In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Why Make-Up Sex and Breakup Sex Are So Good

"The make-up sex was 10 times more intense than I’d ever experienced."

"The only thing that I know about make-up sex is that it works pretty well." A married woman

"I am an expert in make-up sex and have done it so many times." A married woman

"I feel more love during make-up sex because I know that no matter what happened, our love has survived it." A married woman

"I've never had make-up sex in my whole life, despite a lot of fighting." A divorcee

"Breakup sex is AMAZING! It's really hard to explain till you experience it! WAY better than make-up sex!” An anonymous man

Make-up sex is wild and extremely gratifying sex that people report having experienced after having had an intense fight. Why, in the wake of having had a bitter fight, is everything forgotten while the couple engage in what many say is amazingly wild and enjoyable sex? And why is breakup sex similarly so exciting?

Arousal transfer

The basic explanation for the excitement in make-up sex is the transfer of the arousal state from one situation to another. When we are excited by one stimulus, we are likely to be easily excited by another one. Make-up sex is considered by many to be the best sex there is, which in many cases is worth the fight.

The arousal (excitation) transfer is expressed in the classic bridge experiment conducted in 1974 by Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron. In this experiment, male passersby were contacted either on a fear-arousing suspension bridge or a non-fear-arousing bridge by an attractive woman who asked them to fill out questionnaires. Sexual arousal toward the woman was greater in subjects on the fear-arousing bridge. Their fear arousal was transferred to sexual arousal generated by the presence of an attractive woman. Another example of such transfer can occur when we watch certain movies: Our the anger toward the villain can easily turn into the arousal underlying happiness upon seeing the villain punished.

The great excitement generated by make-up sex can be explained along similar lines. The high arousal state associated with the fight is transferred to a high arousal state during the make-up sex. The fantastic sex that ensues is to some extent due to the change in mood and the (at least temporary) relief at reconciliation with the partner, but it is also the result of arousal transfer from the fight to the sex. Make-up sex takes place after an unpleasant, heated fight with the partner that has created a gulf between the two and threatened the very existence of the relationship; make-up sex then re-establishes their bond in a very tangible manner. As one woman said, "Our relationship is that much more secure after make-up sex, in addition to the added relief of being reconnected to my closest companion. It’s a reminder that even though we can hurt each other, we’re still there for each other."

A similar manner of increasing sexual arousal by transferring arousal from a different state is when one partner acts wildly and even sadistically toward the other. Here the arousal underlying anger and even revenge is transferred into sexual arousal. A more subtle manner of increasing sexual arousal is teasing, which involves a gentle and humorous argument (simulating a "fight") that increases sexual arousal.

The arousal transfer can arise not merely from negative emotions, such as the anger that prevails during fights, but also from positive emotions, such as enjoying a good dinner together or engaging in other pleasurable experiences. It can also be activated by sexual arousal that is triggered by another person, such as a good-looking neighbor or the hero in the movie, and that is then transferred to your own partner. As Rodney Dangerfield said, "Last time I tried to make love to my wife nothing was happening, so I said to her, 'What’s the matter, you can’t think of anybody either?'”

Emotions are very dynamic and contagious phenomena: they can easily spread from one person to another (see here). Thus, when we see a sad person crying, many of us become sad as well. When someone loves us, we are more likely to love that person in return. And when we are aware of a sexually aroused person near us, we become horny as well.

The dynamic and instable nature of emotions is reflected not merely in the easy transfer of emotions from one person to another person, but also in the transfer of an emotion within the same person. The love-hate situation is such a case. Intense love can become a fertile ground for the emergence of intense hate. The arousal transfer mechanism is involved in this case as well. The transfer is possible when a change occurs in the focus of attention under different circumstances. Thus, when the lover focuses his attention on his partner's wisdom, he loves her dearly. When he thinks about the humiliation she brings upon him, he hates her guts.

Breakup sex

Breakup sex ("one for the road") is the bittersweet, passionate sex you have with your partner shortly after, whilst, or shortly before breaking up with them (Urban dictionary). Some people consider breakup sex is to be even better than makeup sex. The exciting nature of "goodbye bed" sex is due to its unique circumstances: this is the last chance to enjoy sex with each other. As Ted Spiker said, "It's like the day before a diet. Tomorrow I'll start, but today I'm going to enjoy one last order of chicken wings." The sex is especially great when the relationship was basically good but nonromantic reasons, such as different life plans, force the two to separate. Breakup sex involves the caring that remains despite the separation. As Aradia describes her breakup sex, "We'd have one last hurrah and it was a damn great one! What a way to end the relationship! It actually really helped and it'll be a nice memory down the line."

Due to its terminal nature, people feel no inhibitions or constraints in breakup sex and behave in however they wish, without worrying about the after-effect or the future. In this moving but sad experience, people usually do not speak of the bad times and what ruined the relationship; they are immersed in the exciting presence, knowing that no future remains. They often take the attitude of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.“ Nothing is meaningful except for the present sexual togetherness. In breakup sex, the excitement stems from experiencing a togetherness that is unconstrained by past and future circumstances. In makeup sex, the excitement stems from overcoming past difficulties and looking positively toward the future. The total lack of constraint is what makes breakup sex usually the more exciting of the two.

The risks of make-up and breakup sex

Make-up sex has its own risks, one of which is reinforcing fights, or at least not taking fights as seriously as they should be taken (see Seth Meyers's post). This is particularly true when the fights are violent, as in the case of battered women. Often, immediately after domestic violence, men force their wives to have make-up sex with them; it goes without saying how awful this makes the women feel. However, in other cases, when a certain time has passed since the violence occurred, make-up sex can make it easier for these women to return to their violent husbands as if nothing has happened.

Consider the true story Tina Nash, a severely battered woman who stayed with her boyfriend despite his violent behavior. After a particular violent episode, she returned the next day to pick up her car from outside his apartment, and although he smashed her car up, she took him back. She writes: “We made passionate love that night. The make-up sex with him was 10 times more intense than I’d ever experienced before. He was slow and loving and looked at me like he wanted to own my soul.” A few months later, she lost her sight as a result of his violence.

Make-up sex in bad relations does not involve a true resolution to the conflict but rather a temporary cover-up, which distracts the couple's attention from their profound difficulties. When fights are constant and extreme, make-up sex act like like a drug that gives temporary, illusory relief but is not a deep or genuine solution.

Breakup sex can be of value in two main situations: (a) you still like each other and want to remain friends, and (b) the decision to separate was mutual. In some cases, the breakup sex can be quite sad and painful. As Scott writes, "My girlfriend took me out on a romantic weekend with the idea of having sex as many times as possible and then dumping me before checking out. It made me very angry and bitter." For other people, especially those whose love for their partner has died, the "goodbye bed" made them feel sad at being used and for giving in and having a kind of pity sex. As one woman wrote: "It made me feel dirty…and I will never do the 'goodbye bed' again." Breakup pregnancy or breakup STD (sexually transmitted disease) can be even worse. Another problem (or advanage) of breakup sex is that if it is so good, it generate second thoughts concerning the breakup which both of them thought it is the right thing to do.

Make-up sex in good and bad relationship

Make-up sex is a superficial remedy for fights. The remedy is beneficial when the relationship is basically positive, and the fights are typically local and limited—they do not express a fundamentally hostile split. However, when more profound problems underlie the relationship, make-up sex is of little value and may even invoke negative emotions by not treating the problem seriously. In this sense, the complete lack of make-up sex, despite the presence of constant fights (as described in one of the above quotations), expresses the significant problematic nature of the relationship, which make-up sex cannot help.

When the fights underlying make-up sex are local and limited, they may be like small amounts of poison that immunize the system or like a low-level noise that improves the system's performance (see here). When the poison and noise are significant, they can ruin the system. When fights preceding make-up sex are limited and local, they can be regarded as an obstacle that the couple can overcome, and sex is one of the ways in which to do so. In this latter case, when the relationship is basically positive, make-up sex is typically great and the relationship is likely to improve. When the fights are significant and express the problematic nature of the relationship, make-up sex can damage the relationship and the partners even further.

It is not necessary to provoke serious fights in order to have great sex, as there is a price to be paid for fighting. Moreover, if a fight is deliberately provoked, the subsequent sex may lose its attraction as a reaffirmation of love. Furthermore, as disagreements, misunderstandings and fights are common in healthy relationships, there is no need to artificially provoke them—there is just the need to overcome them in a positive manner.

To sum up, make-up sex and breakup sex can be valuable and wonderful in certain circumstances. In the case of make-up sex, the fights should be local and limited; and in the case of breakup sex, the two should still like each other and the breakup should be mutual. In other cases, both make-up sex and breakup sex can be harmful as they do not solve problems but merely deepen them. In any case, great sex is not limited to after-fights or goodbye bed experiences; it can also be part of profound love.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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