How Important Is Sex In Relationships? 9 Things To Consider
With how much sex is talked about in pop culture, online relationship columns, and over drinks between close friends, it raises the question: Just how important is sex in a relationship?
The question may feel all the more pressing if you, yourself, are in a relationship where the sex isn't quite where you or your partner want it to be. Or perhaps you're just wondering about it as someone who personally loves sex—or someone who is personally pretty uninterested in it.
We reached out to sex therapists to get to the bottom of the question—which, as it turns out, is pretty complex to answer.
How important is sex in relationships?
"Sex is as important to a relationship as it is to the people in it," says licensed sex therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT.
That is, how important sex is to a relationship varies depending on the individual. Sex matters a lot to some people and some couples, and it's less important or not important at all to some people and some couples.
Not every relationship requires an active sex life. "There are perfectly happy and healthy couples who don't have sex, and this isn't a problem as long as both are truly happy and OK with this," adds Jessa Zimmerman, M.A., an AASECT-certified sex therapist and couples' counselor.
Now, if at least one person in the relationship does want sex, that's when it becomes important for partners to work on creating a mutually satisfying sex life. Much research has found a link between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction, so it's important for both people to feel good about the state of their sex life and to address any issues that come up.
"Those problems can create negative feelings, distance between the partners, and damage to the strength of the relationship," Zimmerman explains.
She adds that problems in the bedroom have a tendency to impact how people view their relationship as a whole, too. "When sex is working well for a couple, it feels like it's about 20% of what makes their relationship great. It's important, and it's a factor in their happiness, but it's in proportion to all the other things in their life," she explains. "But when it isn't working, it can feel like it's 80% of their life together. It can overshadow the other parts that may be working really well. So sex becomes more important as it goes badly."
Why is sex so important in relationships?
There are several reasons sex can have such a positive impact on relationships.
First and foremost, giving and receiving physical pleasure is just a uniquely intimate experience. "Sex is an opportunity for sensory pleasure," says Francis. "To share in moments of pleasure with someone you care about, and especially to help co-create pleasure for one another, can be a deeply connecting and intimate experience."
It's also a time for couples to spend focused, intentional time connecting with each other, Zimmerman points out. "We create space together; we prioritize that time with our partner," she says, adding that for monogamous couples, it's also something that's only shared between the two of you, making it extra special.
There's also a creative, playful aspect to sex, and it often acts as an important place for couples to connect in a way that's free from the stresses of daily life. "It's adult play, where we can let loose and let go of other responsibilities in our lives," says Zimmerman. "It can be a place where we can be authentic and honest and open, where we let our partners really know who we are (and what we want)."
The benefits of sex in a relationship.
There are many physical and emotional benefits to having sex and orgasms, including:
- Reduced stress levels
- Improved sleep
- Release of oxytocin, which promotes bonding
- Release of other "feel-good" hormones like dopamine
- Supports stronger pelvic floor muscles
- Promotes stronger commitment in relationships
- Promotes relationship satisfaction
However, not all sex is created equal.
"Good sex is what's important," Zimmerman stresses. "Bad sex that is obligatory, going through the motions, painful, resentful, hostile, or worse, isn't going to provide benefits."
What about sexless relationships?
Sexless relationships are not inherently good or bad. Some people love being in a relationship that doesn't involve sex, while that same experience can feel devastating and lonely to others.
Sometimes couples who typically enjoy sex nonetheless will go through periods of less sex than usual. Whether or not that's a problem depends on why the couple stopped having sex and how the couple feels about the change.
"Couples often stop having sex when the sex stops being pleasurable (sometimes due to incompatibility or developed pain), when their relational connection fades from disconnection or conflict, or when their priorities or responsibilities change, which can make it difficult to protect time or energy for sex," says Francis.
She adds, "If both partners are in agreement to not have sex, then not having sex is not a problem and can bring people closer as they create the kind of relationship that honors their desires. The trouble is when folks are not in agreement about the sex they do or do not have; this can make sex a source of conflict and contention."
(Here's our full guide on whether to leave a sexless relationship.)
How important is sex to a man?
Sex is not inherently more important to men than it is to women or other genders.
Sure, plenty of studies have found men are more likely to have a higher interest in sex than women do, and some research1 has shown sexual satisfaction has more impact on how happy a man is in his relationships than it does for women and their relationships. Men on average tend to have higher levels of testosterone2 than women do, and testosterone has a significant role in sexual desire and functioning. But male desire is far more complex than a blanket statement like "all men want sex."
Men, like all of humanity, are not a monolith. Some men will have more desire for sex than others, and there are certainly relationships between men and women where the woman has the higher sex drive.
"We gender sexual desire, mostly as an extension of the sexism that over-polices women's bodies and centers the needs of men in relationships," says Francis. That is, we push the narrative that men want sex, and women just put up with it, and the more we hear those stereotypes, the more we internalize them as inherent truths—which subconsciously impacts how we act and even how we feel, and can impact patterns on a societal level.
"Men are socialized to put heavy emphasis on sex as a primary vehicle for connection and intimacy, but that doesn't mean that it is equally important to each person," Francis continues. She adds, "As we mature, unlearn miseducation, resist societal pressure, and get to know ourselves, we come to recognize our own individual relationship to sex."
Constantly repeating those stereotypes about one gender always wanting more sex than the others can often do more harm than good, Francis adds. "These scripts are limiting and create shame and fear for folks whose bodies, emotions, or relationships don't fit comfortably within the narrative."
Are you having enough sex in your relationship?
"There is no 'enough' or 'right' or 'healthy' amount of sex," Zimmerman says. "If both people are happy, they are having enough."
How often a couple should have sex will depend on what each person in the relationship wants and how they collaborate to create a sex life that works for both people, she explains.
And generally speaking, if you're focused on frequency of sex, you're probably focused on the wrong thing, she adds. "We need to be talking about the quality of pleasure and connection, and we need to understand any barriers someone may have to wanting and enjoying sex."
If you're someone who feels you want more sex in your relationship, Zimmerman recommends asking yourself: What is it you truly want when you say you want more sex? Do you want to do a particular thing with a body part? Are you looking for an orgasm? Are you wanting to connect deeply with a partner?
How to improve your sex life as a couple.
If sex is important to you or if it's important to your partner, then it's important to the relationship—and worth taking the time to invest in co-creating a sex life that works for you both.
Zimmerman's No. 1 tip? "Don't avoid it."
She recommends starting by reflecting on what's really happening in your sex life currently, what you want, and what your partner is experiencing. "Consider how you may have a role in what isn't working—how you might be contributing to the problems in your sex life. Really think about what might be going on for your partner—have curiosity and compassion for their experience," she says. "If someone is avoiding it or losing interest, there will be legitimate reasons why."
Talk to your partner about what you're noticing. Zimmerman stresses the importance of approaching the conversation positively, with a desire to truly understand them, work as a team, and get creative with problem-solving.
If you find yourselves struggling to make progress, don't be afraid to work with a sex therapist who can help you navigate these conversations with a little more ease.
How often should a couple have sex?
Couples should have sex as often as they want to have it, which could be once a week, once a month, once a year, several times a day, or never. What's important is that both people feel good about the amount of sex they're having.
Can a relationship last without sex?
"Relationships absolutely can survive without sex," says Francis. "Relationships should only be sexual if all parties want to be having sex. Not everyone wants to have sex, and not all people consider sex to be an integral part of their partnerships. Lots of relationships have extended periods without sex, circumstantially or intentionally, and are still fulfilling and sources of love and connection."
Of course, it all depends on the specific individuals in the relationship. Some people are more OK with sexless relationships than others, and if two people in a relationship are in disagreement about the state of their sex life, that's when it can become an issue.
There's no straightforward answer to the question of how important sex is to relationships—because at the end of the day, it's going to vary based on the people involved. In some relationships, a lack of sex will cause massive tension, disconnection, and loneliness. In other relationships, no sex is a welcomed norm because they have plenty of other ways to connect and be intimate.
"Speaking as a therapist, there is no universal edict or standard for how much sex you should be having, what kind of sex you should be having, or why you should be having it," says Francis. "As long as it is consensual (both people are saying an informed, clear, uncoerced yes), pleasurable, and free of harm to yourself and others, you are doing it right."
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter