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You’re Sexy When We Fight

Many people assume that having conflict in a relationship reduces sexual desire and relationship satisfaction. Yet, conflict may also present a constructive opportunity for partners to discuss important relationship issues, or it may simply create a general sense of arousal that transforms into sexual excitement. 

In an upcoming study to be published in Personal Relationships, researchers tested the association between relationship conflict and sexual motivation in a sample of 61 heterosexual couples who were in steady, sexually monogamous relationships.1 Couples came into a laboratory where they were randomly assigned to either a no conflict condition where they discussed “their daily routine,” or the relational conflict condition where they discussed a “major problem in their relationship.” In the relational conflict condition, partners independently generated 3-5 key problem issues, and then, when they reunited, decided upon the most significant unresolved problem. Couples then proceeded to recall a recent disagreement about the issue and try to resolve it. Following the discussion, couples in both conditions rated their partner’s sexual attractiveness by responding to several adjectives (e.g., sexually desirable, sensual, hot, attractive, and sexually exciting); they also completed measures of attachment (click here for a review) and a measure of sexual motivation measure that assessed 5 key reasons for wanting to have sex:

  • Emotional Value for One’s Partner (e.g., “sex is a great way to express how I feel about my partner”)
  • Emotionally Valued by One’s Partner (e.g., “having sex makes me feel cared for and loved”)
  • Relief from Stress (e.g., “having sex makes me feel better—less stressed, depressed, etc.”)
  • Nurturance (e.g., “I want to help my partner feel better—like her or she has fewer problems, etc.”)
  • Pleasure (e.g., “it feels good physically”)

As predicted, those in the relational conflict condition reported experiencing more relationship conflict than those in the no conflict condition (no shocker there). More importantly, when comparing the conditions on the key outcomes, the results indicated that, following conflict, men perceived their partner as more sexually attractive, while women perceived their partner as less sexually attractive. Additionally, compared to men, women were more likely to report the sexual motives of nurturance and emotional value for one’s partner. So it seems that while women experience less sexual attraction, they may feel motivated to use sex to help patch up the relationship. 

Anxiously attached (e.g., clingy) women were more likely to report all of the sexual motives except for pleasure, while anxiously attached men were more likely to report emotionally valued by one’s partner and relief from stress. For those with an avoidant partner (e.g., someone who has difficulty with being close), the conflict discussion led to less desire to have sex as a stress-reliever, to feel emotionally valued, or to experience pleasure.

What does all this mean? Conflict in relationships may influence men and women’s sexual motivations in different ways. That is, an argument may lead guys to perceive their female partner as hotter, whereas women become less attracted to men post-conflict. The results also show how having a partner who isn’t comfortable being close may dissuade you from seeing him or her as a viable source of sexual comfort following a disagreement. 

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.

Check out our article about "make-up sex" here.

1Birnbaum, G. E., Mikulincer, M., & Austerlistz, M. (2012, in press). A fiery conflict: Attachment orientations and the effects of relational conflict on sexual motivation. Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2012.01413.x

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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