What is sex supposed to look like in a long-term relationship? Chances are, if you're asking the question, your long-term relationship sex life is probably encountering some issues.
Maybe sex has decreased in your relationship, or maybe sex is just feeling dull, uncomfortable, or obligatory instead of actually fun. Let's talk about the facts when it comes to sex in long-term relationships:
Sex generally improves relationships, but how important it is depends on the individual couple
Many research studies have demonstrated a strong link between a good sex life and a happy overall relationship1: Sexual satisfaction contributes to relationship satisfaction, one study2 found.
Another study3 found good sex can even offset the negative effects of communication problems in relationships. Furthermore, having less sex than you wish you were having can make your relationship less stable and increase the likelihood of a breakup, according to a study published in the 4Archives of Sexual Behavior4.
All that being said, how important sex is in any given relationship—and what frequency of sex is considered satisfactory—really depends on the individuals involved. Some people aren't that interested in sex, and they don't particularly need it to have a happy relationship.
What's important is that you and your partner can talk about what you each want from your sex lives, acknowledge any discrepancies, and find ways to make sure both people's needs are being addressed.
Sex tends to decrease in long-term relationships because it starts in hyperdrive
The start of a relationship tends to involve a lot of sexual energy because it's new, and you're exploring physical intimacy with someone for the first time.
The novelty and the surge of feel-good bonding chemicals we experience when falling in love explain why there's often a lot of sex early in the relationship.
As those things wear off, couples settle into more of a regular ebb and flow of desire, which is usually lower than the sex hyperdrive during the initial stage of connection.
It's normal for people to not feel like having sex sometimes
People's interest in sex comes and goes in phases depending on a variety of factors. These might include:
It's normal to not feel like having sex in a relationship. It's not something to judge yourself or your partner over.
Lower sexual desire can sometimes be related to larger relationship issues.
Good sex usually means a happier relationship, but the reverse is also true. Research has found a bidirectional relationship between sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction5, meaning that if you're not happy with your partner, you're probably not going to be very happy with your sex life.
If one or both partners hasn't been interested in sex, it's possible that there are underlying relationship problems that are being brushed under the rug and that need to be addressed. To figure out what's going on, you'll need to open up the conversation and check in with each other about how you're both feeling about the state of your relationship.
Focus on having a good relationship, and many times good sex will naturally follow.
Men deal with lower libido, too
Despite what cultural stereotypes might suggest, not all men want sex all the time, and many men experience decreases in their sex drive. Couples counselor Sheryl Paul, M.A., tells mbg she sees just as many heterosexual couples where the man is the lower-libido partner as she does couples where it's the woman. People of all genders deal with this, so don't assume it's always women who stop wanting sex in long-term relationships.
People tend to enjoy sex once they start having it, even if they weren't initially in the mood
People experience desire differently. Many people experience a concept known as spontaneous desire, where they randomly find themselves in the mood to have sex before any physical arousal or stimulation has even taken place. But for other people, sexual desire only comes along after physical arousal has kicked in. This is known as responsive desire. People with responsive desire feel like having sex only once they're physically aroused.
What exactly does that mean? It means that if you don't tend to spontaneously feel like having sex throughout your day, it doesn't mean you won't enjoy sex once you're having it. Sometimes just being open-minded and having a curious mindset about your partner's advances can give you the opportunity to get physically aroused, which might then make you feel like having sex.
Lower-libido partners don't need to "just do it"
No one needs to have sex with anyone when they don't want to, even in long-term relationships. Having sex when you don't want to can make you feel disconnected or even resentful toward your partner, and you're less likely to enjoy the sex. (Bad orgasms are a thing.)
Some research has found that having sex just to avoid feeling guilty for disappointing your partner actually leads to lower sexual and relationship satisfaction.
That said, a 2014 study6 published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found people who feel more motivated to meet their partner's sexual needs do tend to experience more sexual desire for their partner day-to-day and over time in long-term relationships.
In other words, when you care a lot about your partner's sexual pleasure, you tend to experience more desire to have sex with them.
One next step is to start having more conversations about what you both want out of your sex lives and what you enjoy about having sex together. You might find yourself feeling more open to the idea of sex when you remember how good sex can make both you and your partner feel, both physically and emotionally.
Sex doesn't have to be spontaneous
Scheduled sex can be just as sexy because there's a sense of buildup and anticipation. Of course, don't just put sex on the calendar and show up naked when the time comes.
Another idea: Sex and relationship coach Pam Costa, M.A., recommends setting up "first base dates," for example, where you pencil in time to have a romantic night together and just make out a lot. When you remove the pressure to have intercourse, you make room for enjoying all the other kinds of physical pleasures that can feel just as good if not better.
Generally speaking, just the practice of talking about sex together and mutually deciding to prioritize your sexual well-being can do wonders for a couple's relationship. You feel closer, like you're in it together, committed to keeping the relationship healthy and working on a shared pleasurable goal.
Sex is sexier when it's a shared exploration, not a negotiation
Scorekeeping has no place in a healthy sex life. Couples with desire discrepancy sometimes fall into a dynamic where sex is about who's giving in and how often, and it can create a very negative you-versus-me energy around sex. That's no fun.
Sex should be about exploring together and helping each other feel good. If you feel like your relationship is caught in a negative cycle around sex, bring it up to your partner and work together for mutually pleasant solutions.
Sometimes this push and pull of negotiating sex can bring up a lot of feelings of rejection (for the partner with the higher libido), isolation (for the lower-libido partner), and guilt (for both). These are big feelings, and it might be worth reaching out to a sex therapist or sex educator who can help you talk it out, clear the air, and get to a more positive place again.
Sex in long-term relationships can be hot, passionate, and plentiful
Ditch the assumptions you have about what couples' sex lives look like over time. A 2018 study found those narratives about "passion decay" in long-term relationships actually became self-fulfilling prophecies: that is, people who believed passion would decline in their relationships over time really did experience lower commitment levels.
So don't fall into the trap of believing sexual desire will automatically fade as your relationship goes on.
Desire and sex don't need to decrease in long-term relationships. Plenty of people in long-term relationships have super-hot, wonderfully satisfying sex lives years and years into their relationships. In fact, the longer you know each other, the more comfortable you'll become with exploring new sexual experiences together. You and your partner can create whatever type of sex life you want, as long as you're both committed to making it happen.
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