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What’s the right amount of sex?

by Diana Levy

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It was a cold, fall evening in Los Angeles, and maybe I had cabin fever from another week of sub-perfect weather, but there I was, storming out of bed after another failed attempt at sex with the guy I was dating.

To say “problems in the bedroom” was a reason for that relationship’s demise is an understatement. At the time, I saw those problems as all his. It was so much easier to look at it that way, really. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the problems were his, but some were the simple perils of dating someone you don’t have much in common with.

So I jumped out of bed, frustrated and upset. Before I could even get my clothes back on, he snapped, “Sex isn’t everything! You need it all the time. It’s like you need sex to feel validated by me.” Considering I was already mentally checked out of the relationship, I wasn’t interested in hearing his critiques of me, but on that cold, fall night, he’d struck a nerve. I left thinking, “I don’t need sex to validate myself, I don’t need a man.” While I was 98 percent sure that was true, I couldn’t shake that nagging two percent that he was onto something.

I haven’t slept with many people—I was in a six-year relationship from age 19 until my mid-twenties and not much before that. But it sounded like I was being accused of the opposite. If I needed sex to feel validated, wouldn’t I have been having more of it? I buried the conversation into the seeds of our breakup and did my best to ignore the consequences of those feelings—until my next relationship.

What’s happening in one’s sex life is often an expression of the larger dynamics of the relationship.

In my new relationship, I confessed to my boyfriend that I was keeping a tally of how much sex we were having, with the goal being four to five times a week. When he asked why that amount, I responded, “Because that’s normal.” As I said it out loud, I realized how strange it sounded. Really, it was an indication of my notion of what a “normal sex life” looked like and how much I needed to feel “normal” to feel good. What I didn’t realize was that acknowledging this obsession would actually make me happier in my relationship.

In order to openly write about that obsession, I decided it might be good to have some therapeutic support on my analysis. I turned to clinical psychotherapist Dr. Evan Fischer for some guidance.

“People forget that sex is an interaction, a communication—and an intimate one at that,” Fischer says. “So if there are communication problems in the relationship, or if there are emotional intimacy issues, then those issues will likely be reflected back in the sex life.”

So we began to work on our communication. I gained new confidence by setting up boundaries and expectations. When my feelings were hurt, I told him. When I felt I was being taken advantage of or not considered in decision-making, I made that clear. And most importantly, I learned to ask for help from him when I needed it.

But when we moved in together, I arrived at my inevitable place of feeling like we needed to be having more sex. Maybe it was residual fears from my last live-in relationship, but I didn’t want to make the same mistakes. This time I wanted the relationship to be how I imagined perfect relationships should be: having sex every day either at night or in the morning; a night or two where he rips my clothes off passionately after a double date with a couple I’ve decided is boring, and a crazy romp in an unusual location peppered in once a month for good measure.

Naturally, this was an uncomfortable conversation to broach, but we had worked on communication and I started with, “When we don’t do this, it makes me feel…” At first, he was understanding, but we soon found ourselves having a similar conversation to the one I walked away from that cold, fall night.

This time, my partner asked me if I only measured the trueness of our love by how much we slept together, instead of all the other elements that define our love and intimacy. He told me, simply, that sex isn’t everything. While the rational part of me agreed, the irrational part still felt like it was mostly everything. As far as I was concerned, I was living out my last years of sexual freedom, and I still felt freedom should ring four to five times a week. TV and movies led me to believe that sex is the barometer of happiness in a relationship. When I asked Fischer about this, he said, “[Sex is] a barometer, but not the barometer, and perhaps not a barometer in the way that most people think—that the amount and quality of the sex tells all. What’s happening in one’s sex life with his/her partner is often an expression of the larger dynamics of the relationship.”

What I haven’t mentioned is that in my early 20s, I was married to someone I only had sex with two or three times a month. At the time, I felt like a cliché of a midlife divorce crisis, and it terrified me. All my friends were going on casual dates, and I was at home feeling like I was nearing 50 with three children, trying to save my marriage and it felt like the only tangible solution was to have more sex with my husband. (I guess I had seen too many movies about couples getting divorced, too.)

Read more: Too stressed for sex?

When my ex-husband and I started dating in college, we had sex all the time. But the failure of that relationship was its inability to develop and strengthen in the real world—not the sex. Once we became adults with careers and late nights, counting the times we had sex was like grabbing for straws, and it was easier to look at our lack of sex as the problem rather than dig into the deeper problems of our relationship. When I think about it now, sex was a microcosm for our relationship, because without it, there wasn’t much there. And when there isn’t much there, the sex can only go so far.

With that realization, I was able to open my eyes to the other elements of intimacy in my current relationship. Like when we have giggle-fest, slumber parties where we lie on the bed like we’re at summer camp; or when we talk about money problems and he tells me it will OK and I believe him. The intimacy from those times is sometimes better than sex, and they certainly make the sex better. As Fischer said, “The goal is contentment, and the couple should feel free to set those terms. [Contentment] changes with time, and it’s completely normal if [your relationship] needs change. The key is communication—being open and honest about it.”

As an independent, career-driven woman, I was the last person to realize I was using sex for validation in my relationship. It wasn’t until I asked myself (and others) those hard questions that I was able to learn that sex has something to do with sustaining a relationship, just not everything. Intimacy is a multi-faceted, mostly intangible element of a relationship that can manifest in many ways, and ultimately, it’s not the quantity of sex, but the quality of intimacy that keeps a relationship going. No tallies required.

Diana Levy

Diana is a freelance writer in digital and television, meaning she is a consistently-available dog walker and 5 o'clock cocktail maker. When she’s not self-helping herself, Diana can be found in her hammock near the beach conversing with her new puppy, SanDeE*. Follow her on Twitter @dianaeloiselevy.