Is Talk Cheap? Not When It Comes to Improving Your Sex Life
Wanting to communicate better is one of the most common issues couples navigate in their relationships. Even when couples don't list communication as a concern, experts and therapists often lean on the advice that all relationships could benefit from us opening up, talking more, and asking instead of assuming.
And for good reason. Not only does communication bring people in relationships closer together by helping us understand each others' inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but communication in general, and sexual communication, in particular, can increase our positive feelings about our relationship, our sex life, and even increase our sexual pleasure.
So just how important is sexual communication when it comes to sexual and relationship satisfaction exactly? The sexual science is loud and clear on this one: Very.
Communication Is Associated with Sexual Satisfaction
First things first: In the field of sex research, sexual communication is frequently found to be associated in some way with sexual and relationship satisfaction.
As just one example, in a very large study recently published in the Journal of Sex Research, Dr. Fredrick and colleagues explored how couples maintain passion and sexual satisfaction as relationships become longer-term. They recruited 38,747 men and women in relationships of at least three years duration. The researchers' findings suggest that sexual satisfaction and sexual passion were higher among people who reported having more frequent sex, receiving more oral sex, having more consistent orgasms, incorporating more variety of sexual acts into their sexual routines, focusing on setting the mood, and those who reported engaging in open sexual communication.1
Sexual Communication Facilitates More Sexual Satisfaction
But sexual communication is not simply part of a laundry list of factors that is related to sexual satisfaction. Researchers have also honed in on sexual communication directly to determine the degree to which it predicts sexual satisfaction.
In one study of 133 college-aged heterosexual couples (total sample of 266 men and women), Dr. Kristen Mark and Dr. Kristen Jozkowski explored how satisfied couples were in their relationships based on their reported levels of sexual and non sexual communication.2 The authors' results suggest that couples' level of relationship satisfaction was positively related to their level of sexual and nonsexual communication, which, in turn, was positively associated with their degree of sexual satisfaction. In other words, couples who reported being more satisfied in their romantic relationships reported communicating more often and more effectively (whether it be about their day or about sex) and, as a result, this lead to higher reported levels of sexual satisfaction.
Verbal Versus Non-Verbal Communications
Of course, the way in which we communicate varies and communication is not always explicit. We know the feeling when our partner rolls their eyes versus when their eyes light up at one of our stories. So what does the sex research say about communication style with regards to how it impacts our sexual satisfaction?
In a study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, researchers explored verbal and non-verbal communication among 398 men and women (aged 18-55). The authors were interested in how one's own and one's partner's use of verbal and nonverbal communication during sex was associated with sexual satisfaction, and how satisfaction with sexual communication (whether it be verbal or non-verbal) might be associated with sexual satisfaction.3
The results suggest that neither mode of communication was more predictive of sexual satisfaction. Rather, the authors reported that a couples' level of satisfaction with their communication style during sex (whether that be verbal or non-verbal) was more important to their sexual satisfaction than either communication style.
Talking About the Hard Stuff
Talking about sex can be challenging or awkward for many of us, but when sexual problems occur (like pain, erectile difficulties, premature ejaculation or low desire), talking about sex may be even more critical for our overall well-being and our sexual satisfaction.
As just one example, researchers explored sexual communication in a sample of 107 couples in which the woman was diagnosed with experiencing regular pain during intercourse (specifically Provoked vestibulodynia, or PVD).4 The authors gave women and their partners several questionnaires about pain, communication, satisfaction, sexual functioning, and depressive symptoms. The results suggest that when women and their partner perceived that they engaged in better sexual communication they also experienced greater sexual satisfaction, greater sexual functioning, and lower depressive symptoms. Further, when a woman's partner perceived higher levels of sexual communication in the relationship, this was found to be related to women's lower pain and greater sexual satisfaction.
Overall, the results suggest there is a value in talking about, versus avoiding, sexual problems and that communication may be a key intervention particularly when sexual problems are present.
Anxiety and Sexual Communication
While sexual communication may be tough for many of us, those prone to anxiety may have a more difficult time communicating about their sexual wants and needs.
In a study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers wanted to better understand a finding that has repeatedly shown up in past research: that is, socially anxious individuals tend to experience lower sexual satisfaction in their intimate relationships than non-anxious individuals. The authors posit that while people who experience more anxiety may worry about being evaluated or scrutinized by others, talking about sex may be a particularly difficult and vulnerable topic to broach with a partner and may explain why these individuals report being less sexually satisfied.
To test their hypothesis the authors recruited 115 undergraduate students and their partners (all participants were heterosexual and in monogamous relationships of at least three months duration). The findings suggest that higher social anxiety predicted higher fear of intimacy, which predicted lower satisfaction with open sexual communication, which, in turn, predicted lower sexual satisfaction. In other words, in support of the authors' hypothesis, participants with higher social anxiety were less likely to communicate about sex with their partners and, thus, experienced lower sexual satisfaction.5
The advice that we should talk more openly and honestly with our partner about all topics from our thoughts and feelings to sexual wants and needs is not new. But that doesn't mean it's easy or that we take the advice and practice open sexual communication in our own relationships. Individuals with anxiety may be even more prone to experiencing these difficulties. However, the research not only regularly and reliably suggests that higher levels of communication improve relationship and sexual satisfaction, but that all forms of communication (whether it be verbal or non-verbal) can improve sexual satisfaction, particularly in the midst of sexual problems and concerns.