The Science of Sexting in Committed Relationships
When researchers first began studying "sexting," the trend was to focus on the potential risk and harm involved (such as teenagers being pressured into sending nude photos, or adults compulsively sexting outside of their relationships as a means of cheating).
Over time, however, some sexting researchers have argued that sexting can occur in healthy, and perhaps even relationship enhancing ways, when it occurs between consenting adults. And while sexting is often discussed as something that happens in the context of "hooking up" and the early stages of dating, individuals in longer-term, committed partnerships (including those of us who are married) also report engaging in sexting.
Here are 4 key findings from the sexual science of sexting in committed relationships:
1. We Sext Less in Committed Relationships
In a 2015 study published in CyberPsychology, researchers examined the prevalence and correlates of sexting among married and cohabiting couples. Their sample consisted of 180 wives and 175 husbands.1
The researchers findings suggest that while some married adults in their sample reported engaging in "sexting," it was less common than what is typically reported by those in young adult relationships. While studies tend to show that around 8/10 or even 9/10 individuals in the adult population report sexting, just under 1/3 of married participants in this study indicated they had sexted.
Specifically, 29% of married and cohabitating participants in this study reported sending sexts that consisted mainly of sexy or intimate talk and only 12% reported sending nude or nearly-nude photos to their partner.
2. Sometimes We Lie to Our Partner When We Sext
In a 2014 study, researchers recruited a sample of 155 young adult college students who were currently in, or previously had, a committed relationship and asked them whether they had ever lied while they were sexting.2
The authors findings suggested that more than one third (37%) of the sample who had ever had a committed relationship, and approximately half (48%) of those currently in a committed relationship that involved sexting, indicated they had lied to their partners during sexting about what they were wearing, doing, or both.
The authors found that most people in their sample (67%) indicated that they lied for their partner's sake and about 1/3 of the sample said they lied for their own benefit.
The authors also noted some gender differences in frequency of reported lying, such that women were more likely to lie during sexting than men were. That is, within this sample, 45% of women and 24% of men indicated had lied during sexting with committed partners.
3. Our Attachment Style Impacts How (And If) We Sext Our Partners
In a 2012 study published in Computers in Human Behavior, researchers explored how texting and sexting practices are related to attachment in 744 college students’ committed romantic relationships.3
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Participants in the study were asked to complete a survey which consisted of questions about their texting and sexting practices as well as their attachment styles with their relationship partners.
The researchers results suggested that while text messaging was more common among those with secure attachments, sexting was more common among participants who had insecure attachment styles, and particularly among those with higher attachment avoidance.
Specifically, individuals who had anxious attachment styles were more likely to send text-based sext messages, while those with avoidant attachment styles were more likely to send sext messages and erotic images. The authors also note that men with avoidant attachment styles were particularly likely to send sexts and sexual images to their relationship partners.
4. Sexting Doesn't Appear to Impact Relationship Satisfaction
The research suggests that some people in committed relationships are sexting, but does this make a difference in terms of relationships quality? That is, are people in committed relationships who engage in sexting more satisfied than those who do not sext? So far, the answer appears to be no.
In one study published in the Family Journal, researchers looked at how sexting behaviors might contribute to relationship status and marital satisfaction. The researchers recruited 327 participants and gave them various scales that tapped into their sexting behaviors as well as measures of their marital satisfaction.4
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Although married individuals in their study reported partaking in sexting, the authors results suggest that married individuals tend to have a more negative view of sexting compared to individuals who are dating or single. As far as the impact of sexting on marital satisfaction, the authors reported that their findings did not suggest that sexting had any significant impact on relationship satisfaction (positively or negatively).
While research may not suggest that sexting impacts our overall relationship satisfaction, sexting can offer a potentially fun and different way of connecting and flirting with our romantic partners, even after those early days of dating are behind us.