In a shopworn joke, husband and wife are asked the same question: "How many times a week do you have sex?"
He says, "Hardly ever! Only two, maybe three times a week."
She says, "All the time! Two, maybe three times a week."
Couples struggle to agree on a variety of issues, but it seems sexual frequency is one area in which husbands and wives often give up trying to find a solution. Nearly always, one partner wants sex more often than the other. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, it's not always husbands. Judging by the e-mail received at Marriage Partnership, there are just as many women as men who say they desire a more active sex life than their spouse does.
If you and your mate are struggling in this area, try these two steps to improve sexual satisfaction for both of you. First, make sure you're both following the same ground rules. Then approach the sexual aspect of your marriage in the context of your entire relationship.
The Ground Rules
Get on the same page by recognizing a few overarching truths about sexual intimacy. Begin by agreeing that God is the creator of sex and all its pleasures. Orgasm is not some evil, post-Fall addition to the process of procreation. It was God who decided that sex should be incredibly enjoyable. He is also the one who established certain parameters (namely, marriage) to protect and maximize the experience. If you're struggling with doubts about how much you should enjoy sex, exercise the freedom that God has already given you. Now that you've said "I do," it's time to explore the gift of pleasure with your spouse.
Second, agree to keep talking. Great sex begins with talking together in an open, trusting, accepting manner, and it's the only path to resolving the "how often is enough" question. (To help you get started, see the sidebar below.)
Third, agree not to assume anything about your mate. A multitude of factors lie behind each person's desire for more or less sex. Don't assume that it's simply a male vs. female discrepancy in desire or that you know what your spouse's "problem" is. And don't insist that your spouse conform to your libido and timetable. On the flip side, don't assume your mate knows why you feel the way you do. You have to express your own feelings, preferences and concerns.
Instead of assuming, commit yourself to understanding your spouse and to helping your spouse understand you. That's part of your lifelong commitment to care for and treasure each other.
Fourth, agree to consider possible outside barriers. Many men and women come to marriage having suffered difficult experiences that prevent them from fully enjoying God's gift of sex. Sexual abuse, promiscuity, rape and sexual addictions leave memories that can make it hard, sometimes even impossible, to desire further sexual intimacy. If past experiences are affecting your sexual relationship, don't hesitate to seek assistance from a Christian counselor who has helped others with similar struggles. By God's grace, healing is available.
The Bigger Picture
Once you and your spouse agree on the basic ground rules, turn your attention to one of the greatest destroyers of sexual intimacy: the separation of sex from the rest of your relationship. Don't try to solve your frequency problem by going straight to the question: "How many times should we 'do it' per week?" That would be discussing your sexual relationship in a vacuum.
Great sex depends on things like in-depth communication, a sense of sharing your lives, emotional intimacy and, especially, a solid commitment. But that's not the lie our culture feeds us. Television, the movies, books and magazines pound home a message that great sex comes through dropping personal inhibitions, mastering techniques and finding that "right person" with whom the sexual sparks will fly.
Don't swallow the lie. The truth is this: you will experience your greatest sexual intimacy with one person. That's the person with whom you also share emotional, intellectual and spiritual intimacy, the covenant of marriage and a strong commitment to God. No other sexual pleasure compares to that experienced by a husband and wife who feel safe with each other at all levels of their lives. The pseudo-thrill of different partners quickly fades when compared with the excitement of physically connecting with the one person who knows you better than anyone else on earth.
So what's the point? If you want improvements in the bedroom, put the rest of your house in order. To play on a common stereotype, let's say James and Megan occupy the same home, but they can't agree on which room should get the most attention. Megan wants the entire house to be taken care of, so it will look nice and operate efficiently. No dirty clothes on the bedroom floor, no shoes scattered around the family room, no mail stacked on the counter. James thinks a neat house is fine, but he's most concerned about his worktable out in the garage. Megan views the worktable as one part of the whole house, while James focuses most of his attention on it.
James wants his wife to care as much about the worktable as he does. Megan says she'll try, but she wishes James would be more involved in caring for the rest of the home. If he would do that, she'd have a lot more energy to devote to the worktable. You can imagine her frustration when, the following week, she felt once again that the rest of the house was falling apart. She mentioned it to James and all he could suggest was: "Let's talk about the condition of the worktable."
If you are concerned about having more or better sex, you need first to invest care and attention in building your entire marriage. This is true for us. Amy's more receptive to discussing our sex life when I've been listening and responding to her concerns about how many hours I'm working or about an issue with one of our kids.
Think back over the last week or two. Has your spouse shared a desire for you to talk more? Has your mate asked you to take greater care with the family finances, to spend more time with the kids, to show affection without insisting on sex, to be home more, to help out around the house? How did you respond? It's good to remember that there's a lot more to a home than the worktable.
At the same time, don't underestimate the value of the worktable. Intercourse isn't to be reserved only for times when everything else in your relationship is perfect—when your spouse has done everything humanly possible to make you happy and every disagreement is resolved and forgotten. If those are your requirements, you'll end up with a sorry sex life.
Sex isn't a reward or a game, and it's not something to withhold as a punishment. The apostle Paul tells couples: "Do not deprive each other [of sex] except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again … " (1 Cor. 7:5). In other words, sexual expression is important. Don't trivialize it or use it to manipulate your spouse to get what you want.
Make It Happen
Now you and your spouse have agreed on the basic ground rules of sex. You've begun to clear away the barriers from the past. You're talking about sex with each other. And you're making a consistent effort to invest in your entire relationship, which will help your sex life flourish.
You're covering the basics, but you should also pay attention to two big sex-stealers, schedules and physical exhaustion. Women, especially, often feel "too tired" for lovemaking. If you can agree that improving your sex life and increasing its frequency are high priorities (and they should be), then establish a unified front against busyness and reclaim the time you need for sex.
If you know that you alone have the power to give something that will make your spouse glad and fulfilled, why withhold it? God desires a mutually enjoyable sexual relationship for both of you, so don't waste any more time. Go ahead and make it happen.
Dr. Tim A. Gardner is author of Sacred Sex (WaterBrook) and Director of The Marriage Education and Policy Center at the Indiana Family Institute (an affiliate of Focus on the Family). Amy Gardner occasionally writes and speaks with her husband.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.