How Couples Resolve Disagreements About Sex

Why it’s easier to have a warm conversation with your partner about sex than about any other topic

A man and woman discuss what looks like a serious subject. MCAD Library/Flickr

It’s normal for long-term romantic couples to disagree from time to time about topics as diverse as child-rearing, household finances, and, of course, sex. But how do intimate partners behave differently when discussing sexual and non-sexual matters?

It’s an important question to answer because research suggests that couples find sexual communication especially difficult. By uncovering the behavioral patterns unique to discussions about sex, a team of psychologists from the University of Waterloo in Ontario and the University of Dayton, Ohio, hoped to identify how relationship counselors might assist couples with problems in the bedroom. They ran a study in which partners identified problems in their relationship and discussed these problems as a couple. The results of the study were recently published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Uzma Rehman, who led the team, invited 115 male/female couples to her laboratory. Upon arrival, the men and women were directed to separate rooms, where they completed a battery of questionnaires about their relationships. One of these questionnaires asked the volunteers about their experiences with 20 sources of non-sexual relationship conflict; another asked about sexual problems.

The partners had to rate the extent to which each topic was a problem in their own relationships. The list of potential relationship problems included “housework”, “how to spend vacation time”, “starting interesting conversations”, and “spending time on outside activities”. The list of sources of sexual conflict included “paying attention to sexual needs”, “amount of foreplay”, “sexual attraction to someone other than the partner”, “premature orgasm”, and “viewing pornography alone”, among others.

A pair of research assistants collected the completed questionnaires and compared each man and woman’s responses. The research assistants selected a topic as the subject for a discussion between the partners if both partners identified that topic as a problem for their relationship, and each desired change in the opposite direction (say, if both partners thought frequency of sex was a problem in their relationship, and one partner wanted more sex while the other wanted less).

The assistants chose one sexual and one non-sexual topic for each couple.

Next, each couple was reunited in a laboratory fitted with video cameras. They were asked to discuss each topic for eight minutes. While the partners discussed the topics, the cameras were rolling, recording their every word and gesture. Sounds relaxing!

Fight-simulator?

Once the discussions were through, and the volunteers thanked and sent on their way, it was the job of the research assistants to view the videos. Rehman was interested in whether the volunteers behaved with warmth or hostility, and with dominance or submission. She wanted to know how the volunteers’ behavior varied on these two dimensions from moment to moment.

The research assistants received eight hours training on how to spot warm, hostile, dominant, and submissive behavior. Then they seated themselves comfortably in front of a monitor, hit play, and grabbed their joysticks.

Yes, that’s right: their joysticks. The assistants’ computers were equipped with arcade-style controllers that the assistants had to pull to the left if the volunteer’s behavior was hostile, and to the right if the volunteer was warm. They pushed forward if the volunteer was dominant, and pulled backward if the volunteer was submissive.

The life of a research assistant is often repetitive and dull, and Rehman has clearly hit upon a way to relieve that boredom: by making the task of coding behavior a cross between a couples’ therapy session and a flight simulator video game.

Results

The researchers found that the partners were warmer during discussions about sex than during discussions about non-sexual areas of conflict: in brief, participants were generally nicer to each other when discussing sex.

Rehman suggests that this could be because sex is a fraught topic. Partners may be concerned that sexual disagreements can’t be resolved, or that unearthing a source of sexual conflict might provide evidence of incompatibility. Perhaps this makes partners increase their warmth as a way of promoting a safe and constructive discussion.

Rehman also wondered if warmth levels would be more variable when partners discussed sex (that warmth would more regularly spike from moment to moment). The idea behind this theory is that, at moments when partners feel the conversation has taken a tricky turn, they abruptly increase their warmth with the hopes of diffusing the problem. Rehman’s theory turned out to be true, but only for women. During conversations about sexual disagreements, men’s warmth levels were relatively high but remained constant for the whole eight minute conversation; not so for women, whose warmth levels varied more regularly.

Another prediction was that partners’ warmth levels would more closely match one another during the sexual discussions than during the non-sexual discussions. This prediction was also confirmed: when one partner smiled, the other smiled back; when one partner nodded, the other nodded too. This instantaneous mirroring behavior may be more important when navigating high-stakes sexual conflicts.

Finally Rehman found that partners’ dominance and submissiveness levels were more clearly opposed to one another during non-sexual than sexual discussions. This opposition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if one partner behaves dominantly while the other behaves submissively, this suggests the discussion is coordinated such that couples agree who is taking the lead at any one moment. During discussions of sexual problems, this coordination was not evident: it was more common that both partners were relatively dominant — or relatively submissive — at the same time.

The researchers say:

In contrast to the more rhythmic and skilled handing back and forth of control that has been likened to a ‘‘skilled passing of a baton’’, partners tended to be more hesitant and cautious in the taking and ceding of control during sexual conversations, leading these discussions to be less reciprocal overall.

Talking about sex: a source of anxiety?

So why do partners behave more warmly when discussing sexual rather than non-sexual conflicts? Perhaps, as the researchers suggest, couples are more worried that sexual conflicts will lead to a break-up and so treat these discussions more seriously.

This wouldn’t necessarily explain why partners are less able to cede control of conversations about sexual conflicts.

It’s also possible that sexual discussions provoke more anxiety, and that the different responses are driven by these differences in anxiety. It’s true that anxiety was greater before sexual discussions (Rehman checked by asking her couples), but analyses revealed that anxiety levels had no effect on warmth or dominance. It remains possible that changes in anxiety during a conversation have an impact on behavior, but we can’t say for sure without doing more research.

Interestingly, Rehman and her colleagues also asked the partners how often they had discussed each conversation topic before coming to the lab. Once the researchers statistically controlled for this frequency, the effect of topic type (sexual or non-sexual) on warmth disappeared. So, it might not be that discussions of sexual conflict lead to increased conversational warmth because partners think sex is a problematic topic, but rather because partners tend to discuss sexual matters less often and so are more nervous about how the chat will go.


Rehman, U. S., Lizdek, I., Fallis, E. E., Sutherland, S., & Goodnight, J. A. (in press). How is sexual communication different from nonsexual communication? A moment-by-moment analysis of discussions between romantic partners. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Read summary

For an audio version of this story, see the 1 August 2017 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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