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What is maintenance sex? It may help strengthen your marriage

A decrease in sex frequency is expected (and normal) in long term relationships. Here's why you should consider scheduling some time in the bedroom.
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By Wendy Rose Gould

Think back to those hungry, lusty days in your early relationship. The sex wasn’t just good, it was delicious, and your plate was never empty. For those in long term relationships, the difference between your sex life then and now may feel stark. It may even cause you to wonder if your relationship is ultimately doomed.

Perhaps you’ll find comfort in knowing that dwindling sexual intimacy is par for the course in many relationships.

“There's a time in a relationship where you're past the infatuation and discovery phase. You're secure with one another and life's stresses and obligations start to be more of a priority,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a clinical psychologist based in New York City. “There are a ton of external stressors and things that may threaten being in ‘the mood’ for sex despite being in love. These can be things like work, commutes, parenting or chores.”

Basically, anything we feel like we “have to do” drains our energy and can cause us to feel too tired for sex. The fact that we live in a culture that allows for very little downtime, which sex requires, also contributes to this. (Interestingly, how we’re choosing to spend our downtime in recent years — largely through digital entertainment — has also impacted sexual frequency.)

Another potential issue is satiation — the idea that a stimulus becomes less enticing the more we’re exposed to it. Too much of the same takeout can feel monotonous. Your new car isn’t as fun to drive as it did five years ago. You’re not as excited to put on your once-favorite sweater.

“Satiation is the human tendency to become bored. It’s not a fault. It’s being human and is nothing to be ashamed of,” says Dr. Brian Jory, a relationship psychologist and author of "Cupid On Trial — What We Learn About Love When Loving Gets Tough."

He adds that aging and medical issues are also culprits of dwindling libido.

“As we age, testosterone levels drop, and this affects men and women alike,” he says. “Pregnancy and childbirth change sexual satisfaction and frequency dramatically, and chronic illness, weight gain and physical injury are also factors in declining sex.”

Why Physical Intimacy is So Important

Your relationship isn’t going to fail just because the sexual aspect isn’t as robust as it was many years (and perhaps several kids) ago. However, operating on autopilot without making a concerted effort to nurture physical intimacy can lead to decreased fulfillment, which is never good.

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“Sex is important in a relationship. When we are looking at the brain and hormonal benefits, orgasm releases oxytocin which is the ‘feel good’ hormone that bonds us. This is why, when couples begin to feel that they are drifting or growing apart, they're mostly likely to report a lack of sex,” notes Dr. Hafeez.

In that sense, overall bonding and sexual intimacy are very connected. That said, there’s no “magic number” for how much sex you should have, though a 2017 study pointed to a frequency of once-weekly.

Dr. Jory adds, “Sex is important to the degree that it makes a couple happy, and the frequency and quality of sex that makes a couple happy varies greatly and depends on a lot of factors: their ages, values, lifestyle, innate sex drive, their health, and most of all, the quality of the relationship.”

Maintenance Sex — What It Is and How It Can Help

Maintenance sex is essentially “not really in the mood but let’s do it anyway,” sex. It may or may not be planned in advance. Dr. Jory says he believes maintenance sex is essential to the success of a long-term relationship for three reasons.

“First, the biggest problem of most couples is sexual desire — getting in the mood. Couples regularly say that although they were reluctant at first, once they made the plunge to have sex it was a positive experience. It’s the ‘getting started’ that’s the problem for most couples,” he says. “Second, most couples are not perfectly synced in their sex drives. One may want it more often than the other, or one may want it when the other doesn’t.”

This variation is completely normal, he says — even the most compatible couples aren’t libido twins. So long as both parties are wholly on board, indulging one partner in a romp when one isn’t initially in the mood can be beneficial.

“Third, couples need verbal and psychological intimacy before they can have sexual intimacy. Maintenance sex might be healthy because it causes you to talk about your needs and desires — both inside and outside of the bedroom,” says Dr. Jory.

He says that he’s often shocked at how many couples have not, cannot, and will not talk about sex. When he runs into this issue clinically, he works with the couples to essentially learn a whole new language that helps them overcome shame, fear, or embarrassment surrounding the topic of sex.

Dr. Hafeez agrees that purposeful, improved dialogue is always healthy in a relationship.

“It’s best for the couple to acknowledge that they aren't having sex as often as they'd like and then together agree to do something about it,” she says. “Both people are then empowered to really look at their lives and get honest about why they prefer to stay at the office for an extra two hours or wake up on a Saturday and do yard work while the other partner sleeps in.”

How to Ensure That Not All Sex is Maintenance Sex

Again, how frequently a couple should have sex — maintenance or otherwise — depends on their relationship. Openly discuss what sounds and feels healthy for you, and then take advantage of existing downtime (or create some) in a way that meets each other’s needs. Will it feel sexy at first? Probably not. The goal of maintenance sex, though, is to foster bonding and emotional intimacy. This, in turn can naturally improve sex drive and passion.

The further spark sex drive and satisfaction, do this:

  • Introduce new stimuli: “You have to spice things up,” says Dr. Jory. “Try to keep sex interesting by trying out new activities, toys, lingerie, positions, games and fantasies.”
  • Keep tech out of the bedroom: “Remove the TV from the bedroom and make the bedroom a tech-free zone,” advises Dr. Hafeez. “Buy an actual alarm clock. Don't have your cellphone on the nightstand as the first thing you reach for in the morning. Morning sex is fast and a great way to begin the day.”
  • Make sure both parties climax: It may seem like a given, but women statistically have fewer orgasms than men.
  • Foster intimacy elsewhere: Overall relationship happiness can lead to more fulfilling sex. Plan date nights, get the kids a babysitter, set non-sexual goals together, work on projects. Make time to connect.
  • Identify and reduce stressors: This takes time and effort, but stress is a major libido killer.
  • Really get to the root: “When two people who love each other are not having sex there is a reason which can be shifted,” says Dr. Hafeez. An open dialogue and a desire to fix the root of the issue are key.

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