Think a Lot of Sex Is What Makes People Happy? Think Again

Don’t let the media dictate the health of your sex life.
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Don’t let the media dictate the health of your sex life.

Ah, pregnancy. The creation of innocent life. The manifestation of hope. The irritable woman who is tired all the time.

In these early months of pregnancy, my bed has become my safe haven. It’s the one place where I can escape uncomfortable smells, lie down and stretch, and rest for eight, nine, ten, sometimes eleven hours. However, my bed is not my own. It’s my husband’s, too—and once upon a time, only a couple short months ago actually, we used to do much more than sleep in it. But with nausea, stress, and raw exhaustion, I’m not exactly feeling like I want to partake in that marital act as much as I used to.

While my husband is about as understanding and patient as husbands go, I still worry if my recent sexual withdrawal will create an irrevocable hurdle that will haunt our marriage in years to come. Sure, I know he loves me, but he also loves sex—and by engaging in it significantly less than we used to, am I setting up our marriage for failure? Will he resent me or hold this against me? Isn’t sex the lifeblood of a great marriage? Am I destroying our happiness?!

It seems a bit obvious to say that we live in a sex-obsessed culture. I mean, look around you! By the time I was a teenager, I was more than aware of sex and how great it allegedly was. The references were everywhere—even the ones that went above my adolescent head. Sex is good; sex is great. And if you’re not having it all the time, you’re missing out, and you’re probably not all that happy.

And so, in marriage too, sex has become a barometer for how we measure our relationships’ happiness, whether we’re conscious of it or not. If our committed relationships aren’t bringing us frequent sex, well, it makes us question if something is wrong—even if everything else is going quite well.

Rachel Sussman, LCSW, assures me that I’m not the only woman who worries about how much sex makes a healthy marriage. “Every couple wants to know if their sexual life is normal.” she says. “The media really exaggerates its importance—which can make otherwise really healthy couples insecure about their sex life, and consequently, make them question the status of their entire relationship.”

But despite the popular sentiment that more, more, more sex equals more, more, more happiness, a recent study suggests that this is simply not true.

Researchers in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga examined 25,510 Americans, ages 18 to 89—with about two-thirds of them in committed, sexual relationships. While they did discover that having sex did have some correlations with being happy, engaging in a ton of frequent sex actually didn’t increase their overall happiness or well-being.

When researchers examined other points of data that surveyed overall relationship satisfaction, they realized that, for couples, sex accounts for just 7 percent of the link connecting relationship satisfaction and happiness.

Does sex matter in marriage? Of course it does! In fact, Brian Spears, LPCC-S, family therapist and clinical counselor from Counseling Alliance, tells me that sex is one of the biggest points of contention in marriages—ranking in the top four issues that cause arguments. But Spears also warns us that “putting too much emphasis on sex” can turn a touchy subject into a fiery one. “Gauging sex like a scorecard can be a recipe for disaster,” he says.

Measuring how much sex you’re having is really a reductionist way of assessing the health of the relationship. It ignores crucial details about the individuals in the relationship—such as one’s workload, emotional state, or physical condition, or even how your schedules match up. While sex is still amazing, putting pressure on a certain amount of times we must have it can be really detrimental to the relationship—and in my experience—can backfire.

“There will be seasons in the marriage where the sex drive of each party will lax and wane,” Spears explains. “And sexual intimacy is important in a marriage—let’s make that clear; it’s vital, as it’s the ultimate expression of emotional vulnerability. However, when the concern over the amount starts to shadow more important things, it’s time to talk about it. And that’s OK. In fact, in any marriage, this subject is not just guaranteed to come up, it’s guaranteed to come up many times.”

So when you’re questioning the health of your marriage, Spears recommends that there are far better ways to measure intimacy than how many times you are having sex. “Are you taking note of your partner? Are you aware of what’s going on in their life? It’s far easier to have a good sex life when you’re in tune with your partner.”

Certified Gottman therapist Zach Brittle says that intimacy is a very important component of a happy marriage, but lots of sex may not be the way to get there. “If you focus on the ‘number of times you have sex,’ you’re bound to get caught up in math in a way that’s not helpful,” he says. Brittle goes on to explain that intimacy in the bedroom can and should be cultivated outside the bedroom as well. He says, “Dr. Gottman suggests that the secret to satisfying sex is a strong friendship based on an intimate knowledge of one another, a pattern of turning toward one another, and a commitment to fondness to your partner both in word and deed.” If you’re focused on maintaining the strong bond in your relationship in other ways, the amount of sex you’re having won’t be the be-all and end-all.

Spears concludes, “If you take your cues from media, TV, or Hollywood . . . you’re going to feel like you’re missing out. And, unfortunately, too many of us take our cues that way. It’s a false portrayal of a marriage.”

Sometimes, the biggest complications to a relationship are the messages that surround and clutter it. Take a step back, and think about what’s best for both of you. “Stop saying ‘we should,’ and start thinking about what you, your specific relationship, needs,” Sussman recommends. Sex is great, but just remember, it’s not everything.

Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller