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The Truth About Make-Up Sex

Research into the connection between conflict and desire.

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Have you ever wondered why, after a heated argument with your romantic partner, he or she suddenly looks so...yummy? Romantic conflict frequently increases feelings of sexual desire, and researchers now believe they have a good theoretical explanation as to why.

When couples argue, as we know, emotions can run high. If we fear losing the relationship, the entire experience can be psychologically threatening. Feelings of threat activate your biologically-based attachment system, which serves to keep all your important relationships intact.1 And an activated attachment system motivates you to increase your sense of closeness and security with important others, such as your romantic partner.

Romantic relationships are unique, though, because they usually include a sexual component. Although separate systems manage our sexual drive and attachment, they occasionally work together in surprising ways.2 For example, sex can be an effective way to repair a romantic relationship after it’s been jeopardized.

When arguing makes you feel distant from your partner, sex can restore feelings of intimacy and closeness. Apparently, many people have adopted this useful advantage of sex: In studies, after being primed with feelings of emotional threat—such as being asked to imagine their partner falling in love with someone else—people tended to become more interested in sex with their partner.3

As with most findings, important exceptions accompany this research. For example, individual differences occur, and not everyone reacts to threat in the same way (i.e. not everyone feels lusty after a fight). In the context of actual conflict between romantic partners, research suggests that the effect is strongest—that people feel most affectionate and attracted to their partners—when the argument is successfully resolved.2 Further, while conflict often helps couples work through relationship issues,4 consistent feelings of threat and insecurity can damage a relationship over time.1

While sex can be a great way to restore feelings of closeness after a disagreement, then, it might not be advisable to start arguments with your partner just for the make-up sex.

This article was originally written for Science of Relationships.

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1. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York: Guildford Press.

2. Birnbaum, G. E. (2010). Bound to interact: The divergent goals and complex interplay of attachment and sex within romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27, 245-252.

3. Birnbaum, G. E., Scltelman, N., Bar-Shalom, A., & Porat, O. (2008). The thin line between reality and imagination: Attachment orientation and the effects of relationship threats on sexual fantasies. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1185-1199.

4. Driver, J. L., & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family Processes, 43, 301-314.

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