By Justin Lehmiller
One sign of a healthy long-term romantic relationship is frequent sexual communication. Studies have consistently found that the more sexual communication couples engage in, the more sexually satisfied they tend to be . Despite the well-documented and powerful role that sexual communication plays in our relationships, surprisingly little research has explored in detail how we tend to navigate sexual discussions.
It is vital that we study sexual communication because by considering how people feel about and approach it, we can come to understand why some people avoid sexual communication altogether, as well as how we might help struggling couples facilitate more effective communication in their own relationships. A recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior offers some valuable insight through a comparison of the communication patterns observed in real couples’ sexual and nonsexual discussions .
Researchers studied 115 different-sex couples in Canada, all of whom were in long-term relationships and had been together for 11 years on average. Participants engaged in two eight-minute conflict discussions, which were video-recorded. One discussion focused on a sexual problem facing the couple, while the other focused on a nonsexual relationship problem. Before each discussion, participants rated their current mood state.
A team of research assistants later coded both of the conflict interactions on two dimensions for each partner separately. Specifically, they looked at the amount of warmth-hostility and dominance-submissiveness displayed. Below are the key findings from their analysis:
- As the researchers predicted, participants displayed more warmth when discussing a sexual conflict compared to a nonsexual conflict, which suggests that people seem to be more responsive to one another when talking about sex compared to other relationship matters.
- Levels of warmth varied more during the sexual discussion relative to the nonsexual discussion; however, this was only true for women. The authors of the study believe this may be because people tend to adjust their warmth more when discussing sensitive subjects like sex in order to manage their partner’s emotional experience.
- Unexpectedly, there were no differences in levels of dominance displayed in the sexual and nonsexual scenarios. The researchers expected to find that people would display less dominance during sexual conflicts, but that clearly wasn’t the case.
- Levels of dominance varied less in the sexual discussion relative to the nonsexual discussion, which suggests that people may be more cautious in the way they approach sexual conversations.
- When one partner displayed warmth, the other tended to respond in kind. In other words, warmth was greeted with warmth. However, this tendency emerged more often in sexual versus nonsexual conflicts.
- When one partner displayed dominance, the other tended to respond in a reciprocal way. This means that dominance was typically greeted with submissiveness. However, this pattern emerged more often in nonsexual compared to sexual conflicts.
- Participants said they felt more anxious prior to discussing a sexual conflict than a nonsexual conflict.
Overall, these results reveal a lot about the nature of sexual communication and how it is similar to and different from nonsexual communication. The pattern of findings suggests that people tend to see higher stakes when discussing sexual conflicts, which may be why a lot of us avoid talking about sex altogether, but also why we seem to approach sexual communication more cautiously than nonsexual communication.
 Babin, E. A. (2013). An examination of predictors of nonverbal and verbal communication of pleasure during sex and sexual satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(3), 270-292.
 Rehman, U. S., Lizdek, I., Fallis, E. E., Sutherland, S., & Goodnight, J. A. (2017). How Is Sexual Communication Different from Nonsexual Communication? A Moment-by-Moment Analysis of Discussions Between Romantic Partners. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.