It’s basically become common knowledge that sex can be an important aspect of a relationship: We use it to bond, to make each other feel good, and to connect with each other physically and mentally.
The amount of sex we are — or aren’t — having with our partner(s) is entirely up to us, but according to sex researcher and therapist Brian Willoughby, Americans can be pretty obsessed with the idea of hitting the “right” number.
“It’s the number one question I’m asked,” Willoughby said. “How often are you supposed to have sex in a healthy marriage? I immediately say you’re thinking about sex wrong — there’s no magic number for any given couple.”
In short: There’s no such thing as a sex quota in your relationship, so don’t stress over the idea of meeting one. However, science tells us that sex frequency does vary over different stages of the average relationship. In 1998, Helen E. Fisher published Human Nature, a groundbreaking paper that studied three major stages of mammal mating patterns: Lust, attraction, and attachment.
According to Fisher, hormones like testosterone and oxytocin flood our brains during the “lust” phase, urging us to “seek a sexual union” with a new partner — and, you know, seek it a lot.
Then, we move into the attraction phase. This phase pops up in long-term relationships, in which we experience romantic love. The study reports that sex is still relatively frequent between couples during this stage, but lacks the urgency of the lust phase.
The “attachment” phase is what most long-term and married couples eventually settle into. We feel compassionate love in this phase, our brains stimulated by vasopressin and oxytocin (sometimes known as “cuddle hormones”) so we can feel security, comfort, and trust. Unsurprisingly, sex frequency between couples can slow during this phase.
But is that bad? It’s definitely not uncommon: According to a study by University of Chicago sociologist Edward Laumann, only five percent of couples have sex four or more times week, and more than one-third of people 18 to 59 do the deed less than once a month.
Matchmaker and Dating Coach Francesca Hogi told HelloGiggles that couples shouldn’t stress over the amount of sex they’re having, no matter their relationship stage, as long as both partners feel content and satisfied.
Googling around for articles like this one, however, might be a sign your needs aren’t being met.
“The frequency of sex can ebb and flow depending on what else is happening in your lives or your bodies. So it’s really hard to say what is healthy. It’s a very personal decision,” Hogi said. “But if you’re questioning if your sex life is healthy, that’s an indication that something isn’t working.”
Hogi suggests open communication with your partner if you aren’t happy with the frequency of sex you’re having. The worst thing you can do, Hogi says, is wait around for your partner to “fix the problem” without communicating that there is one.
“If you’re waiting for the spark to happen outside of yourself, for your partner to initiate it, or for your life to get less busy, you might be waiting a long time. Don’t wait to feel sexy. Make yourself feel sexy. Take action and wait for the inspiration to follow. The more sex you have, the more sex you’ll want to have,” she said.
Hogi urges couples not to get stuck on labels like “healthy” and “normal.” Sex drives and needs differ, and sex is only one form of intimacy. Mutual sexual satisfaction has much less to do with the quantity of sex you’re having than it does with the communication between you and your partner about what you both need.
So go on, get freaky. But only if you feel like it.
Related: 7 Ways to Jump-Start Your Sex Drive (Provided by Good Housekeeping)