Does What You Say After Sex Matter?

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
By Jana Lembke
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We know that the frequency of sexual activity, the quality of communication during sex, and partners’ reasons for having sex can all influence relationship satisfaction. So, while it’s good to embrace the throes of passion and be vocal about it, does what you say after sex matter?
Intimate conversations that occur between romantic partners after sexual activity are commonly referred to as “pillow talk.” Pillow talk often involves disclosing positive sentiments such as validation and affection, but it can also be negative (e.g. arguing or bringing up complaints). Researcher Amanda Denes at the University of California, Santa Barbara aimed to address the broad question, “Is pillow talk merely obligatory chit-chat, or might it say something more about the relationships of those involved?”
The study focused on the “good” type of pillow talk, or positive relational disclosures. Because of the constructive nature of this communication, one prediction was that positive relational disclosures following sex (e.g. “I love you”; “I’m so glad to be with you”) would be associated with greater trust, satisfaction, and closeness between partners. On the other hand, such intimate disclosures might come with the risk of divulging too much or being rejected by the partner, which could result in less relationship happiness.
The study utilized a sample of 200 college students (77% female, 24% male) who were currently in a sexual relationship, whether it be open/casual or monogamous/committed. Within two hours of engaging in sexual activity, participants completed an online questionnaire assessing the nature of their sexual activity, pillow talk (5 items assessing post-sex communication, e.g. “I expressed some positive feelings for my partner”), and feelings about the relationship. Ahead are the findings for the study’s main questions.
Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Are positive disclosures after sex related to relationship outcomes?
YES. The more people engaged in positive relationship disclosures after sexual activity, the higher their ratings of trust, relationship satisfaction, and closeness with their partners.
Does whether or not a woman orgasms affect her post-sex disclosures?
YES. Women who reached orgasm made significantly more positive disclosures than those who did not. In fact, women who did not orgasm actively engaged in more negative pillow talk toward their partner. Interestingly, this same pattern held no matter the method used to achieve orgasm; that is, the effect of orgasm on disclosures was the same whether the woman orgasmed during intercourse or from other stimulation.
Is there a link between pillow talk and relationship status?
YES. Individuals in monogamous/committed relationships (as opposed to those in open or casual relationships) engaged in more positive relational disclosures after sexual activity and reported higher relationship satisfaction following those disclosures. Furthermore, people in monogamous/committed relationships regretted their disclosures less. This may be because committed individuals discuss intimate feelings regularly and thus lovey-dovey pillow talk would be appropriate and unlikely to scare the partner away. Another possibility is that individuals in casual relationships are focused on the physical act as opposed to relational outcomes, and so they do not share intimate feelings as a way to develop the relationship further.
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It’s important to note that the study only examined associations between the variables, so it’s impossible to say whether positive pillow talk actually improves relationship satisfaction or whether partners in high-quality relationships happen to engage in more of it. All in all, it appears that pillow talk is related to the most relationship-enhancing benefits when a) the content is positive, b) the woman orgasms in one way or another, and c) it occurs within a committed relationship.