Making up is hard to do, new study finds

The fun of making up is the theme of countless songs and movies but a new study has found that ‘make-up sex’ is less common and a good deal less exciting than popular culture would have us believe.

Dr Jessica Maxwell

In one of the first studies of its kind, University of Auckland and Florida State University researchers surveyed 107 heterosexual newly-wed couples in America and followed up six months later to detect any changes over time.

Each partner initially filled in a questionnaire – independently of their spouse - to rate their sexual satisfaction in general and then each spouse completed a survey on each of the following 14 days. They were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with sexual relations, overall marital satisfaction and whether there had been conflict with their partner on that day.

Conflict was defined in the study as something one person did that the other person didn’t like and, rather than defining sex, the researchers left it to participants to decide what sex meant to them.

In total the researchers analysed 2539 daily surveys with couples reporting they had sex on 864 days, conflict on 494 days and sex co-occurring with conflict on 140 days.

Although individuals reported multiple days when sex and conflict coincided, sex was equally likely to occur on conflict and non-conflict days. But, results showed that couples were 1.68 times more likely to have sex if there had been no conflict the previous day – in other words when conflict was felt by one partner, sex was less likely to occur in the two days following.

And, contrary to all those notions of conflict making sex all the sweeter, on the days when a spouse reported having both conflict and sex they reported the sex as less satisfying.

“Our study doesn’t support the idea that ‘make-up sex’ is especially passionate or sexually satisfying and in fact spouses were no more/less likely to have sex on days of conflict,” says Dr Jessica Maxell from the University’s School of Psychology.

“But conflict on a particular day did appear to make it less likely couples would have sex on the day following. And an interesting point is that for all of our findings, we saw little differences between how men and women responded to the survey questions.”

However the research did find that sex partially reduced the negative effect of conflict on marital satisfaction but the effect was short-term – it didn’t necessarily last through to the following day and did not appear to effect couples’ overall marital satisfaction when researchers questioned participants six months later.

Dr Maxwell says the study had some limitations including the definition of conflict used – one partner reporting they disliked something their partner did – as compared to instances where there might be more severe and verbal disagreement for example.

And including same-sex couples and different age groups in the research would produce a more varied picture of the role make-up sex plays in relationships, if any, she says.

“When couples are wondering whether they should engage in sex after conflict, I think they should be mindful that such sex may have short-term benefits by buffering reduced marital satisfaction on days of conflict, but might not be as satisfying as cultural myths would have us believe, or have long-term benefits.”

The research is published in Archives of Sexual Behaviour.

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