How Important Is Sex in a Relationship?

In a supportive relationship, there are many benefits to having more sex. Higher rates of sexual activity are linked to positive changes, such as lower blood pressure, reduced stress, greater intimacy, and even a lower divorce rate. While there are no one-size-fits-all rules when it comes to an ideal sex frequency, here's some insight from the latest research.

This article discusses why sex can be important in a relationship, some of the benefits that it may have, and statistics on how often couples typically have sex. It also covers challenges you might face and what you can do if you want to increase the amount of sex in your relationship.

benefits of sex in your relationship
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell 

Why Sex Is Important in Relationships

Sex isn't always necessary, but it can be an important part of a healthy, fulfilling relationship. How important it is can vary from one individual to the next. Some people may feel that having a sexual connection with their partner is absolutely vital. Others may feel that other types of intimacy and connection are more important. 

Some of the reasons that you might feel that sex is important in a relationship include:

  • Feeling closer to your partner
  • Showing affection to your partner
  • Finding sex fun and pleasurable
  • A desire to have children
  • Feeling confident and sexy
  • Relieving stress

Research suggests that having frequent sex can play a role in a person's overall well-being. Having sex often is linked to more affection. When couples experience more affection, they are also more likely to then have more frequent sex. 

Recap

Sex can be an important part of a relationship, but having sex less frequently does not necessarily mean your relationship is any less satisfying. 

Benefits of Sex in Relationships

Beyond individual benefits for you and your partner, regular sex supports a healthy relationship in a number of ways. For instance, the oxytocin released during sex enhances a sense of bonding and improves emotional intimacy.

Sex in a monogamous relationship increases your level of commitment and emotional connection with the other person. Expressing love through sex increases the likelihood of couples staying together. As a result, sex is positively associated with a lower divorce rate.

Psychological Benefits of Sex

There are many emotional and psychological benefits of making love (sex is strongly linked to a better quality of life). Some of these benefits include:

  • Better self-image: Sex can boost self-esteem and reduce feelings of insecurity, leading to more positive perceptions of ourselves.
  • Higher rates of happiness: According to a 2015 study conducted in China, more consensual sex and better quality sex increases happiness.
  • More bonding: Brain chemicals are released during sex, including endorphins, which decrease irritability and feelings of depression. Another hormone, oxytocin (the "hug drug") increases with nipple stimulation and other sexual activity. Oxytocin helps foster a sense of calmness and contentment.
  • Stress relief: Chronic stress may contribute to lower sex frequency. However, sex can be an effective stress management technique. Sex reduces stress response hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine), with effects lasting well into the next day.
  • Improved sleep quality: Orgasms trigger the release of the hormone prolactin, which aids in sleep.

Physical Benefits of Increased Sex

It's fairly intuitive to understand how sex improves emotional health, but there are a number of physical benefits from sex as well. Some of these include:

  • Better physical fitness: Sex is a form of exercise. According to the American Heart Association, sexual activity is equivalent to moderate physical activities, like brisk walking or climbing two flights of stairs. The motion of sex can tighten and tone abdominal and pelvic muscles. For women, improved muscle tone improves bladder control.
  • Enhanced brain function: Preliminary studies on rats found that more frequent intercourse was correlated with better cognitive function and the growth of new brain cells. Similar benefits have since been observed in human studies. A 2018 study of over 6,000 adults linked frequent sex with better memory performance in adults ages 50 and older.
  • Improved immune function: Being more sexually active has positive effects on immune function. Regular sex may even lower your likelihood of getting a cold or the flu.
  • Lower pain levels: The endorphins from sex promote more than just a sense of well-being and calm. Sex endorphins also appear to reduce migraine and back pain.
  • Weight loss: Having sex for 30 minutes burns an average of 200 calories. The rewarding brain chemicals released during sex can subdue food cravings and support weight loss.
  • Positive cardiac effects: Penile-vaginal sexual activity (but not masturbation) has been linked with lower systolic blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Sexual activity helps dilate blood vessels, increasing the delivery of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body while reducing blood pressure.
  • Additional physical benefits: Being more sexually active boosts libido and increases vaginal lubrication. Frequent intercourse is associated with lighter menstrual periods and less painful period cramps. In addition, an improved sense of smell, healthier teeth, better digestion, and glowing skin may be related to the release of the hormone DHEA by the body after orgasm.

Recap

Sex can have a variety of benefits. It can help support healthy relationships and may improve overall well-being. It is also linked to individual benefits including stress relief, improved sleep, increased immunity, and better cardiac health.

Ideal Frequency for Sex

A 2015 study found that general well-being is associated with sexual frequency, but only to an extent. Relationship satisfaction improved progressively from having no sex up to having sex once a week but did not improve further (and actually decreased somewhat) beyond this point.

One sexual encounter per week is fairly consistent with the current average. However, our increasingly busy lives may be getting in the way of having more sex. Compared to the frequency of sex in the 1990s, adults in 2010 were having sex nine fewer times per year.

Average Sexual Frequency

  • Average adult: 54 times per year (about once per week)
  • Adults in their 20s: Around 80 times per year
  • Adults in their 60s: 20 times per year

Although frequency often decreases with age, sexual activity in older adults remains important. In general, older married couples tend to have sex more often than unmarried peers within the same age group.

Potential Risks of Having More Sex

It was once believed that sex increases the risk of prostate cancer. However, a 2016 study discovered that men who had more ejaculations (21 or more per month) were less likely to develop the disease than men who had fewer ejaculations (seven or less per month). Since prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men, this effect worth noting.

For some, sex may increase the chances of a heart attack. Despite this risk, higher sex frequency may help. A 2011 study found that regular sexual activity diminishes heart attacks. Sex, along with other forms of physical activity, is protective. But infrequent bursts of activity put added strain on the heart. Discuss your sexual activity with your doctor to evaluate your risks.

Unsafe sex could tip the scale of benefits and risks in the opposite direction. Make sure you are familiar with safe sex practices.

Challenges of Regular Sex

There are a variety of factors that can make sex in relationships more challenging. Age, hormones, children, stress, medical conditions, and relationship difficulties can all play a role in how frequently couples engage in sex.

Age often plays a role in sex frequency, largely due to declines in sex hormone levels as people get older.

Humans are wired to crave the intimacy of sex. Lacking sex can lead individuals in a relationship to grow distant and, perhaps, look elsewhere. Working with a licensed couples therapist can help address this gap and prevent issues from permeating throughout your marriage.

Sometimes, maintaining an active sex life is difficult or impossible due to physical or psychological conditions. Couples can maintain a strong, healthy relationship despite these barriers by looking at non-sexual ways to improve intimacy.

How to Increase Sex in Your Relationship

Frequency of sex can, and often does, change over time. But that doesn't mean sex frequency has to be an unstoppable downhill slide. If you're wondering whether it's possible for sex to be as good as when you first fell in love, the answer is yes. Sex and intimacy can improve as your relationship matures. It just may require a little extra work.

There are a number of ways to spice up your sex life. Looking at the non-sexual parts of your relationship can help.

It's often said that the biggest sex organ is the one between the ears. Having sex more often without connecting emotionally or increasing communication isn't likely to produce lasting improvements in your relationship. Managing stress is another key factor for a healthy sex life.

In her book, "The Sex-Starved Marriage: Boosting Your Marriage Libido, a Couple's Guide," therapist Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, suggests taking a "just do it" approach:

"At first, many were understandably cautious about my Nike-style approach to their sex life; the 'Just Do It' advice ran counter to everything they had believed about how sexual desire unfolds...I could often see the relief on people's faces when they learned that their lack of out-of-the-blue sexual urges didn't necessarily signify a problem.

"It didn't mean there was something wrong with them or that something was missing from their marriages," Weiner-Davis explains. "It just meant that they experienced desire differently."

If you always wait for your level of desire to match that of your partner, you may be waiting a long time. Instead, communicate your needs and work together to find a happy medium.

Recap

How frequently you have sex may change over the course of your relationship. Communicating with your partner can help strengthen your relationship and improve sexual satisfaction.

Summary

Sex can be a beneficial part of a healthy relationship. Research suggests that the average couple in the U.S. has sex about once a week. The frequency of sex tends to decline with age, and other factors including stress, children, and overall health can also affect a person's desire for sex. Couples that want to increase their sex frequency should focus on communicating their needs and working together.

A Word From Verywell

Having sex more often (or at least a minimum of once a week) provides multiple benefits for a loving and supportive relationship. That being said, growing intimacy is still possible if you are unable to have sex.

If you are not having sex regularly, ask yourself why. Sometimes seeing a sex therapist may be the best way to work through your relationship and personal issues. Therapy benefits individuals and couples alike.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why is sex important in a relationship?

    Sex can play a role in increasing intimacy between romantic partners, and regular sex is linked to lower divorce rates among married couples. It can also offer benefits for physical and psychological health including lowering stress, improving sleep, and boosting immune function. Sex in relationships may also boost happiness levels and help couples bond.

  • How often do couples have sex?

    While frequency varies based on a variety of factors including age and marital status, research suggests that couples have sex an average of once per week.

  • What are the health benefits of having sex?

    Having sex is connected to a range of positive health effects including increased energy, better mood, lower stress, lower anxiety, decreased prostate cancer risk, lower blood pressure, and a lower risk of heart disease.

  • Is sex necessary in a relationship?

    The importance of sex depends on the individual and the couple. Not everyone needs sex to feel close to their partner or to feel happy in their relationship—but some do. Talk to your partner about your desires and find ways to stay emotionally and physically connected, whether that involves sex or other forms on non-sexual intimacy.

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