What a Couple's Pillow Talk Can Reveal
... and surprising new research on whether men or women prefer to cuddle.
Posted Dec 02, 2016
There’s a lot of research on sex—what leads to sex, what people do in bed, how often—but there’s much less research on the what couples do immediately after engaging in sexual activity. What do people really do and say, and what does it reveal about them or their relationship?
Researchers Daniel Kruger and Susan Hughes (2011) have revitalized interest in what happens after sex. They were among the first to look at what happens during the "post-coital time interval” in heterosexual couples. Their work debunked the myth that men fall asleep first—there’s no evidence of a gender difference. Their evidence also suggested that both men and women can be the ones who want more bonding post-sex, which is contrary to what most people assume. And they showed that the partner of whichever person falls asleep first tends to report wanting more post-sex affection.
Other gender differences are also now documented: While men often initiate kissing before sex, women often initiate kissing post-sex (Hughes & Kruger, 2011). The same study revealed that women are more apt than men to engage in bonding behaviors (e.g., cuddling, talking) after sex, and that men are more likely than women to engage in “extrinsically rewarding” behaviors, such as snacking or smoking, or activities that might kick off another round of sexual activity.
Affectionate post-sex behaviors seem to promote relationship well-being. A 2014 study showed that those couples that engaged in a longer duration of post-sex affection, like snuggling or caressing, reported greater sexual satisfaction, which translated to higher ratings of relationship satisfaction (Muise et al., 2014). The duration of post-sex affection seems most important for couples with children, perhaps because their time for intimacy is at a premium, making these behaviors particularly important.
Beyond what people do, what do people say after sex? And more precisely, who are the people who want to talk? In these moments of potentially heightened emotion, intimacy, and vulnerability, you can imagine how some people might crave intimate conversation, while others might prefer to avoid it.
Post-coital “pillow talk” is gaining momentum as an important area of research. A recent study showed that women who orgasm tend to self-disclose more post-sex (Denes & Afifi, 2014). They tend to talk more intimately, revealing deeper, more personal information to their partner. Maybe the oxytocin released during sexual activity is a factor in this type of communication. Oxytocin, a hormone linked to bonding and trust, can be suppressed by the presence of testosterone: Could testosterone levels predict less intimate post-coital pillow talk? This idea builds upon a physiological theory of social bonds which recognizes the critical role of oxytocin, testosterone, and vasopressin in human connection.
Using a sample of about 250 people, mostly single or unmarried heterosexual Caucasian women, Denes and colleagues (2016) collected saliva samples to measure testosterone and then asked participants to complete a diary of their sexual activity and post-coital behaviors. The participants reported on communication post-sex, including how they felt about the benefits and risks of making personal disclosures after sex.
What did their post-sex chatter reveal? The people who want to talk, it seems, are the ones indulging in oxytocin. People with higher testosterone levels, a suppressor of oxytocin, were less likely to perceive the benefits of post-sex communication. They actually saw it as more risky, and they tended to engage in less positive disclosures, and with less intentionality, directly after sex (Denes et al., 2016). Even though testosterone is often associated with risk-taking in other contexts, the kind of vulnerability and intimacy that post-sex communication might facilitate is a different risk, and one that people with higher testosterone do not appear interested in taking.
This tells us that post-sex behaviors are connected to our biochemistry: Hormones might motivate a need for pair-bonding activity for some people, and less so for others. Indeed, some may resist it. Denes’s research recognized an important role of orgasm: People with high testosterone who do not orgasm during sexual activity might be those who are least likely to enjoy post-sex communication.
The field has much more to learn about what happens directly after sex. These moments seem to be revealing of both individual qualities (e.g., hormonal influences), and couple factors (e.g., sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction). More insight into the importance of these moments is necessary, not only for those couples that have opposing ideas of how to spend the time interval right after sex, but to understand how the time after sex can be used to strengthen relationships.
Denes, A., & Afifi, T. D. (2014). Pillow talk and cognitive decision-making processes: Exploring the influence of orgasm and alcohol on communication after sexual activity. Communication Monographs, 81(3), 333-358.
Denes, A., Afifi, T. D., & Granger, D. A. (2016). Physiology and pillow talk: Relations between testosterone and communication post sex. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advanced online publication.
Hughes, S. M., & Kruger, D. J. (2011). Sex differences in post-coital behaviors in long-and short-term mating: An evolutionary perspective. Journal of Sex Research, 48, 496-505.
Kruger, D. J., & Hughes, S. M. (2011). Tendencies to fall asleep first after sex are associated with greater partner desires for bonding and affection. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 5(4), 239-247.
Muise, A., Giang, E., & Impett, E. A. (2014). Post sex affectionate exchanges promote sexual and relationship satisfaction. Archives of sexual behavior, 43(7), 1391-1402.