A 2017 study by Society for Personality and Social Psychology found that most American adults have sex about once a week. This may not seem frequent, especially considering the portrayal of physical intimacy in entertainment. In film and TV, sex is often seen as an effortless experience that is ignited and executed with ease. In reality, it’s obviously much more complicated than that, as there are several things at play: a couple’s dynamics, emotional connection, physical chemistry, etc. The truth is determining healthy physical intimacy is absolutely subjective to the individuals in question. And sometimes, improving said physical intimacy takes some effort. It's a process that requires energy, communication, and desire, an equation that can be difficult to muster in the midst of life's daily stresses.
"It's no secret that relationship satisfaction is correlated with sexual satisfaction and people use physical intimacy as a way to bond and connect with their partners," explains Dr. Hernando Chaves, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "For many people, physical sexual intimacy is a way to increase attachment and help satisfy our needs to feel desired, wanted, and nurtured with partners. For some people, physical intimacy can help create security and deepen our emotional and psychological connection with partners."
That said, this doesn’t mean you need to be having sex every day to maintain a healthy relationship. In fact, lead researcher on the aforementioned physical intimacy study, Amy Muise, said this in regards to her findings: "Although more frequent sex is associated with greater happiness, this link was no longer significant at a frequency of more than once a week. Our findings suggest that it's important to maintain an intimate connection with your partner, but you don't need to have sex every day as long as you're maintaining that connection." So, yes, it’s important to find the cadence that works for you and your partner, but consistency and true connection here is the real key.
Ahead, three experts in the realm of relationships and sex give their take on different stages of physical intimacy. From having candid conversations to trying new experiences in the bedroom, a healthy sex life can ignite romance and strengthen your relationship, no matter how many years pass.
Talk About It
Yep, one of the first steps to getting physically closer to your partner is to have an honest chat. "In order to prioritize physical intimacy, [therapists] often help couples by simply talking about it," says Erika Boissiere, founder of The Relationship Institute of San Francisco. As it turns out, this conversation can clarify misunderstandings that could hurt your relationship in the long run. "We also find that in many relationships, there is usually one person that wants sex more than the other," she says. "And while differences within a couple are normal, physical intimacy can be a love language for one person (meaning, how they receive and interpret love). Without the presence of this connection, the partner can feel disengaged or lonely."
Dr. Valeria Chuba, a clinical sexologist, sex educator, and host of the Get Sex-Smart podcast, agrees that being clear about each others' needs and expectations is essential for a healthy sex life. "The first thing when prioritizing intimacy is making sure that you are on the same page about the importance of intimacy in your relationship," she says. "Priorities are tied to values; often we tend to prioritize things that we value as important, or ones that make us feel good. But if one of you thinks that sex isn't all that important and the other values it highly, no matter how you try to set your schedules, in the end, you won't be able to maintain that priority."
She adds that during discussions like these, each person should keep an open mind — and an open ear. "Another thing that is really important is staying open to addressing other factors in your relationship that may impact your intimacy," says Dr. Chuba. "For example, if one of you does the lion's share of household chores and feels resentful, unappreciated, and too tired for sex, you need to be able to discuss redistributing the chores more evenly and fairly. Or if your interest in sex has waned because of things like your partner's lack of sexual technique, performance pressure, expectations and requests that make you uncomfortable, and so on, then you need to be able to discuss these factors and commit to addressing these concerns constructively as a team."
Ramp Up The PDA
They say that foreplay starts outside the bedroom, and practicing non-sexual touch in your day-to-day lives can help you feel closer, even before you get between the sheets. "It's important to create a culture of touch," explains Boissiere. "Hand holding, kissing, hugging, and even just a cuddle can go a long way to increase your mental focus and agility, to thinking more about physical intimacy."
What's more, these acts of affection can plant the seed to put romance on the mind. "[Therapists] often tell couples that if you're wanting to have more sex in your life, you need to create a culture of touch, well before you hit the bedroom," she says. "For example, a long kiss in the morning (no sex) can later lead to sex that evening. To increase your touch, just like anything, it takes practice and keeping it alive in your mind."
Another effective way to give and receive affection is by identifying the love languages of both you and your partner. When you learn how you each prefer to interpret love — whether it be through physical touch, acts of service, gift-giving, quality time, or words of affirmation — you can "speak" each others' language in order to grow closer, both emotionally and physically.
Engage In Foreplay
When it comes to having sex, setting the mood and engaging in foreplay can contribute to a truly special experience, and one that you'll both want to have again. "It's important for us to create space for us to get in the mood to be sexual," says Dr. Chaves. "One suggestion many sex therapists utilize is to have partners schedule erotic time." He adds that anything from cuddling to massages to reading sexy poetry can be an engine-revving precursor to intercourse.
Everyone's style is different, so you have to find what works for you as a couple — and you should have fun doing so. "Note that with each progressive stage of physical intimacy, each person may experience pleasure [...] in different ways and may desire different stages," reminds Dr. Chaves.
Focus On Equal Satisfaction
When you're in a serious relationship, especially one you plan on sticking with for the long-haul, sex isn't just about pleasure; it's about keeping the romantic connection strong. "Physical intimacy is what keeps your relationship from being a romantic partner versus a roommate," Boissiere points out. "Said another way, without physical intimacy, there is not much of a difference between a best friend and your partner."
However, over the course of a relationship, it's common for couples to have sex less frequently. "As we age, our desire for sex changes, sometimes increasing and sometimes decreasing," says Dr. Chaves. "The amount of stress and mental health challenges can impact our libido, so it's important for us to manage life anxieties." Dr. Chuba notes another possible reason for the sexual decrease. "The big thing I see happen in relationships is that couples begin taking things for granted, including sexual desire, availability, consent, physical boundaries, things that feel good, and much more," she says. The remedy? Try romancing each other like you've just met. "It's amazing how much you can discover about each other if you start assuming less, and asking and listening more."
Dr. Chaves also suggests switching up your routine in order to keep the spark alive. "According to sex research, keeping sex novel is a strong predictor of sexual satisfaction over time," he says. "Incorporating new sexual experiences, being sexual in different places, and changing of our routines can help people create anticipation, excitement, desire, and novelty."