If love is the drug then long-term commitment is surely the 12 step programme, because the longer a couple has been together, the less often they have sex. The definition of a “sexless” relationship is one in which sex occurs 10 or fewer times per year, but many couples aren’t even achieving that. Research by Denise A. Donnelly, Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University suggests that about 15 percent of married couples have not had sex with their spouse in the last six months to one year. It wouldn’t matter if the couples in question didn’t care, but they do. Participants in Donnelly’s study reported feelings of frustration, depression, rejection, self-doubt, difficulty concentrating, and low self-esteem and my own research has highlighted a statistically significant relationship between sexual dissatisfaction, and infidelity. Interestingly, the greatest change seems to occur within the first year of marriage. In 1981, a US analysis of diaries kept by newlywed couples over the course of their first year of marriage found that during the first month of married life they had sex on seventeen or more occasions. By the end of the year that figure was down to eight.
It is obviously a highly complex issue and there are a gazillion good reasons why two people, either consciously, or unconsciously, decide to take a rain check on sex. Having and raising children is definitely a critical period. In later life, illness, immobility, depression and certain medications can interfere with sexual function. Often there is underlying anger, hostility and disappointment, but sometimes it’s a case of couples simply failing to prioritise the physical side of their relationship. They love each other, but life is exhausting and they’ve had quite a lot of sex with each other already, so after a tough day, it’s easier to opt for an activity that requires the gentle stimulation of an index finger on a remote control over one that involves the exertion of all the muscles in two tired bodies. The apathy is a mutual conspiracy at first. The couple feel safe enough with each other to let it all hang out. He’s seen her greying bras and she’s seen his toenail clippings. It’s a different, shabbier, kind of intimacy, and it’s fine for a time, but little by little, the lack of investment begins to undermine the relationship.
Economics theorists explain this devaluation with ‘The law of diminishing marginal utility’ – the premise upon which “all you can eat” buffet restaurants operate. Basically, the initial undertaking of an activity (in this case sex) offers the greatest pleasure and benefit. And because subsequent participation in the same activity cannot compare to the experience of the first time, sex, or a third plate of food, lose their utility, and the activity eventually decreases or stops altogether. It’s a natural decline, which most people accept as part and parcel of long-term commitment. After all, it’s not the quantity, but the quality, of intimacy that is important. And besides, sex can be defined in any number of ways. For most people it includes oral sex and intercourse, but for people suffering from illness, immobility, or disability, ‘having sex’ may be limited to kissing, cuddling and manual stimulation. And that’s fine because any form of skin-to-skin contact makes people feel good.
Though men and women can survive without sex, studies repeatedly show that across all age groups, couples who report higher levels of marital satisfaction, also report higher frequencies of sex. And the same is true in reverse. Not having sex makes people unhappy. In my role as sex and relationship columnist at The Times in London I receive a steady stream of letters from men and women who are miserable about the fact that they are living in a sexless relationship. It is such a growing problem that for the last eighteen months year I have been running a research project from my website (www.moresexdaily.com) to try and establish what exactly is going on and whether there might be more effective ways of encouraging couples in long term relationships to continue to invest in intimacy.
When Daniel Kahneman, the Princeton psychologist and Nobel Laureate studied the lives of 909 working women from Texas to try and determine the activity that produced the single largest amount of happiness, sex came first on the list. Work which took up 6.9 hours a day was in 21st place on the “Happiness in Different Activities Index” whereas sex, which amounted to a paltry 0.2 hours per day, took the top spot. In 2003, economics professors Andrew J. Oswald and David G. Blanchflower produced a paper entitled ‘Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study’ based on data from 16,000 Americans. Oswald and Blanchflower calculated that the average American over the age of forty has sexual intercourse 2-3 times a month; that the ‘happiness-maximizing’ number of sexual partners in the previous year is ‘1’, and that sex “enters so strongly and positively in happiness equations” that they estimate increasing intercourse from once a month to once a week is equivalent to the amount of happiness generated by getting an additional $50,000 in income for the average American.
If Oswald and Blanchflower are right then the best way for couples to get through the current economic crisis would be to stay in bed, but research shows that after the age of 44, sexual pleasure also deteriorates. The fall-off in both quantity and quality is dangerous because if a couple are not having sex with each other they increase the risk of one or both partners eventually having sex with someone else. And that matters, because for the first time since records began, married couples are in a minority and almost half of all children are born out of wedlock. The cost of family breakdown is a global social issue but while politicians scratch their heads thinking of ways to encourage people to stay together, the elephant in the room is, and always has been, sex.
What seems very clear from my research to date, is that couples who are going to survive long-haul need to be able to sustain some form of physical intimacy and affection when the dopamine has disappeared and they are both taking up more of the sofa than they did when they first met. However it can be difficult to continue investing in a partner who continually rejects sex. In these enlightened times, it is always the partner with the lower sex drive who determines the levels of sexual frequency in the relationship. If he or she doesn’t want it, it doesn’t happen, but as Dr David Goldmeier, Clinical Lead for the Jane Wadsworth Sexual Function Clinic in London says, “once a couple stop having sex, even for a few months, they slip into ‘non-sexual relationship mode’ where it becomes very difficult to initiate sex. They, in effect, become platonic partners in a conspiracy of silence.”
It is usually women who get the blame for this problem, and indeed, when Aussie sex therapist Bettina Arndt got ninety-eight couples to keep intimate diaries of their sex lives for a year, it was, without exception, the men who were begging and the women who lay in bed dreading the creeping hand. When I began my research project at www.moresexdaily.com I was convinced that the myth about women wanting less sex than men was untrue but it isn’t. My results consistently show that more men than women are frustrated by their sexless marriages and German research has established that four years into a relationship, less than half of 30-year-old women wanted regular sex. It is also true that in lesbian relationships sexual frequency tails off more rapidly- a phenomenon which has been labelled ‘lesbian bed death’ by US sociologist Pepper Schwarz. However, although biological arguments support a higher male sex drive, recent studies have begun to reveal that sexual disinterest is a problem that affects men too.
Sexual apathy affects men too though. Last year, a poll by an independent UK charity The Men’s Health Forum found that 15% of men aged between 18 and 59 admitted to a “lack of interest in sex”. Michele Weiner-Davis, US relationship therapist and author of ‘The Sex Starved Marriage’ estimates that the true figure is closer to 25% and certainly, in the UK, Relate, the relationship counselling service have reported a 40% increase in the number of men saying they had ‘gone off sex’ in the last ten years. The men who call the Relate helpline about diminished libido are generally married and aged between 30 and 50, and it is probably no coincidence that research into mental illness which was carried out across six countries by Professor Michael King, of the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London found that men in this exact age group are also the most likely to suffer from depression.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, “trouble in a marriage or important relationship is the single thing most likely to make a man depressed”, however in this climate, work stress is obviously a major contributing factor too. Approximately 40% of men in the UK say they are depressed about jobs, work and money and a 2008 survey by Bayer Schering Pharma found that one in five men suffers loss of libido as a direct result of pressure at work. The tendency to use booze as a speed-unwind at the end of the day doesn’t help, and antidepressants, the other favourite prop for overworked, overstressed males, have the same effect.
Three years ago Bob Berkowitz and his wife Susan Yager-Berkowitz surveyed more than 4,000 men and women in sexless marriages across the US to try to understand more about male attitudes to sex in long term relationships. In the resulting book, ‘He’s Just Not Up for It Anymore: Why Men Stop Having Sex, and What You Can Do About It’ (HarperCollins) they point out that in many cases male sexual performance is impaired by physical or mental difficultites, and of course some men are simply in doubt about their marriage, however 68 per cent of men they spoke to blamed their partner’s lack of sexual adventurousness; 48 per cent said that they would enjoy sex with other women, just not their wives; 25 per cent said they preferred to use internet porn for sex because it was less hassle and 44 per cent were angry with their wives, feeling that they were constantly nagged and criticised. Interestingly, the two most frequently used excuses – being too tired and not having time – amounted to just 6 and 9 percent respectively. The Berkowitz survey revealed that 68 per cent of women who’s husbands were no longer interested in sex had no idea why it had happened and were bewildered and hurt by their partner’s indifference towards them. Some felt that sex was being withheld as a punishment and 57 per cent said they felt that their husbands were depressed.
Because couples are so reluctant to admit to the fact that they aren’t having sex, its difficult to know how widespread the problem is. And the situation is not helped by distorted popularist surveys such as the Durex Global survey which announce that the majority of men and women aged between 25-34 have sex an average of three or four times a week and that the over-55s are having sex at least once a week. If only. In comparison, the US General Social Survey which has tracked the social behaviours of Americans since 1972 suggests that married men and women, on average, have sex with their spouse 58 times a year, but remember, that’s a mean figure which is bumped up by those newlyweds I mentioned in the first paragraph… the ones who are at it 17 times a month.
A more realistic perception of what constitutes a normal, age appropriate, level of sexual activity might help to diffuse some of the anxiety surrounding the subject. And raising awareness will, I hope, encourage couples to pay more attention to the physical side of their relationship. In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, the psychology professor and relationship expert John Gottman describes long-term relationships as being “like the second law of thermodynamics that says that closed energy systems tend to run down and get less orderly over time”. What he means by that is if you do nothing to make things get better in your relationship, it will still tend to get worse, even if you don’t actually do anything wrong. Relationships suffer from day-to-day wear-and-tear and every so often they need a metaphorical lick of paint. I’ll have a better idea of how to apply this at the end of my research but I have a hunch that it’s probably the small things. More time alone together. Spontaneous acts of emotional kindness. Holding hands. That unexpected kiss. Paying attention. Giving affection. These things are all free. And they are fun. And if we want to protect our relationships, we really should be bothered.