A recent series of studies conducted in the US and Switzerland has lead to an important but not surprising conclusion: couples who have sex more often report feeling closer, being happier, and feeling more affection for each other. Further, researchers were able to demonstrate that affectionate touch — touch that is loving and often sexual but not part of sex itself — was closely associated with these positive relationship outcomes, too, AND this was true for both men and women.
The second pair of studies looked at how long the positive effects of sex lasted afterward — not just in the few minutes after sex, but in the hours and days that follow. Guess what? Couples who had sex more often reported that the associated positive emotions lasted longer and were experienced more positively than couples who had sex less frequently. In fact, couples who reported having sex (or erotic sexual encounters, whether or not they included intercourse) experienced a consistently higher level of affection and satisfaction from their relationships, almost as though they were operating on a different plane than couples whose sexual encounters were irregular or infrequent.
I know what you’re thinking: “It’s not that easy. I can’t just start having more sex with my partner — I need to feel a certain way first.” Or, “but physical touch isn’t my love language. I’m more fulfilled by help with the kids or coming home to a clean kitchen.” Yep, I get it. Those things are important too, and not having our emotional needs met or our to-do list checked off for the day is often the reason we don’t prioritize sex. But if you’re at an impasse working on your relationship from that angle, it might be time to try coming at it from the other direction.
Try this: think of your affectionate bond with your partner like a gas tank, and imagine that having sex (or any sexual encounter) is what fills it. Now imagine that your tank lasts about 4 days, and after that, you’re running on fumes. How much of your life do you spend operating on an empty tank? Half? 75%? More?
I often encourage my clients to prioritize their physical relationships early in the therapy process, precisely because building that can be so instrumental in creating other kinds of closeness and reigniting an overall sense of excitement about the relationship. (Note that this strategy, and the tips below, are not appropriate in cases of abuse, recent/unresolved infidelity, etc.). But how do we make this happen? Here are some ideas:
- Commit to going to bed at the same time most nights of the week. Even if you have different schedules, laundry to fold, lunches to pack for tomorrow, etc., at least lay down together in your bedroom for 15 minutes at the end of the day. Enjoy time in that quiet, intimate space — talk, cuddle, touch, and kiss — and just enjoy being alone together. This provides a regular opportunity for sex to happen. Go with the flow.
- Try not to say “no” right away. Of course, all of us are entitled to make our own decisions about others’ access to our bodies, and to decline our partners’ invitations for sex if we choose to do so. Many couples share with me that sex often doesn’t happen because even if one person would like to have sex or tries to initiate sex, they give up quickly if they get the impression that the other person isn’t interested. Give this a try: if your partner is in the mood for sex, make an effort to turn your attention to the partnership and see if you can get there with her/him. You might be surprised at how easily you’re able to get in the mood if you let yourself be open to it.
- Date each other. I know life is busy; kids, work, and other responsibilities take up a ton of your time; and when you have a free night, you sometimes just want to curl up on the couch or use the opportunity to check some things off of your to-do list. But going out and having fun together — just the two of you — is an important way of laying the groundwork for intimate connection. Get the babysitter, put the list aside, say no to invitations from others, and date your partner. While COVID continues and our options in this area are limited, get creative about carving out alone time in whatever way you can — whether that means a backyard picnic, eating dinner together after kids’ bedtime once in a while, getting out for a walk or bike ride together, or whatever creative ways you can find and are workable for you.
- Make the most of your everyday affection. How often do you kiss your partner? Separate question: How often do you really kiss your partner? If you’re like most couples, you probably exchange a quick peck on the lips most times that you say hello or goodbye to each other, and maybe first thing in the morning or last thing before you go to bed. This tip takes virtually no time and can have a huge impact: swap out those quick pecks for a real kiss lasting at least three seconds. Put your arms around each other, close your eyes, and press your bodies together. Feel each other’s breath and focus on the moment, rather than where you need to be or how late you’re running. I bet you’ll find that after a couple days of doing this, you’ll start to feel closer and more open to other physical affection, too.
Lindsey M. Hoskins, PhD, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation.