Couples Communication Study

Funded by: Vice President Research Grant (4A) and Institutional Small SSHRC

Principal Investigator: Rebecca J. Cobb, PhD

What was the Couples Communication Study about?

Our goal was to understand how romantic partners and relationships change over time and the factors and processes related to success or failure. We focused on a set of relationship processes that are critically important to relationship and sexual functioning such as empathy, forgiveness, and conflict, and how personal characteristics (e.g., selfimage) are related to these processes. How partners communicate with each other about important relationship issues such as hurt feelings and sexuality are foundational to close relationships and have implications for personal well-being. To date, almost all research on communication in couples’ relationships has focused on conflict communication. For example, how couples resolve differences about child rearing, household chores, money, moods, and in-laws.

How couples support each other and communicate validation and affection in times of stress is also a growing area of research. However, how communication about other important areas of their relationship, such as hurt feelings and sexuality, has been relatively neglected.

We studied these areas by bringing couples to the lab to talk about important relationship issues such as hurt feelings and sexual tensions in their relationship, and then asked them to report on their relationship and sexual functioning three more times over the course of one year.

Who were the couples who participated?

The couples in our study came from all walks of life. We required that they be living together for at least one year and all couples were mixed sex. We advertised on the radio, in print media, via posters on community bulletin boards, and on online forums. For detailed participant information, please see our infographic.

What have you learned about couples’ relationships?

If you participated in the study, you will know that we asked a lot of questions! We are continuing to explore the data and to learn about the couples in this study and we will post new findings as they emerge. Recently, we coded the behaviour in the discussions that couples had in the lab about relationship issues, including sexual issues. This is a complex and lengthy process. Because this is a relatively new area of research (observational coding of sexual discussions), there was no established system for us to use. Thus, we adapted existing coding systems to appropriately capture the important behaviour and emotion observed in these discussions.

Although there is much work left to do, we are beginning to answer some questions about sexual communication and satisfaction and some of this work has already been presented at national and international conferences. Below we have information about some of this emerging work. If you are interested in learning more and accessing future results from this project, please visit our Conference Abstracts & Posters and our Publications pages. 

How do you measure sexual satisfaction?

Sexual satisfaction and dissatisfaction are assumed to fall at opposite ends of the same continuum, but recent work suggests that these constructs are different. We hypothesized that sexual satisfaction and dissatisfaction would uniquely contribute to relationship satisfaction.

Participants completed a measure of sexual satisfaction (e.g. “My partner really pleases me sexually”), sexual dissatisfaction (e.g. “Sexual activity with my partner is a turn off”), and relationship quality at time one. For women and men, sexual satisfaction was positively associated with relationship satisfaction and sexual dissatisfaction was negatively associated with relationship satisfaction. There were no significant partner effects or gender differences in the associations between sexual and relationship quality.

Sexual satisfaction and sexual dissatisfaction uniquely contributed to women’s and men’s relationship satisfaction. The presence of positives (e.g. pleasure) and the existence of negatives (e.g. disappointment) in the sexual relationship may uniquely influence partners’ overall relationship quality. Sexual satisfaction and dissatisfaction may be distinct constructs, activated by different individual, relationship, and environmental factors, and differentially affecting sexual and relationship outcomes. Clinicians should consider both sexual satisfaction and dissatisfaction when working with couples to improve their relationships. 

To talk or not to talk: What is more important, talking about sex or communicating non-verbally?

Millman, R. D., Pink, J.C., Cobb, R. J., Logan, J. M., & Bowsfield, M. L. 

Communicating your sexual desires, needs, and preferences is important for sexual and relationship satisfaction. However, how you communicate—by telling your partner or by showing your partner—matters. If you let your partner know what you like or dislike during sexual activity by showing them—moving their hand, making noises, or other non-verbal indications—you and your partner are more likely to feel sexually satisfied. In other words, finding ways to encourage desired behaviours and sexual activities is a good thing for your sexual relationship! This may not be a terribly surprising finding, and it makes good sense. It makes us feel good to get what we want sexually, and to give our partners what they want, and we can only accomplish this if we are good communicators.

You might be thinking, well what about just telling our partner what we want and don’t want? That seems like a quick and direct way to make sure that our partners understand our needs and desires, and intuitively it seems like a reasonable communication strategy. However, in our work, we discovered that women are actually less sexually satisfied to the extent that they communicate in words what they want and don’t want from their male partners during sexual activity. This is a surprising finding! How can it possibly be detrimental to talk with a partner about sexual pleasure or desire?

We suspect that talking during sex might actually be distracting and ruin the moment, whereas non-verbal communication is subtler and doesn’t jar people out of enjoying the sensuous contact with their partners. It might also be that saying things out loud is somewhat threatening—moving a hand away from a particular spot, or slowing down a movement (or speeding one up!) is directive, but doesn’t necessarily imply a criticism, and it might be harder to figure out how to give gentle negative feedback when one is in the throes of passion. It could also be that some verbal utterances may seem ingenuine. For example, talking dirty could be a great turn on, but if done because the person thinks it is the “right thing to do” or expected, it may not necessarily make the sexual experience better. Especially if your partner is trying to figure out whether or not you really mean what you are saying

Insecure attachment and sexual communication

Pink, J. C., & Cobb, R. J. 

Talking about sexual topics, or sexual communication, can be challenging for intimate partners. Communicating with partners about things we like and don’t like sexually can require sharing very private aspects of ourselves, so it’s not surprising that it can be uncomfortable and difficult to do well. It can open us up to experiencing painful emotions, like embarrassment or shame, and fuel relationship conflict. At the same time, we know that being able to openly and constructively talk about sexual issues is associated with having a more sexually satisfied and generally happier relationship. So, although sexual matters can be tough to navigate, bringing them up with partners and discussing them as effectively as possible is clearly important for relationships.

Although there is a lot of research showing that good sexual communicators tend to be more sexually satisfied and generally happier in their relationships, less is known about the personal qualities that predict if a person excels in talking about sex. We expected that people higher in attachment anxiety (who tend to worry about their relationships) and individuals higher in attachment avoidance (who tend to be uncomfortable with intimacy) may struggle with sexual communication, which in turn limits their ability to maintain satisfying sexual relationships over time. Put another way, we expected that people who are more securely attached in their relationships, who tend not to worry about their partner’s love for them and feel comfortable with emotional intimacy, may be able to better navigate sexual conversations and experience more fulfilling sexual lives as a result.

We found that, as expected, people who reported higher anxiety and avoidance also tended to report lower sexual communication quality and lower sexual satisfaction. In addition, partners of people who were higher in attachment anxiety also reported lower sexual communication quality and lower sexual satisfaction. This makes good sense when we consider that communication and sexual satisfaction are couple processes – both partners are involved in creating positive sexual communication and fulfilling sexual interactions – so one person’s difficulty in these areas can have ripple effects for their partner’s experience too. Unexpectedly, we found that people whose partners reported higher attachment avoidance reported better quality sexual communication. It could be that more avoidant people try to minimize their discomfort by saying less (or nothing at all!) about any sexual concerns they have, and their partners mistakenly perceive their minimal complaints as an indication of open and effective communication. Overall, our findings suggest that being more worried about relationships (i.e., higher in attachment anxiety) and more uncomfortable with intimacy (i.e., higher in attachment avoidance) gets in the way of partners openly and constructively talking about sexual matters, which in turn contributes to less satisfying sexual relationships.

Insecurely attached couples tend to have less satisfying sexual relationships; this may be because attachment anxiety (e.g. worry about relationships, fear of rejection) and avoidance (e.g. discomfort with intimacy) prevents couples from having constructive discussions about conflict, limiting their ability to maintain satisfying sexual relationships.

Cohabiting couples were videotaped engaging in a 10-minute sexual conflict discussion in the laboratory. Participants completed questionnaires that assess their attachment to their partner, their sexual dissatisfaction, their positive and negative affect (assessed before and after the videotaped discussion), and their perceptions of their partner’s behaviour after the discussion (e.g. “I behaved positively/ negatively towards my partner,” “my partner behaved positively/ negatively towards me”).

For women and men, perceptions of less positive own and more negative partner behaviour were associated with higher sexual dissatisfaction. Men’s avoidance was associated with more negative perceptions of behaviour during the discussion and increases in negative affect after the discussion. Women’s high avoidance and anxiety were associated with rating behaviour in the discussion negatively and reporting marginal increases in negative affect. The less constructively partners behaved during the discussion, the less sexually satisfied they were. Women’s and men’s perceptions of behaviour during the sexual conflict discussion were unrelated to their relationship satisfaction. Helping partners to engage in sexual conflict communication in a more constructive (i.e., less negative, more positive) manner may be an important point of clinical intervention for couples experiencing sexual distress.

It takes two: Believing your partner is sexually satisfied is good for your own sexual satisfaction

Bowsfield, M. L., Pink, J. C., & Cobb, R. J.

When you’re in a sexual partnership, thinking that your partner is happy with your sex life means that you are more likely to be satisfied with your sex life, regardless of how much sex you are actually having. You might be thinking, “Sure, if I think my partner likes something, I am more likely to enjoy that thing too,” but we suspect there is more going on when it comes to sex. If your partner doesn’t share the same affinity for Starbucks dark roast, does this detract from your enjoyment of a delicious brew? Probably not. However, sex is more complicated than coffee. In a sexual encounter, we usually have goals above and beyond achieving our own personal pleasure. We also want to please our partner, to make sure they feel satisfied, and to be able to see ourselves as a good and desirable sexual partner. In other words, believing that our partner is sexually satisfied comes with its own rewards that contribute to our overall sexual satisfaction – we benefit from our partner’s happiness (even if it’s perceived happiness). If you’re still not buying it, think of the reverse. Imagine you get the feeling from your partner (maybe they say something or simply seem unenthusiastic about sex) that they are less than thrilled with your sex life. How would that make you feel? You would likely feel a little down, perhaps thinking something needs to change in your sex life, or like you are missing the mark somehow. Naturally, you may be less sexually satisfied! If you are enjoying sex with your partner and feeling satisfied, tell them! This in turn might give them a real boost in their satisfaction too. 

It’s not your body, it’s your body image: How body dissatisfaction is related to sexual satisfaction

Bowsfield, M. L., Pink, J. C., Millman, R. D., & Cobb, R. J.

It might not come as a surprise that the degree to which you are happy with how your body looks and how confident you feel in your own skin influences how comfortable you are in the bedroom. This makes sense – we tend to feel the most anxious about our bodies during activities that put the body on display and, well, we can probably all agree that sex is one of those times! The less satisfied we are with our bodies; the less satisfied we are with our sex lives. Now, if you’re thinking that only people who have higher than average body masses or who do not fit society’s thin or muscular “ideals” experience this body dissatisfaction and in turn, less sexual satisfaction, you’d be wrong. Regardless of body mass, people who are less satisfied with their body report greater sexual dissatisfaction. It’s not how we look on the outside, but how we feel about ourselves on the inside that plays a role in how sexually satisfied we feel.

Why might being unhappy with your body lead to sexual dissatisfaction? Well, if you are generally unhappy with your body, your unhappiness may be amplified when you light the candles and the clothes come off. During sex, you may be uncomfortable with certain sexual activities (or maybe with sex altogether). You may want to keep certain pieces of clothing on, you may not want your partner to touch you in in specific places, or you may be reluctant to try new things in the bedroom. You may even find that your mind is preoccupied with thoughts about your body and what your partner might think of it during sex – so much so, that it is difficult to enjoy the experience. Essentially, you are anxious during sex because you are unhappy with how your body looks. This anxiety then interferes with your ability to enjoy sex with your partner. You may have difficulty becoming aroused, achieving orgasm, or simply attending to the pleasurable sensations that occur during sex.

What about our sexual partners? How might your happiness with your body influence your partner’s sexual satisfaction? Well, let’s return to those behaviours and thoughts that you might have surrounding your body during sex. If you are unwilling to engage in certain behaviours or to allow your partner to see your body (with the lights on!) during sex, those things may detract from how fulfilling they find the sexual experience. Imagine being with a partner who seems distracted or isn’t “present” during sex, or who recoils when you touch them – they may be more focused on hiding their body than they are on sexual pleasure – both theirs and yours. This may mean that your needs aren’t met, and you feel unfulfilled.

At first read, this may paint a rather gloomy picture. However, let’s look at it another way: What might be a relatively simple and effective way to improve your own and your partner’s sex lives? Well, good first steps are to work to improve your body satisfaction, to be less critical of yourself, and to manage anxiety during sex. Improving these areas may lead to more pleasurable, fun, and satisfying sexual experiences where the focus is on sensation and mutual enjoyment, rather than on worry over physical imperfections.