Long-term close relationships typically benefit from honesty, and as recent research shows, particularly in the bedroom. Confiding your sexual preferences to your partner may not always be easy, but by doing so, you ensure both your own- and your partner’s- satisfaction. In a study on 93 long-term married and cohabiting heterosexual partners, University of Waterloo psychologist Uzma Rehman and her colleagues reported in the Journal of Sexual Medicine that couples who were happier in bed took a tell-all approach to sharing their likes and dislikes. The findings showed, however, that there were important gender differences in who benefited the most from complete sexual honesty.
Rehman and her team recruited hetereosexual couples from the southern Ontario region who were either married or who had lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years. The final set of couples who made up their sample had been together for nearly 11 years. None of the women had given birth in the previous 6 months, and their average age was 36 to 37 years old. The participants completed a set of questionnaires as well as a joint couple task as part of the first round of data collection from what the authors plan to be a longitudinal study.
Each participant answered a set of questionnaires concerning his or her sexual satisfaction, areas of possible sexual dysfunction and satisfaction with communication about sexuality in the relationship. The sexual communication scale focused on sexual self-disclosure, meaning the extent to which the participants let their partners know about their sexual likes and dislikes in their relationship.
The questions about their own sexual communication came from the Sexual Communication Satisfaction Scale*, in which you rate yourself from 1 (“strongly disagree”) to 7 (“strongly agree”). See how you score on this test:
So, how did you rate? From a low of 12 to a high of 84, the scale gives you an idea of how well you and your partner are communicating. The partners in the Rehman et al. study averaged about 5 per item, with women scoring slightly higher than men (5.3 vs. 4.7). Scores above 6 and scores below 3-4 per item suggest that you are particularly strong or weak in this area of your relationship.
Now let’s see what the scores really mean, by showing how they related to each partner’s sexual satisfaction and functioning. Overall, partners who reported higher levels of sexual self-disclosure were also more satisfied with their sexual relationships. Matching this finding, people whose partners reported higher levels of sexual self-disclosure also had greater sexual satisfaction. Men reported lowerlevels of sexual satisfaction overall—but, their satisfaction rode on how much their partners self-disclosed. The effect of the partner’s sexual self-disclosure was much stronger for the men in this study.
When it came to sexual dysfunction, or the extent to which the partners reported that they experienced difficulties with orgasm, arousal, pain, or desire, the results further reinforced the point that telling all is good, but more for women than for men. Women who told their partners about their secret desires were far more sexually satisfied than women who did not. For men, once again, however, telling their wives the truth about their needs in the bedroom played a less significant role in affecting their sexual functioning.
Given that this was a correlational study, you’ve probably already had the thought that more sexually satisfied people just tend to talk more openly about sex. There’s no denying that a study such as this can’t rule out such chicken-and-egg explanations. You might wonder, too, whether the cohabitors were different than the married couples, but the authors did control for degree of commitment. Another possible problem with the study was the fact that the men and women came in pairs, so that their responses could have influenced each other. On this latter point, though, the authors protected themselves from this problem by using sophisticated statistical analyses that took this factor into account.
Whether good sex leads to better communication or better communication leads to good sex, the findings still remain important. What’s more, the sex differences have important implications for happiness in heterosexual relationships. Men are more satisfied with the sex in the couple if thei women they’re with clearly and honestly communicate what they want. Moreover, women themselves benefit by having lower levels of sexual dysfunction when they engage in this open and honest sharing of their likes and dislikes.
Given the possible limitations of this study, there are a couple of take-home messages from this fascinating, preliminary, study. Even the best husband or lover isn’t a mind reader. Look at your scores on the 12-item Sexual Communication Scale, and you can see exactly where you can become more honest and open. It may take effort and be slightly awkward or embarrassing, but women in close relationships who can confide their true feelings about what they want and need seem to do better, and so do their partners.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Rehman, U. S., Rellini, A. H., & Fallis, E. (2011). The importance of sexual self‐disclosure to sexual satisfaction and functioning in committed relationships. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8(11), 3108-3115. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2011.02439.x
Wheeless, L.R., Wheeless, V.E., & Baus, R. (1984). Sexual communication, communication satisfaction, and solidarity in the developmental stages of intimate relationships. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 48, 217-230.
*This is a 12-item version of the scale.