There are hundreds of stories on the internet about why make-up sex is so great, how to have great make-up sex, and even why make-up sex is the best part of being in a relationship. Certain fictional couples in romantic movies (like Jack and Allie in The Notebook) and TV shows (like Marnie and Desi in Girls) have also contributed to this idea that sex is a steamy and effective way to settle the day-to-day disagreements that occur in relationships. Sure, fiery or emotional sex between two consenting individuals can be hot. But these glamorised depictions of make-up sex often leave out that using sex as a tool to manipulate a partner can be a dangerous, slippery slope.
Often, when a couple has angry or make-up sex, there's a dynamic of power and control. Someone might use sex as a way to reconnect with their partner after they've done something controlling or abusive, explains Rachel Goldsmith, LCSW-R, associate vice president for the Domestic Violence Shelter Programs at Safe Horizon. "It can be a way to kind of minimise the behaviour that existed prior to that make-up sex, or minimise what had happened," she says. For example, in the TV show Big Little Lies, Celeste (played by Nicole Kidman) and Perry (played by Alexander Skarsgård) often had sex after he had physically hit her or lashed out at her as a way to bring her back into his good graces.
When we talk about how wonderful make-up sex is, then were not really paying attention to the patterns of behavior in the relationship, which may leave someone feeling unheard or unsafe.
Rachel Goldsmith, LCSW-R
Of course, every relationship is dependent on the people in it, so not everyone who has make-up sex is necessarily in an abusive or unhealthy relationship, Goldsmith says. Ideally, sex should be a choice, and you should be comfortable with the dynamics of when you're having sex and why you're having it, she says. "[During make-up sex], we can miss whether or not the conflict has been resolved, and both people are really feeling ready and safe to be intimate," she says. And in some cases, if there's an escalated incident of verbal attacks, that can lead to physical attacks, she says.
Not sure if your own make-up sex habits are problematic? Think about your relationship dynamic, and what leads you to have make-up sex, Goldsmith suggests. "If there's a lot of conflict, and there's a lot of control or abusive behaviour that occurs prior to make-up sex, then make-up sex isn’t necessarily such a positive thing," she says. If you brush off every conflict that ends in sex as just "make-up sex" or "angry sex," then you might be missing crucial elements of your relationship that need to be addressed.
If you feel like you and your partner tend to have explosive arguments that end in sex, and you feel safe and comfortable talking to them about it, consider bringing it up, Goldsmith says. For example, you could say, "Instead of reaching this place where we have to have make-up sex to have a connection, can we look at more ways to connect with each other in general?" According to Goldsmith, "There are ways to have the same kind of connection and intimacy without having a big conflict beforehand." For some couples, this may be a matter of having a frank conversation about what it is you like and dislike during sex. Others may benefit from seeing a couples therapist to discuss the kinds of emotions that tend to arise during sex.
That said, if you do feel unsafe about your relationship situation or sex dynamics, it's a good idea to go directly to a councillor or mental health professional on your own, rather than subjecting yourself to a conversation that could put you in harm's way, Goldsmith says.
All of this might seem like we're making much ado about nothing — but it's not "nothing" when your health and safety could be at risk. Ultimately, the pop culture portrayals of make-up sex aren't always meant to be harmful, but they certainly don't help. "When we glamorise it, and when we talk about how wonderful make-up sex is, then were not really paying attention to the patterns of behaviour in the relationship, which may leave someone feeling unheard or unsafe," Goldsmith says.