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When It Comes to Sex in Relationships, More Isn’t Always Better

When It Comes to Sex in Relationships, More Isn’t Always Better: © Erik Pendzich / Demotix / Corbis

© Erik Pendzich / Demotix / Corbis

If you were having sex more often than you are now, would it make you happier? There are countless books and articles claiming that you can improve your relationship simply by increasing the amount of sex you’re having. In fact, some have gone as far as to suggest that couples should be doing it every day!

This advice is certainly well intentioned and, to the casual observer, would seem to be grounded in science. Indeed, studies have shown that there is a statistical link between frequent sex and feelings of happiness.

But is more sex always better? Or does sex only increase happiness to a certain point? In other words, do we reach a happiness “ceiling” once we start having a certain amount of sex?

A new set of studies suggests that such a ceiling does exist—and that once we reach it, more sex offers diminishing returns. This research, led by Dr. Amy Muise of the University of Toronto and published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, consisted of three studies involving more than 30,000 participants.

Let me start by saying that all of these studies replicated previous research in showing that, for people in relationships, there was a positive correlation between sexual frequency and happiness, with more sex being linked to better personal well-being (i.e., more relationship and life satisfaction).

However, previous researchers stopped upon discovering this and assumed that this positive correlation meant that the underlying relationship between these variables was linear (i.e., if you plotted them on a graph, you’d see a straight line with each unit increase in sex linked to a unit increase in happiness). Dr. Muise and her colleagues set out to determine whether this assumption was warranted.

What they found was that the association was linear, but only to a point. In other words, when you actually graph the data, you see that sex and happiness both increase together for a while, but the line eventually levels off. More sex beyond this point appears to neither help nor hurt happiness levels.

Now for the million-dollar question: What was the leveling-off point? Having sex about once per week, it turns out.

Effectively, what this means is that couples having sex once per week were just as happy as those who were doing it multiple times per week or daily.

What’s so special about once-per-week sex? It’s hard to say. But this isn’t the only study supporting the idea that increasing sex beyond this level typically yields diminishing returns.

In a different study published earlier this year (which we wrote about here), couples who were having sex 5 to 6 times per month on average were randomly assigned to either double their sexual frequency over a 3-month period or not.

The couples who attempted to double the amount of sex they were having weren’t any happier in the end. In fact, forcing themselves to have sex more often was ultimately a negative experience. They reported enjoying sex less and had lower desire for it.

That said, I should caution that we cannot draw cause-and-effect conclusions from Dr. Muise’s research. Thus, we do not know whether having sex at least once a week makes people optimally happy, or whether being really happy to begin with just leads people to have sex this often. There’s probably some truth to both of these explanations.

Also, if we were to start looking at individual people instead of the overall effect, we might very well see that there are different leveling-off points. For most people, once per week might be it. But for others, it could be a bit more or a bit less. Thus, it is not necessarily the case that weekly sex is the ideal amount for everyone.

More research would certainly be useful, but these results are important because they suggest that all of this advice we’ve been getting about ramping up our sex lives may be misguided. More isn’t always better. In reality, most people don’t need to be mating like rabbits in order to be happy.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.


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