Have you ever wondered why, after a heated argument with your boyfriend or girlfriend, he or she suddenly looks so...yummy?
It’s actually pretty common for romantic conflict to increase feelings of sexual desire, and researchers know why. When you get in a fight with your partner, emotions can run high, and the entire experience can be psychologically threatening (i.e., we fear losing our relationship). This feeling of threat activates the attachment system (see more about attachment here) – a biologically based system that works to keep your important relationships intact.1 Whenever the attachment system is activated, it motivates you to increase your sense of closeness and security with important others, such as your romantic partner.
Of course, the attachment system gets to work whenever any important relationship is threatened, not just romantic ones. But romantic relationships are unique in that they are sexually charged. And although separate systems are responsible for managing sexual drives and attachment, they can sometimes work together in surprising ways.2 For example, sex can be a great way to repair a romantic relationship after it’s been threatened. Whereas arguing can make you feel distant from your partner, sex can work to restore feelings of intimacy and closeness. Apparently, people have picked up on this useful advantage of sex; after being primed with feelings of emotional threat (e.g., by being asked to imagine their partner falling in love with someone else), people tend to become more interested in sex with their partners.3
As with most findings, there are important caveats that go along with this research. For example, individual differences do play a role-- not everyone reacts to threat in the same way (i.e., not everyone feels randy after a fight). Also, in the context of actual conflict between romantic partners, there’s research suggesting that the effect is strongest – meaning that people feel most affectionate and attracted to their partners – when the argument is successfully resolved.2 Furthermore, although conflict is often useful for working through issues in relationships,4 consistent feelings of relationship threat and insecurity can do damage to relationships in the long-run.1 So, while sex can be a great way to restore feelings of closeness after a disagreement, it might not be the best idea to start arguments with your partner just for the make-up sex...it may feel great, but it’s probably not worth fighting for.
For other Science of Relationships articles on sex, please click here.
1Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York: Guildford Press.
2Birnbaum, G. E. (2010). Bound to interact: The divergent goals and complex interplay of attachment and sex within romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27, 245-252.
3Birnbaum, G. E., Scltelman, N., Bar-Shalom, A., & Porat, O. (2008). The thin line between reality and imagination: Attachment orientation and the effects of relationship threats on sexual fantasies. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1185-1199.
4Driver, J. L., & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family Processes, 43, 301-314.
Samantha Joel - Science of Relationships articles
Samantha's research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner?