A few months ago, I was involved in the following conversation:
- Questioner: "So... couples who talk about sex more often also tend to be more satisfied in their relationship, right?"
- Me: "Yep."
- Questioner: "Well, which came first? The good relationship or the good sexual communication?"
- Me: "Ummmm..."
I was intrigued. Before I attempt to answer the question, I thought I'd first explain what relationship research has to say.
Depending on the function of the sex talk (e.g., to disclose sexual likes and dislikes, to problem-solve sexual issues, to negotiate condom use, to request sex, etc.), communication about sex has the potential to significantly contribute to relationship intensification and maintenance in a variety of ways. For instance, sexual coaching could intensify a relationship when both partners enhance their mutual sexual pleasure in the bedroom. Likewise, effectively requesting sex from a partner could help maintain a relationship when the receiver of the request feels respected and desired by his or her partner. Overall, certain discussions about sex have the ability to further strengthen an already healthy relationship or even save some relationships that may be in trouble. Why is communication about sex so influential? This topic’s unique ability to intensify and maintain both strong and weak relationships is likely due to the significant role that sexual activity plays in our lives.
In the last 30 years, researchers have examined the wide variety of advantages associated with having sex, actually enjoying it, and especially experiencing orgasms. In particular, researchers have discovered that engaging in sexual activities multiple times a week is related to numerous physical, psychological, and even relationship benefits (see Whipple, Knowles, & Davis, 2007 for a review of the wide variety of sexual activity benefits). Of interest to this post, however, are just the relationship advantages associated with sexual activity. For instance, it has been shown that when oxytocin is released during orgasm, feelings of affection, intimacy, and closeness with a sexual partner increase (Odent, 1999; Weeks, 2002).
Overall, good relationships tend to be infused with good sex. And, really good sex is a function of really good communication about sex. Whether the communication is verbal or nonverbal, communicating about sexual preferences, likes, dislikes, boundaries, safety, fantasies, and the like, has the potential to significantly impact one’s sexual and relationship satisfaction. In fact, research has revealed that individuals who talk about sex more often with their partners report being more satisfied with their sexual relationships (Byers, 2005; Byers & Demmons, 1999; Chesney et al., 1981; MacNeil & Byers, 1997; Sprecher & Regan, 2000) and actually report experiencing more pleasure during sex (Byers & Demmons, 1999; DeLamater & Friedrich, 2002; Haavio-Mannila & Kontula, 1997; Purnine & Carey, 1999) than those who discuss sex less often. Additionally, individuals’ satisfaction with the sexual communication that takes place within their relationship is positively associated with the development of that relationship (Wheeless, Wheeless, & Baus, 1984), relationship satisfaction (Banmen & Vogel, 1985; Byers & Demmons, 1999), and sexual satisfaction (Cupach & Comstock, 1990).
But, does more communication about sex lead to a more satisfying relationship or are people in satisfying relationships more willing and able to talk about sex with their partners? Both options are feasible. The vital role that sexual activity plays in one’s life, and especially in one’s relationship, leads me to initially argue that good sexual communication leads to good relationships. But on the other hand, people who are more comfortable and satisfied with their relationships overall will likely be more willing to discuss sex with their partners. But, why do they do it? One could argue that it’s because they care about continuing to maintain their satisfaction (both sexual and relational) and they know that discussing this topic has the potential to not only maintain but also intensify their relationship. For instance, when communicated competently, talking about sexual fantasies could make the receiver feel trusted, disclosing sexual likes could increase feelings of intimacy and closeness, and discussing sexual problems and working towards a solution could express a commitment to the relationship, all of which are significant predictors of relationship satisfaction. Furthermore, if and when couples are dissatisfied with their sex lives, and they are capable of competently talking about their sexual issues, they could easily improve their sex life as a couple through communicating about sex. And, since sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction are so highly correlated, the improved sexual satisfaction would likely influence aspects of their overall relationship satisfaction.
Conversely, one could also argue that a good relationship is a necessary precursor for good communication about anything, and especially about sex. Depending on the reason for the dissatisfaction (i.e. being in a “bad” relationship), an already doomed relationship may not be able to be saved by sex talk. Both people must be motivated to achieve the various goals associated with sex talk (e.g., improving sexual and/or relationship satisfaction). Thus, if the couple is not satisfied or the relationship’s current climate is not conducive to open communication, a couple may struggle to competently or effectively talk about sex. So, one could also argue that a good relationship is necessary for good communication about sex.
The question then becomes: which came first; the good relationship or the good sex talk? Although this may be seen as an easy way out to many of you, I would argue that a healthy relationship (which includes, among other things, open communication between partners) and/or a strong desire for a healthy relationship leads to individuals being more willing and able to discuss sexual topics with their partners. And, when individuals successfully discuss these topics with their mates, they are then better able to intensify and/or maintain their relationship. Their increased relationship satisfaction will then allow the couple to discuss sexual topics more openly and frequently. Therefore, good sex talk leads to a good relationship and a good relationship leads to good sex talk; a circular relationship if you will. I know, I know, it's a bit of a cop-out. What do you think?
- Banmen, J., & Vogel, N. A. (1985). The relationship between marital quality and interpersonal sexual communication. Family Therapy, 12, 45- 58.
- Byers, E. S. (2005). Relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction: A longitudinal study of individuals in long-term relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 42, 113- 118.
- Byers, E.S., & Demmons,S. (1999). Sexual satisfaction and self disclosure within dating relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 36, 180-189.
- Chesney, A. P., Blakeney, P. E., Cole, C. M., & Chan, F. A. (1981). A comparison of couples who have sought sex therapy with couples who have not. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 7, 131-140.
- Cupach, W.R., & Comstock, J. (1990). Satisfaction with sexual communication in marriage: Links to sexual satisfaction and dyadic adjustment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7, 179- 186.
- DeLamater, J., & Friedrich, W.N. (2002). Human sexual development. The Journal of Sex Research, 39, 10- 15.
- Haavio-Mannila, E., & Kontula, O. (1997). Correlates of increased sexual satisfaction. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26(4), 399-419.
- MacNeil, S., & Byers, E.S. (1997). The relationship between sexual problems, communication, and sexual satisfaction. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 6(4), 277-289.
- Odent, M. (1999). The scientification of love. London, UK: Free Association Books Limited.
- Purnine, D.M., & Carey, M. (1999). Dyadic coorientation: Reexamination of a method for studying interpersonal communication. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 28(1), 45-61.
- Sprecher, S. (2002). Sexual satisfaction in premarital relationships: Associations with satisfaction, love, commitment, and stability. The Journal of Sex Research, 3, 1-7.
- Sprecher, S. & Regan, P.C. (2000). Sexuality in a Relational Context. In C. Hendrick & S. Hendrick (Eds.), Close Relationships: A Sourcebook (pp. 245-262). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.
- Weeks, D. J. (2002). Sex for the amateur adult: Health, self-esteem and countering ageist stereotypes. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 17, 231- 240.
- Wheeless, V., Wheeless, L., & Baus, R. (1984). Sexual communication, communication satisfaction, and solidarity in the developmental stages of intimate relationships. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 48, 217-230.
- Whipple, B., Knowles, J., & Davis, J. (2007). The health benefits of sexual expression. Published by Planned Parenthood in Cooperation with the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.