The dynamics of sexual intimacy after conflicts.
A new couple having their first fight is a common trope in romantic comedies. Voices rise, fingers wag, and each partner unleashes a tirade against the other at the top of their lungs. Then, after a pregnant pause, the two embrace and kiss passionately. After that, it’s off to the bedroom, if they even make it that far.
In pop culture, makeup sex is often described as “the best sex ever” and one of the most passionate lovemaking experiences a couple will ever have. High on adrenaline and having released their frustrations, the partners can renew their love for each other with a fervor rarely achieved through ordinary sex.
While psychologists have speculated on the dynamics of makeup sex for decades, there’s been little direct observational research on the subject. Filling this void in the literature was the goal of New Zealand psychologist Jessica Maxwell and her colleague Andrea Meltzer in a paper they recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Maxwell and Meltzer start out by observing that all intimate relationships have two elements in common, namely sex and conflict. Sex is, after all, what defines a relationship as intimate. And because people have different preferences and desires, conflict is inevitable in any relationship, but especially so for one in which two people have become so interdependent on each other.
In their exploration of the psychology of makeup sex, the researchers attempted to find answers to these three questions:
1Is sex more likely to occur on days when couples experience conflict? On the one hand, conflict increases stress, which can dampen our desire for sex or our ability to perform. On the other hand, it’s also well known that physiological arousal from one activity can easily transfer to another activity, which is why, for example, horror movies are so popular for date night.
2Is sex that co-occurs with conflict more satisfying? According to pop culture, make-up sex is often described as extremely satisfying. However, it’s known that the bad feelings that result from a fight with your partner can linger for days afterward, and this effect was also observed in the current study.
3Does sex buffer the negative effects of conflict? Conflicts lead to negative mood, while sex boosts positive mood. It could be that makeup sex replaces hurt feelings with a renewed passion for each other. But it could also be that makeup sex merely dampens those hurt feelings so that the couple doesn’t feel as bad as they would have if they hadn’t made love after their argument.
To find answers to these three questions, Maxwell and Meltzer recruited over 100 newlywed heterosexual couples who were willing to take part in a two-week diary study. First, each partner responded to a survey intended to assess their level of sexual and marital satisfaction. Then every night for 14 nights, each partner responded to a brief questionnaire that asked whether they’d had a conflict with their spouse that day, whether they’d had sex, and how satisfied they currently were with their marriage.
Six months later, the couples were contacted again and asked to respond to questions about their level of satisfaction with their marriage and sex life. With these data, the researchers were able to provide at least tentative answers to each of the three research questions.
First, the data show that newlywed couples are neither more nor less likely to have sex on days when they’d had a conflict compared with days when they hadn’t fought. While makeup sex certainly occurs, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern of fighting followed by lovemaking for most couples.
Furthermore, the researchers found that couples were much less likely to have sex on the day after a fight. This is evidence for a lingering negative mood after a conflict, during which time partners likely feel less desire for intimate contact with their partner.
Second, while popular culture portrays makeup sex as “the best sex ever,” the couples in this study described it as neither more nor less satisfying than sex on non-conflict days. However, partners reported higher levels of sexual and marital satisfaction on conflict days in which they’d also had sex than on conflict days when they hadn’t. This finding suggests that couples may be using makeup sex as a way to ease the bad feelings that came from the conflict, which leads to the final question.