The New Resilience

Better health in an interconnected world.

Does Fighting Really Energize Your Sex Life?

New research puts an old question to the test.

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“Of course, we fight!” John said, “All couples do; that’s normal!” He looked at me incredulously, as Mary quickly added with a tight smile, “But then we have ‘make-up sex.' And that makes things better.”

Nevertheless, they sought therapy over their concern about the long-term impact of this “normal” pattern.

Perhaps you share John and Mary’s experience or views. Many do. The sex lives and relationships of couples often descend over time into diminishing excitement and passion, and increasing boredom and routine. Call it “marital sex,” in contrast to what couples often experience at the start of a relationship. In “marital sex,” you’re bringing into the bedroom all the other parts of your relationship, like disagreements over finances, or even over trivial things like where to place the furniture or where to vacation—not to mention parenting challenges, which become a large part of any couples’ relationship. And aside from all of your collective relationship and family issues, each of you has your own individual concerns—your career, your aging parents, or other familial stressors.

Couples often assume that fighting and conflict are inevitable—“normal,” even—and that they're to be tolerated and, at best, managed. They may not recognize that their diminished sexual and romantic life is as interwoven with how and why they conflict as it is with their relationship overall. Then they may focus on ways to re-energize their sex life, as though it’s disconnected from the rest of their relationship, and as though that will compensate for their relationship conflicts.

There’s a huge marketplace for that: Volumes of books and articles, and websites offering “new” techniques purporting to bring back passion (and better orgasms). Of course, if they worked, there wouldn’t need to be an endless stream of them. This disconnect between what people want and what they do is visible, for example, in a recent survey of women who go to Ashley Madison in search of an affair, which found that while most were looking for more sexual excitement, they also wanted to keep their relationship with their partners.

Why fighting is destructive

Most couples who seek help for their conflicts want to stay together but often assume that they need to accept a slow downhill slide toward conflict and fighting—and that if they can just learn how to manage it better, things will be fine; as “good as it gets,” perhaps.

But they’re wrong.

Emotional and physical damage accrues from how couples relate to each other while dealing with conflict and disagreement. And that has direct bearing on their emotional and sexual intimacy. Fighting is as an adversarial form of communication tinged with anger and disrespect, and therefore destructive. Some recent research shows the damage it causes—which no “make-up” sex can reverse:

  • Fighting Through Avoidance and Withdrawal: Known as the "demand-withdraw" pattern, this is a kind of silent fighting: One partner blames or pressures the other for change, or barrages the other with criticism or complaints. Then the other responds with avoidance or silence. As couples age it can get worse. They may increasingly handle conflicts by avoidance and withdrawal. Recent research found that, with age, both husbands and wives “…increased their tendency to demonstrate avoidance during conflict...and when faced with an area of disagreement, both spouses were more likely to do things such as change the subject or divert attention from the conflict,” according to San Francisco State University researcher Sarah Holley. Similarly, research at Texas Christian University, published in Communication Monographs, found that "It's the most common pattern of conflict in marriage or any committed, established romantic relationship," said lead author Paul Schrodt, “and it does tremendous damage." Needless to say, the feelings that result for both partners will accompany them right into the bedroom—if they make it that far.

  • Fighting Increases Your Risk of Death: It’s true. A new study tracked the health of participants for a 10-year period and found that frequent fighting in relationships was associated with significantly increased risk of middle-aged death from all causes. The study, reported in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, found that chronic fighting and arguing was associated with a doubling to tripling in the risk of death from all causes during the midlife years. And that’s not going to spice up your sex life.

  • Fighting And Depression: This study found that ongoing conflict within your marriage can make you more vulnerable to depression. Couples who live with chronic relationship stress and conflict not only have a higher incidence of depression, they also report fewer positive experiences as a couple. No doubt their sexual relationship is not exempt.

If Fighting Won’t Help Your Sex Life, What Will?

First, partners that sustain emotional-sexual vitality view their relationship as a whole—not as disconnected parts to be managed or improved by techniques or tools. They experience, communicate, and demonstrate equality, transparency, and positive emotional attitudes towards each other. That’s the “umbrella” under which they deal with conflicts and disagreements in ways that support rather than diminish intimate connection. 

Of course, doing that in a stressful world is challenging. Many people in long-term marriages describe a sense of being trapped between “longing” for a more meaningful, engaged relationship; and “settling” for what they have, fighting and all. Their default mode is to lope along and try coping with it all. Nevertheless, noted couples researcher John Gottman has shown that couples who feel and show kindness and generosity towards each other—especially when dealing with disagreements, misunderstandings and conflicts—have more loving relationships over the long-term, and greater longevity. But those who express contempt, criticism, hostility—or simply disinterest in each other—are much more likely to divorce or just lope along in an emotionally-damaged relationship limbo.

The research and clinical observations show a clear link between positive emotional connection and a positive sex life. One recent study of sex among couples found that a stronger, loving connection is associated with the experiencing better sex. Another study, of the sexual lives of couples who share housework, found that they don’t have less frequent sex, as a previous, flawed study claimed. Moreover, they report a more enjoyable sex life than those with more traditional gender roles at home.

There’s more: Research also finds that the brain activity of some very long-term couples who maintain strong, sexual and emotional intimacy looks the same as new couples in the midst of the excitement of new romance.

I find that couples who create sustainable emotional and sexual relationships practice what I call “radical transparency.” And they learn to disengage from, or “leave” their partners, in ways that actually enhance intimacy. Transparency and equality between partners is visible in the respect, interest, and warmth between them. Those are the qualities that fuel sustained intimacy and connection in the whole relationship over the long run.

 

dlabier@CenterProgressive.org

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2014 Douglas LaBier

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC.

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