Sex Ed

How Sexual and Non-Sexual Communication Differ

September 15, 2017 by Justin Lehmiller


Communicating early and often about sex is one of the keys to a successful long-term romantic relationship. Indeed, research has consistently found that the more sexual communication couples engage in, the more sexually satisfied they tend to be. However, despite the powerful role that sexual communication plays in our relationships, surprisingly little is known about the way people navigate sexual discussions with their partners.

Studying sexual communication is important because by looking at how people feel about and approach it, we can come to understand why some people avoid sexual communication altogether, but also how struggling couples can facilitate effective communication in their own relationships. Fortunately, a new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior offers some valuable insight.

In this study, researchers studied the communication patterns of 115 different-sex couples in Canada, all of whom were in long-term relationships (on average, couples had been together approximately 11 years). Participants engaged in two eight-minute conflict discussions that were video-recorded. One of these discussions was based on a sexual problem the couple was currently experiencing, whereas the other was based on a non-sexual relationship problem they were facing. Prior to each discussion, participants rated their current mood state.

Before analyzing the data, a team of research assistants coded the conflict interactions on two dimensions for each partner separately: the amount of warmth-hostility and dominance-submissiveness displayed. Below are the key findings:

· Consistent with the researchers’ predictions, participants displayed more warmth when discussing a sexual conflict than they did when discussing a non-sexual conflict. This suggests that people are more responsive to each other when talking about sex than when discussing other relationship matters.

· Levels of warmth varied more during the sexual discussion than they did during the non-sexual discussion, but only for women. The researchers believe this is because people adjust their warmth more during discussion of sensitive subjects like sex in an attempt to manage their partner’s emotional experience.

· Unexpectedly, levels of dominance did not differ in the sexual and non-sexual conflict scenarios. The researchers had predicted that people would display less dominance during sexual conflicts, but that wasn’t the case.

· Levels of dominance varied less in the sexual discussion than they did in the non-sexual discussion. The researchers believe this is a sign that people are more cautious in the way they approach sexual conversations.

· Participants tended to respond in kind when their partner displayed warmth (i.e., warmth was greeted with warmth); however, this was more likely to occur during sexual rather than non-sexual conflicts.

· Participants tended to respond reciprocally when their partner displayed dominance, meaning that dominance was greeted with submissiveness; however, this pattern was more likely to emerge in non-sexual compared to sexual conflicts.

· Participants reported feeling more anxious prior to discussing a sexual conflict compared to a non-sexual conflict.

These results tell us a lot about the nature of sexual communication and how it compares to non-sexual communication. Overall, the pattern of findings suggests that people see higher stakes when it comes to discussing sexual conflicts. This is probably why a lot of people avoid talking about sex altogether, but also why we seem to approach sexual communication more cautiously than non-sexual communication.

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To learn more about this research, see: 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.

Image Source: 123RF/Dmitriy Shironosov

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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