy.
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The importance of sex in relationships
Is sex important in a relationship? It almost sounds like a trick question.
Sure, romance is one of the main qualities in successful relationships. And a part of that includes quality sex. But how big a role sex plays in your love life depends on you and your partner.
“What we seem to know is that basically when sex is going well, which means you’re having it consistently, and not having any major problems, then it really only accounts for about 15 to 20 percent of relationship satisfaction,” says certified sex therapist Laurie Mintz, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville and author of A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex.
And “consistently” is not a one size fits all model. It can mean very different things to different relationships. The most important part is that the two people in the relationship are on the same page about sex frequency.
When your sex life is off track, though, it can make up for most of your dissatisfaction with your partner, she adds. For example, maybe your partner doesn’t want sex when you do.
That’s not surprising for something that provides enormous benefits to your physical and emotional health, both individually and as a couple. But sex is way more than intercourse, say experts. So if that aspect of love-making isn’t happening as often as it used to, don’t despair.
Read on to see why sex (in all its variations) can be so important in relationships—and what to do if one or both of you feel you’re not getting enough.
Defining sex like an expert
When most heterosexual couples think of sex, they’re generally thinking about penis and vagina, says Megan Fleming, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in sex and relationships in New York City. “But the basics of sexuality is giving and receiving pleasure.”
So sex is anything you and your partner do consensually that involves erotic and sexual touch and pleasure—and for most of us, that involves genital pleasure, Mintz explains. You give each other oral sex, for instance, or pleasure each other with vibrators or with your hands.
Redefining sex, so it’s broader than intercourse, can be more inclusive of gay and lesbian couples, says Mintz. And it may help you enjoy better sex as you age, too.
“We know that sometimes, as people age, intercourse is not on the table anymore, due to vaginal dryness, erectile issues, and other medical issues,” she says. “And so if we start valuing all of the many ways to pleasure ourselves and our partners, we are much more likely to be able to age into our sexuality more gracefully.” (Here are the common myths about sex after 50.)
Focusing on the mutual pleasure that may or may not include intercourse also can help couples get over performance anxiety, which saps away at your relationship, says Fleming. “If you’re not sure how something’s going to go, you’d rather not feel the disappointment or upset,” she notes. “So some people stop initiating. And that might even look like not hugging and kissing because people don’t want to send mixed signals.”
Now that you can think of sex more inclusively, it’s time to see how many perks it brings, both individually and as a couple. (Here’s what happens when you’re not having sex.)
Why making love is so good for you
It’s good for your physical health
There’s a whole host of physical benefits that having sex, specifically orgasms, can bring to you. It may help relieve joint or muscle pain, and can reportedly help with headaches and menstrual cramps in some women. “Women who orgasm frequently have a lower risk of developing endometriosis and more regular periods,” says Mintz. “It’s also good for bladder control because when you have sex, your pelvic floor muscles get exercise.”
It also keeps your heart healthy, even increasing your life expectancy after a heart attack (at least for men), according to a study published in 2020 in The American Journal of Medicine. Other research in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that sex lowers the risk of hypertension in middle-aged and older women. Sex may even be good for your immune system, suggests a small study in the journal Psychological Reports.
It’s good for your emotional well-being
Your brain changes when you have sex. “The way that your brain looks right before orgasm is the same way your brain looks in deep meditation,” says Mintz.
Researchers found that intimacy lowers cortisol, the stress hormone, in men and women, according to research in a 2019 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine. (Here are other tips for quick stress relief.)
Sex can also be an essential part of feeling alive and vital—of having a zest for life, says Fleming.
Another benefit to good sex? It’s validating, says New York City sex therapist Stephen Snyder, MD, author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship. “It makes you feel good about yourself in a way few other experiences can match.”
It’s good for your relationship
Mintz calls sex the glue and oil of a relationship. Without it, she says, couples either fall apart or become roommates who share chores, worries, and an occasional laugh. “In terms of the oil, sex helps prevent friction and makes you less irritable,” she says. “I always joke with my clients who I’m trying to help get a better sex life that the things that irritate you about your partner before sex could even be endearing after sex.”
It can also release all those feel-good hormones, including oxytocin and dopamine, which increases feelings of connection and intimacy, says Fleming. Want to know what else increases those feelings? The little ways these couples make their partner feel loved.
Here’s what else it can do: It creates trust and shared memories, because you’re sharing your deepest self with your partner, says Mintz. “It can enhance commitment and appreciation. And most interesting, the more sex you have, the more you want,” she adds. “So good sex is a positive cycle for not only more of those benefits, but for more sex.”
How much sex do you need to reap these benefits?
According to research in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, you get all these feelings of emotional well-being and connections when you have sex once a week (more often is fine, you just don’t reap more perks).
If that amount seems like a lot, given your life right now, remember: “It’s really up to the couple to decide their ideal frequency,” says Mintz. When it comes up in her couples’ therapy, she tells her clients, “Whatever the two of you work out. I don’t care if it’s once a week or once a month.” But here’s the caveat: Both partners have to be satisfied with the amount, which requires communication and compromise—two key characteristics of a healthy relationship.
Fleming agrees. “If a couple isn’t having sex frequently—whether it’s once a month or once a year—and they’re not distressed by it, then it isn’t a problem,” she says. “It becomes problematic if it’s distressing to one and not to the other. Then it becomes a relationship issue.”
The bottom line: “There is no one-size-fits-all sexuality,” Mintz says. “If you have sex that’s really fun and orgasmic and connected once a month, you might be happier than the people who are having mediocre sex once a week.”
How to have a sex life you’re both happy with
Many relationships have mismatched desire levels—typically, a higher-libido partner with a lower-libido one, say experts. And while you may think your partner just wants sex, it may be the lack of connection and intimacy that your significant other is really missing, notes Fleming. Here’s how to fix that imbalance so that you’re both left satisfied (yes, pun intended).
Work it out
Even though your sexual differences can feel like a relationship deal-breaker, they’re just as negotiable as all the issues you have to compromise on—from whose family to visit over the holidays to how to decorate your new place, says Mintz. “You listen to each other, you talk to each other non-defensively—you really hear what the other person wants and why it’s important to them,” she explains. “And you reach a conclusion, a unique couple compromise.”
Sometimes bringing up the topic can be difficult, but not impossible. Mintz recommends using “I” statements, loving statements, and compliments so that your script looks something like this: “I have something to talk to you about, and it’s really hard for me. … I’m bringing this up to connect with you because I really love you. I really care about our relationship. And I am not feeling as satisfied as I could be with our sex life.” You list a couple of reasons why and then say, “And I’d really like us to work on that.”
Making space for these conversations could mean the difference between healthy vs unhealthy relationships. If your partner doesn’t want to figure it out with you, then you’ll have to think long and hard whether this is a deal-breaker—and go into therapy yourself.
“If you wanted your partner to do something and they said, ‘No, I don’t care to work on this even though it’s important to you,’ how does that feel?” Mintz says. “It’s not just about sex. It’s about love and partnership in general.”
Take intercourse off the table
Most therapists will do a series of exercises that focus on affectionate touching and get increasingly sexual. They’re called sensate focus exercises, and the aim is to reintroduce sensuality, sexuality, and non-demand touch, says Mintz.
“I tell clients, ‘Do you remember making out in your parents’ driveway? Why was it so erotic? Because you couldn’t finish the deed,’ ” she explains. “But the longer relationships go on, the more often there’s no touch, no making out, no teasing. And all of a sudden, you get in bed, and it’s like, ‘Do you want to?’ ‘Of course not! You haven’t touched me all day, and I’m exhausted.'”
Instead of aiming for, say, weekly sessions that always end in intercourse, focus on what Dr. Snyder calls “erotic intimacy,” which can include sensual touch. “It’s a good idea to get excited together sometimes—just for a minute or two, even when you’re not going to have sex—because it feels good,” he says. “Just a minute or two before falling asleep, or before leaving for work, can do a lot to improve the erotic climate of your relationship.”
Think outside the box
Toss out the idea that monogamy equals monotony. “Most couples fall into what we refer to as scripted sex, meaning it’s the same positions and same time,” says Fleming. “I’m all for having our favorites—our vanilla and chocolate ice cream—but I always speak to couples about expanding the repertoire, what I refer to as having the Greek diner menu,” Fleming says.
So start exploring, she advises. “There are just so many ways to give and receive pleasure. We say the biggest sex organ is our mind, but the biggest organ is our skin, head to toe.” (Here are some more tips to boost your sex drive.)
While you’re getting creative, think about adding a few props. One nice-to-have that Fleming suggests to her clients: a massage candle. Once it’s lit, it quickly melts down into massage oil.
“It’s the whole idea of adding a little bit of novelty, something new,” she says. But a massage candle is “also more sensual versus explicitly sexual, which is helpful.” You become more mindful about giving each other pleasure.
If you need more stimulation for arousal, you can try a vibrator or another type of adult sex toy. Or, suggests Fleming, break out special dice or board games, in which one card or die gives a body part and the other the action. “What I like about games is that you’re not having to think about what’s next,” she says. “Something external is giving you that guidance or cue, which could be really helpful.”
Another benefit about toys and games: They give you more permission to explore new things, says Fleming, as long as both of you are honest about telling each other what seems worth trying and feels good and what doesn’t (or can be revisited later).
Schedule your love-making
Set a date and time for these erotic sessions (and clear the calendar so you can stick to it). Here’s a hint: You may want to pencil it in during the hours that experts say is the best time to have sex.
“Culturally, we think that sex is supposed to be spontaneous, and the reality is that even when you were young, it was more about opportunity than the spontaneity,” says Fleming. Even if it’s tough to find a few minutes in your crazy busy life (and crowded household), it’s essential to prioritize a time for pleasure and connection, however the two of you define that, Fleming says.
Say yes to one thing
Sometimes your partner initiates sex, and your first response may be to say no, for whatever reason (you’re exhausted, you’re facing a looming deadline). But it could be a good idea to meet your partner halfway to see if there’s one small thing you can say yes to—like a back massage, advises Fleming. That way you can physically connect and, if you do want to increase intimacy, you may actually feel desire kick in. The point is to be open and receptive and see what happens if you want. And then take it from there.
- Laurie Mintz, Ph.D., psychotherapist and psychology professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
- Megan Fleming, Ph.D., sex and relationship therapist, New York, NY
- Stephen Snyder, M.D., sex and relationship therapist, New York, NY
- American Journal of Medicine: "Frequency of Sexual Activity and Long-term Survival after Acute Myocardial Infarction."
- Journal of Health and Social Behavior: "Is Sex Good for Your Health? A National Study on Partnered Sexuality and Cardiovascular Risk Among Older Men and Women."
- Psychological Reports: "Sexual frequency and salivary immunoglobulin A (IgA).
- Psychosomatic Journal: "Intimacy as Related to Cortisol Reactivity and Recovery in Couples Undergoing Psychosocial Stress."
- Social Psychological and Personality Science: "Sexual Frequency Predicts Greater Well-Being, But More is Not Always Better."