KSL Video – Characteristics of a Healthy Sexual Relationship

Laura M. Brotherson, author and intimacy expert, discusses four characteristics of a healthy sexual relationship in marriage with hosts Brooke Walker and Darin Adamson on the KSL TV “Studio 5” show (Sept ’09).

How would you define a healthy sexual relationship in marriage? While there may be a number of ways, the following represents my definition of a healthy sexual relationship:

  1. Mutually Fulfilling. Lovemaking is mutually enjoyable and satisfying for both husband and wife. (This would include regular orgasms for both husband and wife.)
  2. Open Communication. Husband and wife communicate openly and honestly about sex–including their needs and preferences. This ability allows them to reconcile the many differences that will inevitably arise in the sexual relationship.
  3. Satisfactory Frequency. Both husband and wife feel satisfied with the frequency of lovemaking. (My husband thought I should include that it be at least once a year! : )
  4. Emotional Connection Beyond the Bedroom. In order for the intimate relationship to come full circle, there must be a good emotional connection outside the bedroom as well.

How Many Fit?

What percentage of couples would you think fit this description of a healthy sexual relationship? Most research only measures sexual dysfunction rather than how many people consider themselves to have a healthy and fulfilling intimate relationship, so it’s difficult to find accurate information.

Given the fact that 40-50% of couples divorce over matters such as sex, and considering that a majority of those who stay married unfortunately subsist in a parallel/mediocre marriage, I would have to say that maybe 20% of couples have what could be considered a healthy sexual relationship. And that’s probably a pretty generous number given this proposed definition.

Think about how many people you know that might fit into this category. When I asked a young man doing research on the subject of cultural influences on sex, what percentage of couples he thought fit my description he couldn’t think of many and didn’t even think his parents could fit the description. Unfortunately, there are not as many as there needs to be.

In answer to the query of how many couples have a healthy sexual relationship, one man wrote:

“I have had many people comment to me that we have such a great marriage. The truth is that it’s hard not to just start crying sometimes. While many people think we have a great relationship in every respect, my marriage strikes out on all four of the characteristics mentioned of a healthy sexual relationship. Given that so many people misread the state of my marriage, I don’t have much faith that I can read anyone else’s. I think there are some clearer signs when things are really not going well in a relationship, but an absence of those does not mean all is well.”

Thankfully, I’ve also heard from those who do think they fit into the 20%:

“I think my wife and I fit into the 20% who have a healthy sexual relationship, but that’s after 15 years of working at it. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s finally there. We have to fine tune it from time to time, but the open communication has allowed us to understand each other’s physical needs (or lack thereof), and to make sure that both of us are satisfied. It has strengthened our marriage, and I couldn’t be happier with our sexual relationship.”

Healthy Sexual Relationships are Learned

Much time and effort are involved in creating a healthy sexual relationship. It’s important to remember that a good sexual relationship is a learned behavior. Most couples must work on all four areas identified above in order to have a really good intimate relationship.

When Satan is able to keep couples from experiencing the kind of intimate relationship God intended, he happily limits their ability to be an influence for good in the lives of their children, and in the lives of all who know them.

How is Your Marriage?

This description of a healthy sexual relationship may provide a helpful vision for couples to strive to create within their own marriages. How do you fare with these four characteristics? What could you do to improve things in even one of these areas?

I encourage couples to strive for mutual fulfillment, open communication, satisfactory frequency of intimate relations, and greater emotional connection beyond the bedroom. A strong marriage includes a healthy sexual relationship. It’s a worthy endeavor.

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  • JustGettingBy April 6, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    To answer Laura’s 2 questions – I don’t have a clue! 🙂

    I have had many comments from others that “you have such a great marriage” and it is very hard not to just start crying sometimes. I assume many people think we have a great relationship in every aspect, but I would state that my marriage strikes out on all 3 of the points at the start of this blog. Given that so many people misread the state of my marriage, I don’t have any faith that I can read anyone else’s. I think there are some clearer signs when things are really not working in a relationship, but an absence of those does not mean all is well.

    I hate to be the one that first replies with more of a negative reaction. My point is not to moan “woe is me!”. I would love to hear “the answer” to these questions – especially more positive answers!

  • newlywedbliss April 6, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    I think JustGettingBy is right, just because people can act happy doesn’t mean that their sex life is great. It is such a private thing and very hard to read.

    As a newlywed (7 months now), I would have to say that one indicator of a healthy sexual relationship is how people choose to talk about sex when not in mixed company.

    Do they make fun of it or highly praise it? Do they joke around in a disrespectful way about their partner or do they give sex the importance it should have?

    Some of the “sage advice” I was given now saddens me . . . these women were preparing me for failure and wrong expectations. However, there were others whose excitement for us and anticipation along side us made me look forward to a life of learning how to love my husband in all areas.

    Little things we quip about sex to others can make a huge impact . . . and also give away hints as to whether or not we are enjoying our own sexual lives.

  • whyknot April 6, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    The three points are very interesting and appear to be a good way to measure a healthy sexual relationship. The disappointing thing as I compare where my wife and I are, it points to a not very fulfilling relationship. Although I do feel fortunate for the sexual relationship we do enjoy and at times it is very fulfilling. We have been able to branch out and enjoy sex more now after 30 years of marriage and are much more comfortable with sex than we have ever been. A quick analysis for me follows.

    1. Mutually fulfilling: We do measure up here. We both have orgasms and enjoy sex with each other. However I would like to be more adverturesome and she is hesitant. There are times she surprises me and will try a new location and I think we are progressing, but then we return to the same old grind and nothing out of the ordinary.

    2. Open Communication: This is one area we really fall down. She is so uncomfortable discussing sex at all. Even calling the parts by name is not done. She admits this is from her teaching at home and growing up where she was taught to not even think about sex, mention sex, or use any nicknames for sex and genital parts. When read the Laura’s book, the discussion part was skipped over at parts just because she didn’t want to talk about it. We talked a little about sexual fantasies and she didn’t have any. I started naming a few of mine and these were tame and fairly straight forward. Such as having sex outdoors. She said this was fun and said it was kind of a fantasy of hers, but she never really thought about it or to even plan a way to make it happen. So I hesitate to discuss sex since she won’t say much. Some improvement here, but still a long way to go.

    3. Satisfactory Frequency: I realized early in marriage that I was a higher frequency person than her. A few years ago, I suggested we try having sex 3 times a week for a month during the summer. Her time demands were less then than the rest of the year and I thought it would be a workable solution. At the time we were at once a week and sometimes twice a week. So the three times a week wasn’t a huge change. She agreed, but never made any more effort and found excuses why we couldn’t. So I kind of gave up. Now I feel myself changing and not even wanting it that often. So maybe we will finally get together on our timing. But the time we have lost will always seem like we never did achieve a comfortable frequency for both of us.

    Progress has been made in our sex life and that is good. I liked the comment by newlywedbliss about being given advice and it preparing her for failute. My wife has struggled with this due to her teachings during her teenage years. Fortunately she did enjoy sex from the beginning but has always struggled with fully accepting her own sexually and enjoying it.

  • cledwards April 7, 2009 at 7:51 am

    I would like to simply say that I feel that my wife and I’s sexual relationship falls into the 20% that is mentioned above, and that’s after 15 years of working at it. Not always been easy, but it’s there. We have to fine tune it from time to time, but the open communication has allowed us to understand each others physical needs (or lack thereof) and to make sure that both are satisfied. It has strengthened our marriage and I couldn’t be happpier in the sexual relationship that I’m in.

  • Xenon April 8, 2009 at 6:22 am

    I’d be interested in hearing how some have come to a “compromise” about a “mutually satisfactory frequency”….

    My dear wife has “desire” at most for about 36 hours soon after her period. Her desired frequency is at most once a month, and probably actually more like once every other month. I, on the other hand, would like to make love probably every other day or so.

    There are lots of “compromises” between those two positions, but honestly, I’m not sure how “mutually satisfactory” they are:

    You can do a straight average – every 28 days and and every 2 days means 2 + 28 = 30 / 2 = 15. Every other week.

    You can say “alternating Yes and No” – every other time that I want to have sex, she says yes. That works out to every 4 to 6 days.

    You can go by units … She wants once a month, I want once a day, the unit in the middle is a week, so we compromise on once a week.

    BUT, all of those have her having to make love way more often than she wants, and also mean I get rejected way more often than I want.

    So, what is a reasonable compromise that other couples have come to? What in the world does “mutually satisfactory frequency” actually mean?

    • JustMe April 8, 2009 at 1:17 pm

      Xenon, great question. Although this is still a struggle for me and my marriage, here’s my suggestion: you decide on the minimum frequency that you would like. Express this to your wife with the understanding that it may require an extrordinary effort on her part and realizing that even this minimum may often not be obtainable. It at least sets a target to strive for.

      For those that are like us, it is sometimes difficult to understand our spouse’s disinterest in sex. In some cases, perhaps there are more obvious reasons, such as a physical or mental problem or previous abuse. But in many cases, there seems to be no logical explanation. The challenge becomes to accept the spouse and to love the spouse and to focus on the spouse’s needs rather than our own.

    • SirJohn April 8, 2009 at 4:14 pm


      I have also often wondered about this. I have thought up all the numerical calculations you have gone through. There are numerous ways to look at this.

      My wife’s therapist has told her that once a month is a reasonable frequency for “gift sex” (giving sex when asked even though you don’t want to.) Since that time, our average frequency has dropped to very nearly once a month. That made me feel very loved and special in my wife’s eyes.

      I have looked at it as not a question of frequency, but how long is reasonable to put off your spouses expressed needs and desires. If she says, “I want you to help me with the dishes.” Is “Ok, I’ll get to it sometime in the next two to three days” sufficient? Dishes may not be exactly parallel with sex, but how about, “I’m feeling distant from you. I want an emotional connection. Can we sit and talk for a while?” What are my obligations to meet her needs? If now is really not a good time for me, I think that I have a responsibility to give her confidence that I recognize her needs and will do my best to fill them in the very near future. Something along the lines of, “I would like that too. I love talking to you. I can’t right now because of ___. Let’s clear our calendars tomorrow night after the kids are down and just talk.” That seems loving and considerate to me. I don’t think that “not now.” with no indication of when would be appropriate. Neither do I think that a week away is appropriate without a very good and unusual reason. If our lives are so hectic that I can rarely consider her needs without a week’s warning, than we need to simplify our lives.

      Honestly, I think that discussing frequency is only valid when both spouses recognize the importance of sex, want a sexual relationship, enjoy sex, and differ only on the subject of frequency. Otherwise, any discussion of frequency is bound to lead to battles and arguments rather than intimacy. From my point of view, it’s not very flattering if I have to constantly convince my wife that I’m worth loving and desirable. I am sure that from her point of view, an actual mandated frequency on my pleasure and her pain would probably make her resent me even more.

      Sir John

      • bws71 April 18, 2009 at 9:21 pm

        Quick thought – to be mutually satisfying do all of your sexual encounters with your wife need to be full-on intercourse? Is there some activity that you and your wife could engage in that would meet your needs and respect her desired level of involvement? Satisfying, bonding sexual exchanges don’t always require intercourse. What else could you guys do together that would work for both of you? I’m being purposefully vague to allow you to think about what this would look like for you.

        • Xenon April 18, 2009 at 10:40 pm

          Actually Yes ….

          And that is something that my wife has been doing for the last 6 months or so that had helped. Without getting TMI, we have started spooning together at night to go to sleep. The “deal” is that she will let me get just enough to make me ok, and will not take too much to make her feel used. She trusts me to not take too much advantage, and I trust her to not reject me. Some nights it is just smelling her her at the base of her neck, some nights it is playing with her breasts, and some nights it is everything.

        • SirJohn April 20, 2009 at 4:35 pm


          I agree that a healthy mutually satisfying sexual relationship should include many sexual and non-sexual interactions including but not limited to intercourse. There are two major challenges for me.

          First of all, my wife does not like intercourse at all. We have not had intercourse in many years. All of our sex is in the “other” category. This is a problem for me.

          Another problem is that if the “other” has not led to climax for many weeks, it becomes very frustrating rather than mutually fulfilling.

          The times when we do have sex that leads to climax, there is not enough of the “other” for me. She wants what she wants quick and then I’m sent to my side of the bed and she goes to hers. There is not enough of cuddling, warmth and affection during or between sex.

          A major goal of mine right now is to be more content with whatever she wants. If she just wants to cuddle even though it’s been 2 months since we had sex, I do everything in my power to make sure she has no idea I want anything more. When this happens, it’s extremely difficult. This is rare, however. The more common challenge for me is to keep a happy disposition through weeks of no affection at all.

          Sir John

    • Laura M. Brotherson April 8, 2009 at 10:39 pm

      Hi Xenon,

      Finding that “mutually satisfying frequency” is certainly not easy. But I guess I’d just like to add that while there may be some compromise involved in finding that right balance, I think it’s more about both husband and wife making the changes in themselves that I think God designed into the whole sexual relationship in the first place.

      I do believe it is possible for a husband and wife to have a sexual frequency that they are both really okay with not that they just compromised to.

      It may also be about what someone else has mentioned that it takes a woman being willing to awaken and embrace her sexuality while the man must really learn to bridle his sexuality. These two pieces are intricately interwoven. Unfortunately both people are likely to feel “unloved” by the other until the divine designs of marriage are working in that couples sexual relationship.

      Unfortunately that may require a time when the husband is getting that sexual love a lot less than he would like, as he learns to really master his sexuality instead of letting it master him.

      It may also mean that a woman may continue for some time just not getting the whole thing about sex. It may also mean she feels unloved because her husband is always irritable and pining away for sex. It really goes both ways unfortunately.

      I think the thought process needs to be less about “having our needs met” when there’s only one of us having the “discussion.” The discussion must instead shift to figuring out how we can better love and care for our spouse even if we feel it is not being returned. I know that’s so hard to do sometimes.

      I’m seeing more and more how the sexual relationship is providing profound opportunities for us to turn our life, our hopes and dreams over to God and trust in His ways and in His timing.

      The frequency issue is not really about frequency, but about both husband and wife together embracing sexuality as God designed it. My heart hurts for those who find themselves in a painful and frustrating place, but I think if we could look inside the heart and soul of the spouse we too would see much pain and hurt of other kinds.

      I think it was JustMe that said if we find ourselves in a situation we don’t understand and can’t seem to change then we have to let go and trust that God will work things out in His perfect timing while we go about figuring out what we need to learn from the situation.

      Sometimes “gift sex” has to satisfy you enough for a time if that’s all a wife can give. How we respond to our spouse is what makes the biggest difference. Responding with love and patience and understanding and compassion is the best way to motivate her to love–by loving her first…as long as it takes. I know it’s hard. I wish it wasn’t.

      • Xenon April 9, 2009 at 6:16 am

        Thank you everyone for the comments …

        I agree with JustMe’s comment about it being so hard for the high drive spouse to understand the low drive spouse “disinterest”. Several months ago, I actually got my wife to read in Laura’s book, read on line at places like the Marriage Bed, etc. It was GREAT (for me). She once commented “If I read in the book or one of the websites, it gets me thinking about sex, and then I just can’t wait for you to get home from work!”

        BUT, then came the flip side. “But I don’t like to think about sex all the time like that. I think reading those sites or those books is too much.” So she stopped, and now she is back to thinking about sex maybe once a month.

        I guess I don’t understand her intentionally turning it off like that. She saw that she can “awaken and embrace her sexuality” as Laura put it, and consciously and intentionally “put it sleep and shunned it”.

        I like SirJohn’s analogy of the dish’s and that it is the “putting off something important to the other” that is really the problem. In general terms, I can’t imagine just ignoring her request for something (from the trash to date night to the dishes to time to talk) for days or weeks or longer. BUT, she had no problem with that … with sex, with helping me look for my keys, etc.

        Anyway, here I sit (feeling sorry for myself which doesn’t help but I’m having a hard time NOT), days after telling her how much I need her affection and attention …

  • klover April 8, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Sir John, that is very well said and I totally agree. I believe we have an obligation to try hard to enjoy each other’s likes in a marriage; it is not good enough to say I do not want to.

  • Simply Sweet Marriage April 15, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    “What Do You Think?”

    Laura, I liked the list.

    I think as far as frequency…it needs to be MUTUAL…not all her idea or his…but something decided together. I got some advice from a sister when I got married…she told me that I would be sick, have post-partum, and be up with the baby all night…but when it came to my husband’s requests I should “do it” anyway. Even though “quickies” are not ideal, it helped us stay together…and now I am the one requesting the quickies!

    “Most couples must work on all the aspects of a healthy sexual relationship identified above.”

    I totally agree that working at it. Having a healthy sex life isn’t achieved overnight…but working together for a mutually satisfying relationship is a lot of fun. ;p hee hee

    “What are some other factors that might help identify those who have a healthy sexual relationship?”

    I think you got most of them. I’m not sure where humor fits…but it is good to keep it close by.

    “What’s your guess on how many couples do have a healthy sexual relationship in their marriage?”

    I think there are a lot more than we realize.

  • JustMe April 20, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    After reading Elder Hale’s latest conference talk, I am interested in getting comments regarding its application to marriage and specifically to health sexuality.

    Although the talk mainly addresses debt, Elder Hales also warns of addictive behaviors that lead to bondage and a loss of agency.

    Sex can be addicting. How do we avoid the inherently addicting aspects of sexuality? At what point do our thoughts and desires for healthy sexuality become unhealthy or counter-productive?

    Each couple will obviously be somewhat unique, but I hoped that someone would could suggest some general guidelines that would be applicable to most couples. Thoughts?

  • MrShorty September 4, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    #4 seems ok.

    I’m ok for #1, but feel like we fall short on #3, but I’m not sure about her.

    Which brings me to #2 (and what I want to ask about). How does one develop open communication — especially about the sexual relationship? Maybe it’s just me, but it really seems that the other 3 are more easily facilitated on #2: open communication.

    To be fair, I don’t have real problems talking about sex in general. The observation I’ve made is that it is difficult to talk about “my” sexuality or “our” sexuality. Something about making it personal also makes me feel so …. “vulnerable” or something.

    Just looking for some ideas: what skills/strategies/etc. help to make the communication more open so the relationship can improve?

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