Resolve Disagreements About Sex

It’s normal for long-term romantic couples to disagree from time to time about topics as diverse as child-rearing, household finances, and, of course, sex. But how do intimate partners behave differently when discussing sexual and non-sexual matters?

It’s an important question to answer because research suggests that couples find sexual communication especially difficult. By uncovering the behavioral patterns unique to discussions about sex, a team of psychologists from the University of Waterloo in Ontario and the University of Dayton, Ohio, hoped to identify how relationship counselors might assist couples with problems in the bedroom. They ran a study in which partners identified problems in their relationship and discussed these problems as a couple. The results of the study were recently published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Uzma Rehman, who led the team, invited 115 male/female couples to her laboratory. Upon arrival, the men and women were directed to separate rooms, where they completed a battery of questionnaires about their relationships. One of these questionnaires asked the volunteers about their experiences with 20 sources of non-sexual relationship conflict; another asked about sexual problems.

The partners had to rate the extent to which each topic was a problem in their own relationships. The list of potential relationship problems included “housework,” “how to spend vacation time,” “starting interesting conversations,” and “spending time on outside activities.” The list of sources of sexual conflict included “paying attention to sexual needs,” “amount of foreplay,” “sexual attraction to someone other than the partner,” “premature orgasm,” and “viewing pornography alone,” among others.

A pair of research assistants collected the completed questionnaires and compared each man and woman’s responses. The research assistants selected a topic as the subject for a discussion between the partners if both partners identified that topic as a problem for their relationship, and each desired change in the opposite direction (say, if both partners thought frequency of sex was a problem in their relationship, and one partner wanted more sex while the other wanted less).

The assistants chose one sexual and one non-sexual topic for each couple.

Next, each couple was reunited in a laboratory fitted with video cameras. They were asked to discuss each topic for eight minutes. While the partners discussed the topics, the cameras were rolling, recording their every word and gesture. Sounds relaxing!


Once the discussions were through, and the volunteers thanked and sent on their way, it was the job of the research assistants to view the videos. Rehman was interested in whether the volunteers behaved with warmth or hostility, and with dominance or submission. She wanted to know how the volunteers’ behavior varied on these two dimensions from moment to moment.

The research assistants received eight hours training on how to spot warm, hostile, dominant, and submissive behavior. Then they seated themselves comfortably in front of a monitor, hit play, and grabbed their joysticks.

Yes, that’s right: their joysticks. The assistants’ computers were equipped with arcade-style controllers that the assistants had to pull to the left if the volunteer’s behavior was hostile, and to the right if the volunteer was warm. They pushed forward if the volunteer was dominant, and pulled backward if the volunteer was submissive.

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