Written by Sara Sloan, MA, LMFT-Associate. Supervised by Claudia Thompson, LMFT-S, LPC-S. Sara is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate specializing in relationship and sex therapy. She has a master's degree in Counseling from St. Edward's University and a Ph.D. in English from Texas Tech University.
Many couples see having regular sex as an important component of a relationship. But just how much sex should couples be having, anyway?
As a sex therapist who regularly works with couples struggling with their sex life in some way, I always let clients know that when it comes to sex—as long as there is consent, safety, and enthusiasm—anything goes. A couple can set the pace of their sex life according to their own desires and needs.
That said, our neurobiology does not differentiate between sexual desire and love. So when couples are having sex less than once a month, this lack of physical intimacy often gets reflected in their feelings of being disconnected, which many experience as the feeling of falling out of love.
Usually after doing some initial work with a couple, if both partners are open and willing, I will prescribe some form of sexual intimacy to be shared between the couple at least every 48 hours to speed up their reconnection.
That's right: some kind of sexual intimacy, every 48 hours.
The 48-hour sex challenge.
First of all, when I say "have sexual intimacy every 48 hours," I'm not talking about penis-in-vagina intercourse exclusively. It's important for couples to expand their definition of sex to include other forms of sexual intimacy such as sensate touch, sensual massage, manual stimulation, and naked cuddling, just to name a few. There are many types of sexual touch that can be physically pleasurable, and all of it helps couples foster more intimacy and connection.
So how does the 48-hour sex challenge work?
For couples open and willing, I often suggest turning this into a game: When one partner asks for sexual intimacy, it's up to the other partner to say yes and then determine what kind of sex act they'd like to participate in, as well as when they would like it to happen, within 24 hours of the "ask."
The goal is to get more comfortable saying yes to your partner and to make sex more of a priority in the relationship. I also suggest keeping a "Captain's Log" for your partner, where you can write down anything you enjoyed after an encounter to keep in mind for next time. I'll usually pair the sexual intimacy with the Gottman Card Decks, an Imago Appreciation Dialogue, or the "36 Questions To Fall in Love." These games and exercises increase mental and emotional intimacy, which is necessary to foster simultaneously as a couple is working on enhancing their sexual connection.
It's also important for them to address any past issues around shame and sex in therapy—I certainly don't just recommend this exercise to couples when they first walk in. Many interpersonal and psychological issues can contribute to desire discrepancy, which are important to unpack as a couple before diving into a beefed-up sex regimen.
The benefits of regular sex.
While having sex every 48 hours might sound ambitious, there is a lot of research to support the idea. A 2017 study published in the Psychological Science journal found that a couple's sexual satisfaction remains elevated up to 48 hours after a sexual encounter, which led to higher reports of relationship satisfaction. This "afterglow" effect held true not only in newer relationships but also in long-term marriages. It was able to predict and increase long-term relationship satisfaction.
Physiologically speaking, the reason for the 48-hour sex afterglow has to do with the combination of brain chemicals, including oxytocin and vasopressin, produced during sex. These chemicals play a large role in the pair-bonding effects of sexual acts between a couple, which is why many have referred to these chemicals as "the trust elixir," "the love hormone," and "the cuddle hormone." And importantly, any pleasurable sex act can create this effect, from nude cuddling to manual stimulation.
There are so many benefits of having sex regularly (and those benefits apply to masturbation, too!), from lowered stress to improved cognitive function.
"The more pleasure you experience, the better your mood," sex coach Ginger Hart tells me. Hart recommends a similar 48-hour sex challenge to both healthy couples and also to people not currently in relationships. "When I work with single women, the first thing they learn is that the more pleasure you can create for yourself, the happier you are and the more radiant you become," she says.
When regular sex isn't going to help.
That said, trying to have sex this often is not going to help if there are any deeper issues around power and control in sex and intimacy. If you and your partner have a lot of tension around how often to have sex, introducing a challenge like this one may actually make things worse.
Many therapists agree with me on this: "If both people are curious to try this experiment or even challenge themselves to stretch (assuming that it is an increase in sexual frequency), it might be a lot of fun!" says couples' therapist Michelle Bohls, LMFT. "However, if both people are not on the same page, that sounds like a prescription for conflict or even divorce." It is important for couples who have ongoing conflicts around sex, or where there is a significant desire discrepancy between the partners, to consult with a couples' or sex therapist to help resolve any underlying physical or emotional issues before taking on any type of sex challenge.
The bottom line.
In the midst of this pandemic, sex can be a solution to the boredom, the bickering, and the palpable stress taking place between couples spending a lot more time at home together. During tough times like this, you need to find creative ways to get into supercharged emotional, physical, and energetic states like "radiance" and "afterglow."
Is having sex every 48 hours right for you? How often couples should have sex all depends on how your relationship is doing right now and how you as a couple feel about your sex life. If sex has been a sore spot for you as a couple or if your partner is dealing with a lower libido right now (which may be more common amid COVID-19), asking for sex this often might feel like unwelcome pressure. But if you're both feeling invigorated and inspired by the idea of upping your amount of sex, this might be a fun experiment to try out together.
Anything that activates you sexually, whether it's a sensual massage, reading romance, watching porn, or any kind of sexual intimacy, will all work to keep you both physically and mentally healthy—and more joyful and connected as a couple.