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How often should couples have sex? A sex educator shares 5 healthy habits in a relationship

How can long-term couples maintain a strong sexual connection? A sex educator shares five habits to adopt for a happier, healthier sex life.
/ Source: TODAY

Sexual wellbeing is an important part of our overall health. Sex, for couples, can help foster a sense of intimacy between partners and support a healthy relationship.

However, maintaining a strong sexual connection after years or decades together can be a challenge. Just as relationships change over time, so does sex.

What is the secret to a healthy, happy sex life in a long-term couple? Every individual and relationship is different, but there are some common behaviors and characteristics among people who sustain a lasting sexual relationships, according to Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., sex educator and author of "Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections," out on Jan. 30.

How often do couples have sex?

A trap many couples fall into is believing that having sex at a certain frequency is what makes their sex life healthy, says Nagoski, and having less than this amount is a problem.

“The question I am asked a lot is how frequently does the typical couple have sex,” says Nagoski. There’s no right answer, she adds, because it varies for every couple. It’s also normal for frequency to ebb and flow during different periods of our life.

Trying to maintain an “ideal” frequency, regardless of whether you want or like the sex you’re having, is “an excellent way to make your sex life worse,” says Nagoski, who emphasizes quality and pleasure over quantity.

Previous research, which Nagoski was not involved, has found that couples who have sex about once a week have greater satisfaction than couples that have sex less frequently — but couples who have more frequent sex than once a week do not tend to report being any happier.

Habits of couples with great sex lives

Nagoski shares five habits of partners with a healthy sex life and how any couple can adopt these to enhance their sexual connection.

Talking about sex, a lot

"The No. 1 thing is communication. The research tells us that the couples who sustain a strong sexual connection and have high quality sex lives talk about it all the time," Nagoski tells

This means talking about the ups, downs and everything in between — and normalizing these discussions as a part of a healthy relationship. "A lot of us grew up with the idea that if you have to talk about it, that means there must be something wrong. ... That's not true," says Nagoski.

Conversations about sex may involve discussing preferences, consent, boundaries, turn-ons or fantasies. They can also be fun. "Your sexual connection can be something you talk about because you're both fascinated by it," says Nagoski.

However, openly communicating about sex can be difficult for some. “In order to be able to talk about sex, we have to be aware of the reasons why you don’t talk about sex,” says Nagoski.

Common reasons include discomfort, fear of criticism or judgement, and not wanting to hurt a partner’s feelings. "Before you have a conversation about sex, if you have those concerns, have a conversation about those (too)," says Nagoski. Mutual respect and honesty are key.

“It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but when we talk about it, it gets better."

Being curious

Another habit couples can adopt for a healthier sex life is being curious about each other and the possibilities of sex, Nagoski explains. It's never too late to learn or try something new.

Routine can be great. However, some couples may only be having the same type of sex because they don't know how to change things up or ask for something different, Nagoski notes. “Maybe you were raised with the idea that only certain sexual behaviors are acceptable," she adds.

Being more curious about your own body, your partner and pleasure can help take a sexual connection to new heights. "You (can be) interested in exploring because you value your erotic connection and feel like you as a couple deserve more,” says Nagoski.

This approach can also help couples overcome common obstacles during sex. If a partner isn't able to do something they normally like to do, Nagoski recommends exploring the possibilities of pleasure in that moment instead of getting discouraged by the circumstances.

"Turn toward what’s happening with kindness and compassion and curiosity. There are many things you can do without an (erection), for example," says Nagoski. "Instead of problematizing it, listen and be exploratory and playful."

Prioritizing sexual pleasure

Ensuring sex is pleasurable for both partners is key for a healthy, lasting intimate relationship, says Nagoski.

"I want couples in long-term sexual connections to center pleasure in their understanding of sexuality instead of desire," says Nagowski. Desire is the "wanting" part or the mental drive to have sex, whether or not it results in sexual activity.

Pleasure is the experience of enjoying the sensations happening in the moment, says Nagoski — and centering pleasure means only having sex that you enjoy, she adds. It also means understanding that it takes time and effort to optimize sexual pleasure for both partners, even if the desire for sex is there.

“Pleasure is the measure of sexual wellbeing. ... It’s not how much you crave it, it’s not how often you do it, it’s whether or not you like the sex you’re having,” says Nagoski.

There are plenty of reasons why sex may not be enjoyable, from stress to the wrong kind of stimulation, and it doesn't always indicate a desire problem, says Nagoski. “It’s not dysfunctional to not want what you do not like."

Couples who have a healthy sex life are willing to work together to ensure sex is pleasurable. "Instead of asking, 'Why don't you want to have sex with me?' ask these questions," says Nagoski:

  • What is it that you want when you want sex?
  • What is it that you don't want when you don't want sex?

Defining sex widely

Maintaining a healthy, long-term sexual relationship might start with having a broader definition of sex and how to be sexual.

“Sex is anything that qualifies as an erotic connection between or among people,” says Nagoski, and it can encompass a range of behaviors. It doesn’t have to involve penetration, intercourse or even orgasm. There is no such thing as “normal” sex, Nagoski adds.

Many people are taught narrow definitions of sex based on what Nagoski calls the "gender mirage." This is the false idea that because a person is born with certain body parts, they have to follow certain rules to engage in sex and be a sexual person.

"All of it is fiction that our culture imposes," says Nagoski, adding that this can limit how we express ourselves and create unrealistic expectations for partners and relationships.

Adopting a broader definition of sex can open couples up to new opportunities to build their sexual and emotional connection.

“Over the course of the relationship, we (as a couple) can choose whether we want to continue believing the rules we were taught or create a new set of rules specifically for us,” says Nagoski.

Embracing change

Relationships, and the sex lives of the people in them evolve over time. Being flexible and embracing change can help couples maintain a healthy sexual connection as they navigate life's many twists and turns.

“Our bodies will change because of illness, disability, aging or all sorts of reasons,” says Nagoski. Our mindsets, desires and preferences can also transform over time.

“If we don’t allow our idea of sex to adapt and evolve along with those changes, then we start to feel like there’s something wrong with us," she explains.

When in doubt, consider seeking professional help. Sex therapists can work with individuals and couples to overcome various problems, says Nagoski, and they can also support couples who want to maintain or enhance their sexual connection.