Can you spot a good relationship? Of course nobody knows what really goes on between any couple, but decades of scientific research into love, sex and relationships have taught us that a number of behaviors can predict when a couple is on solid ground or headed for troubled waters. Good relationships don’t happen overnight. They take commitment, compromise, forgiveness and most of all — effort. Keep reading for the latest in relationship science, fun quizzes and helpful tips to help you build a stronger bond with your partner.
How Much Sex Are You Having?
Let’s start with the good news. Committed couples really do have more sex than everyone else. Don’t believe it? While it’s true that single people can regale you with stories of crazy sexual episodes, remember that single people also go through long dry spells. A March 2017 report found that 15 percent of men and 27 percent of women reported they hadn’t had sex in the past year. And 9 percent of men and 18 percent of women say they haven’t had sex in five years. The main factors associated with a sexless life are older age and not being married. So whether you’re having committed or married sex once a week, once a month or just six times a year, the fact is that there’s still someone out there having less sex than you. And if you’re one of those people NOT having sex, this will cheer you up: Americans who are not having sex are just as happy as their sexually-active counterparts.
But Who’s Counting?
Even though most people keep their sex lives private, we do know quite a bit about people’s sex habits. The data come from a variety of sources, including the General Social Survey, which collects information on behavior in the United States, and the International Social Survey Programme, a similar study that collects international data, and additional studies from people who study sex like the famous Kinsey Institute. A recent trend is that sexual frequency is declining among millennials, likely because they are less likely than earlier generations to have steady partners.
Based on that research, here’s some of what we know about sex:
- The average adult has sex 54 times a year.
- The average sexual encounter lasts about 30 minutes.
- About 5 percent of people have sex at least three times a week.
- People in their 20s have sex more than 80 times per year.
- People in their 40s have sex about 60 times a year.
- Sex drops to 20 times per year by age 65.
- After the age of 25, sexual frequency declines 3.2 percent annually.
- After controlling for age and time period, those born in the 1930s had sex the most often; people born in the 1990s (millennials) had sex the least often.
- About 20 percent of people, most of them widows, have been celibate for at least a year.
- The typical married person has sex an average of 51 times a year.
- “Very Happy” couples have sex, on average, 74 times a year.
- Married people under 30 have sex about 112 times a year; single people under 30 have sex about 69 times a year.
- Married people in their 40s have sex 69 times a year; single people in their 40s have sex 50 times a year.
- Active people have more sex.
- People who drink alcohol have 20 percent more sex than teetotalers.
- On average, extra education is associated with about a week’s worth of less sex each year.
Early and Often
One of the best ways to make sure your sex life stays robust in a long relationship is to have a lot of sex early in the relationship. A University of Georgia study of more than 90,000 women in 19 countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas found that the longer a couple is married, the less often they have sex, but that the decline appears to be relative to how much sex they were having when they first coupled. Here’s a look at frequency of married sex comparing the first year of marriage with the 10th year of marriage.
Why does sex decline in marriage? It’s a combination of factors — sometimes it’s a health issue, the presence of children, boredom or unhappiness in the relationship. But a major factor is age. One study found sexual frequency declines 3.2 percent a year after the age of 25. The good news is that what married couples lack in quantity they make up for in quality. Data from the National Health and Social Life Survey found that married couples have more fulfilling sex than single people.
The No-Sex Marriage
Why do some couples sizzle while others fizzle? Social scientists are studying no-sex marriages for clues about what can go wrong in relationships.
It’s estimated that about 15 percent of married couples have not had sex with their spouse in the last six months to one year. Some sexless marriages started out with very little sex. Others in sexless marriages say childbirth or an affair led to a slowing and eventually stopping of sex. People in sexless marriages are generally less happy and more likely to have considered divorce than those who have regular sex with their spouse or committed partner.
If you have a low-sex or no-sex marriage, the most important step is to see a doctor. A low sex drive can be the result of a medical issues (low testosterone, erectile dysfunction, menopause or depression) or it can be a side effect of a medication or treatment. Some scientists speculate that growing use of antidepressants like Prozac and Paxil, which can depress the sex drive, may be contributing to an increase in sexless marriages.
While some couples in sexless marriages are happy, the reality is that the more sex a couple has, the happier they are together. It’s not easy to rekindle a marriage that has gone without sex for years, but it can be done. If you can’t live in a sexless marriage but you want to stay married, see a doctor, see a therapist and start talking to your partner.
Here are some of the steps therapists recommend to get a sexless marriage back in the bedroom:
- Talk to each other about your desires.
- Have fun together and share new experiences to remind yourself how you fell in love.
- Hold hands. Touch. Hug.
- Have sex even if you don’t want to. Many couples discover that if they force themselves to have sex, soon it doesn’t become work and they remember that they like sex. The body responds with a flood of brain chemicals and other changes that can help.
Remember that there is no set point for the right amount of sex in a marriage. The right amount of sex is the amount that makes both partners happy.
A Prescription for a Better Sex Life
If your sex life has waned, it can take time and effort to get it back on track. The best solution is relatively simple, but oh-so-difficult for many couples: Start talking about sex.
- Just do it: Have sex, even if you’re not in the mood. Sex triggers hormonal and chemical responses in the body, and even if you’re not in the mood, chances are you will get there quickly once you start.
- Make time for sex: Busy partners often say they are too busy for sex, but interestingly, really busy people seem to find time to have affairs. The fact is, sex is good for your relationship. Make it a priority.
- Talk: Ask your partner what he or she wants. Surprisingly, this seems to be the biggest challenge couples face when it comes to rebooting their sex lives.
The first two suggestions are self-explanatory, but let’s take some time to explore the third step: talking to your partner about sex. Dr. Hatfield of the University of Hawaii is one of the pioneers of relationship science. She developed the Passionate Love scale we explored earlier in this guide. When Dr. Hatfield conducted a series of interviews with men and women about their sexual desires, she discovered that men and women have much more in common than they realize, they just tend not to talk about sex with each other. Here’s a simple exercise based on Dr. Hatfield’s research that could have a huge impact on your sex life:
- Find two pieces of paper and two pens.
- Now, sit down with your partner so that each of you can write down five things you want more of during sex with your partner. The answers shouldn’t be detailed sex acts (although that’s fine if it’s important to you). Ideally, your answers should focus on behaviors you desire — being talkative, romantic, tender, experimental or adventurous.
If you are like the couples in Dr. Hatfield’s research, you may discover that you have far more in common in terms of sexual desires than you realize. Here are the answers Dr. Hatfield’s couples gave.
Let’s look at what couples had in common. Both partners wanted seduction, instructions and experimentation.
The main difference for men and women is where sexual desire begins. Men wanted their wives to initiate sex more often and be less inhibited in the bedroom. But for women, behavior outside the bedroom also mattered. They wanted their partner to be warmer, helpful in their lives, and they wanted love and compliments both in and out of the bedroom.
How to Fight
Many people try their best to avoid conflict, but relationship researchers say every conflict presents an opportunity to improve a relationship. The key is to learn to fight constructively in a way that leaves you feeling better about your partner.
Marriage researcher John Gottman has built an entire career out of studying how couples interact. He learned that even in a laboratory setting, couples are willing to air their disagreements even when scientists are watching and the cameras are rolling. From that research, he developed a system of coding words and gestures that has been shown to be highly predictive of a couple’s chance of success or risk for divorce or breakup.
In one important study, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues observed newly married couples in the midst of an argument. He learned that the topic didn’t matter, nor did the duration of the fight. What was most predictive of the couple’s marital health? The researchers found that analyzing just the first three minutes of the couple’s argument could predict their risk for divorce over the next six years.
In many ways, this is great news for couples because it gives you a place to focus. The most important moments between you and your partner during a conflict are those first few minutes when the fight is just getting started. Focus on your behavior during that time, and it likely will change the dynamics of your relationship for the better.
Here’s some general advice from the research about how to start a fight with the person you love:
Identify the complaint, not the criticism. If you’re upset about housework, don’t start the fight by criticizing your partner with, “You never help me.” Focus on the complaint and what will make it better. “It’s so tough when I work late on Thursdays to come home to dishes and unbathed kids. Do you think you could find a way to help more on those nights?”
Avoid “you” phrases. Phrases like “You always” and “You never” are almost always followed by criticism and blame.
Think about pronouns. Sentence that start with “I” or “We” help you identify problems and solutions, rather than putting blame on someone else.
Be aware of body language. No eye-rolling, which is a sign of contempt. Look at your partner when you speak. No folded arms or crossed legs to show you are open to their feelings and input. Sit or stand at the same level as your partner — one person should not be looking down or looking up during an argument.
Learn to De-escalate: When the argument starts getting heated, take it upon yourself to calm things down. Here are some phrases that are always useful in de-escalation:
- “What if we…”
- “I know this is hard…”
- “I hear what you’re saying…”
- “What do you think?”
Dr. Gottman reminds us that fighting with your partner is not a bad thing.After all his years of studying conflict, Dr. Gottman has said he’s a strong believe in the power of argument to help couples improve their relationship. In fact, airing our differences gives our relationship “real staying power,” he says. You just need to make sure you get the beginning right so the discussion can be constructive instead of damaging.
Why Couples Fight
A famous study of cardiovascular health conducted in Framingham, Mass., happened to ask its 4,000 participants what topics were most likely to cause conflict in their relationship. Women said issues involving children, housework and money created the most problems in their relationships. Men said their arguments with their spouse usually focused on sex, money and leisure time. Even though the lists were slightly different, the reality is that men and women really care about the same issues: money, how they spend their time away from work (housework or leisure) and balancing the demands of family life (children and sex).
Sometimes money problems become marriage problems.
Studies show that money is consistently the most common reason for conflict in a relationship. Couples with financial problems and debt create have higher levels of stress and are less happy in their relationship.
Why does money cause conflict? Fights about money ultimately are not really about finances. They are about a couple’s values and shared goals. A person who overspends on restaurants, travel and fun stuff often wants to live in the moment and seek new adventures and change; a saver hoping to buy a house some day may most value stability, family and community. Money conflict can be a barometer for the health of your relationship and an indicator that the two of you are out of sync on some of your most fundamental values.
David Olson, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, studied 21,000 couples and identified five questions you can ask to find out if you are financially compatible with your partner.
- We agree on how to spend money.
- I don’t have any concerns about how my partner handles money.
- I am satisfied with our decisions about savings.
- Major debts are not a problem
- Making financial decisions is not difficult.
Dr. Olson found that the happiest couples were those who both agreed with at least four of the statements. He also found that couples who did not see eye to eye on three or more of the statements were more likely to score low on overall marital happiness. Debt tends to be the biggest culprit in marital conflict. It can be an overwhelming source of worry and stress. As a result, couples who can focus on money problems and reduce their debt may discover that they have also solved most of their marital problems.
Here’s some parting advice for managing your money and your relationship:
Be honest about your spending: It’s surprisingly common for two people in a relationship to lie about how they spend their money, usually because they know it’s a sore point for their partner. Researchers call it “financial infidelity,” and when it’s discovered, it represents a serious breach of trust in the relationship. Surveys suggest secret spending occurs in one out of three committed relationships. Shopping for clothes, spending money on a hobby and gambling are the three most-cited types of secret spending that causes conflict in a relationship.
Maintain some financial independence: While two people in a relationship need to be honest with each other about how they spend their money, it’s a good idea for both sides to agree that each person has his or her own discretionary pot of money to spend on whatever they want. Whether it’s a regular manicure, clothes shopping, a great bottle of wine or a fancy new bike — the point is that just because you have different priorities as a family doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally feed your personal indulgences. The key is to agree on the amount of discretionary money you each have and then stay quiet when your partner buys the newest iPhone just because.
Invest in the relationship. When you do have money to spend, spend it on the relationship. Take a trip, go to dinner, see a show. Spending money on new and shared experiences is a good investment in your partnership.
One of the more uncomfortable findings of relationship science is the negative effect children can have on previously happy couples. Despite the popular notion that children bring couples closer, several studies have shown that relationship satisfaction and happiness typically plummet with the arrival of the first baby.
One study from the University of Nebraska College of Nursing looked at marital happiness in 185 men and women. Scores declined starting in pregnancy, and remained lower as the children reached 5 months and 24 months. Other studies show that couples with two children score even lower than couples with one child.
While having a child clearly makes parents happy, the financial and time constraints can add stress to a relationship. After the birth of a child, couples have only about one-third the time alone together as they had when they were childless, according to researchers from Ohio State.
Here’s the good news: A minority of couples with children — about 20 percent — manage to stay happy in their relationships despite the kids.
What’s their secret? Top three predictors of a happy marriage among parents
- Sexual Intimacy
So there you have it. The secret to surviving parenthood is to have lots of sex, be faithful and be generous toward your partner. In this case, generosity isn’t financial — it’s about the sharing, caring and kind gestures you make toward your partner every day. When you are trying to survive the chaos of raising kids, it’s the little things — like bringing your partner coffee, offering to pick up the dry cleaning or do the dishes, that can make all the difference in the health of your relationship.
Are you generous toward your partner? How often do you express affection? Or do small things for your partner like bring them coffee? Men and women who score the highest on the generosity scale are far more likely to report “very happy” marriages, according to research from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project.
Use Your Relationship for Personal Growth
Finding a partner who makes your life more interesting is an important factor in sustaining a long relationship.
Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., a professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey, developed a series of questions for couples: How much has being with your partner resulted in your learning new things? How much has knowing your partner made you a better person?
“People have a fundamental motivation to improve the self and add to who they are as a person,” Dr. Lewandowski says. “If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.”
How thoughtfully couples make decisions can have a lasting effect on the quality of their romantic relationships. Couples who are decisive before marriage — intentionally defining their relationships, living together and planning a wedding — appear to have better marriages than couples who simply let inertia carry them through major transitions.
“Making decisions and talking things through with partners is important,” said Galena K. Rhoades, a relationship researcher at the University of Denver and co-author of the report. “When you make an intentional decision, you are more likely to follow through on that.”
While the finding may seem obvious, the reality is that many couples avoid real decision-making. Many couples living together, for instance, did not sit down and talk about cohabitation. Often one partner had begun spending more time at the other’s home, or a lease expired, forcing the couple to formalize a living arrangement.
Showing intent in some form — from planning the first date, to living together, to the wedding and beyond — can help improve the quality of a marriage over all. To learn more, read about the science behind “The Decisive Marriage.”
“At the individual level, know who you are and what you are about, and make decisions when it counts rather than letting things slide,” Dr. Stanley said. “Once you are a couple, do the same thing in terms of how you approach major transitions in your relationship.”
Nurture Friends and Family
Sometimes couples become so focused on the relationship that they forget to invest in their relationships with friends and family. Researchers Naomi Gerstel of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Natalia Sarkisian of Boston College have found that married couples have fewer ties to relatives than the unmarried. They are less likely to visit, call or help out family members, and less likely to socialize with neighbors and friends.
The problem with this trend is that it places an unreasonable burden and strain on the marriage, says Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. “We often overload marriage by asking our partner to satisfy more needs than any one individual can possibly meet,” writes Dr. Coontz. “And if our marriage falters, we have few emotional support systems to fall back on.
To strengthen a marriage, consider asking less of it, suggests Dr. Coontz. That means leaning on other family members and friends for emotional support from time to time. Support your partner’s outside friendships and enjoy the respite from the demands of marriage when you’re not together.
See a Rom-Com
It sounds silly, but research suggests that seeing a sappy relationship movie made in Hollywood can help couples work out problems in the real world. A University of Rochester study found that couples who watched and talked about issues raised in movies like “Steel Magnolias” and “Love Story” were less likely to divorce or separate than couples in a control group. Surprisingly, the “Love Story” intervention was as effective at keeping couples together as two intensive forms of marriage therapy.
Obviously, talking about a movie is not going to solve significant problems in a marriage, but the findings do signal the importance of communication in a marriage and finding opportunities to talk about your differences. “A movie is a nonthreatening way to get the conversation started,” said Ronald D. Rogge, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and the lead author of the study.
The best movies to start constructive communication are those that show various highs and lows in a relationship. Additional movies used in the study include “Couples Retreat,” “Date Night,” “Love and Other Drugs” and “She’s Having a Baby.” Avoid movies that idealize relationships like “Sleepless in Seattle” or “When Harry Met Sally.”
Even though some of the recommended movies are funny and not necessarily realistic, the goal is to simply “get a dialogue going,” said Dr. Rogge.
“I believe it’s the depth of the discussions that follow each movie and how much effort and time and introspection couples put into those discussions that will predict how well they do going forward,” said Dr. Rogge.