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Which Couples Are Better at Sexual Communication?

Talking sincerely and transparently about sexual issues can be hard. Many people feel embarrassed or humiliated to request what they need explicitly, regardless of whether they're in a caring relationship.

There are many explanations behind this. Many cases include one or more of the following reasons for low levels of sexual communication skills:

  1. Many people grew up with the message that sex is "dirty" or that it is rude to discuss sex.

  2. Others might be stressed over offending their partner.

  3. Many are also worried about how their partner will respond to their requests.

  4. Yet others might have been with their partner for a considerable length of time, but they still don't have the foggiest idea how to bring it up.

It is very common to think that marriage and long-term commitment are the ultimate solutions to these problems. After all, marriage is assumed to provide a safe space to talk about any issue. Moreover, many people think that skills are acquired with time, hence commitment is important and marriage secures a long enough period of time to work on these issues.

New Findings Show It Is Not About Commitment

However, new findings from the German Pairfam study show that it is not so simple. Time and commitment are perhaps important in many other fields, but they are not so important when it comes to couples talking about sex. The study addressed a simple question: Does marriage have any correlation with improved sexual communication?

The answer is actually a resounding no. Findings reported in the Journal of Sex Research show that married people reported lower rates of sexual communication skills than most groups.

Seven relationship-status groups can be found in this dataset of 3,207 respondents: married individuals comprise the largest group of the sample (57.4%); never-married single (14%); never-married individuals who have a partner but they live apart (4.3%), never-married individuals who cohabit with their partner (13.1%); divorced/separated single (5.3%), divorced/separated individuals who have a partner but they live apart (2.7%), and divorced/separated who currently cohabit with their partner (3.3%)

Sexual communication was a constructed variable composed of the answers to the following questions: “If I want something different during sex, I say or show it” and “Generally speaking, I can express my sexual needs and desires well,” based on the scale of Plies, Nickel, and Schmidt. These two items were combined by the survey’s team to create a scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (absolutely) with half-point levels.

The results are quite telling. In terms of sexual communication, only never-married cohabiting people were comparable to married people for both genders on the bottom level. Singles and couples who live apart showed much higher levels of sexual communication skills.

To understand these results, one needs to understand what sexual communication is and why it is so important.

Sexual communication is usually defined as the degree to which individuals can express their preferences regarding sex (e.g., kissing, oral sex, intercourse). Individuals with higher sexual communication skills are more likely to express their sexual desires and to initiate their preferred behaviors. A high level of sexual communication often means that individuals not only disclose their sexual preferences but also are assertive enough to ask their partners to fulfill their desires.

Why Is Sexual Communication So Important?

Studies show that sexual communication is positively correlated with sexual satisfaction. In fact, some researchers show that sexual communication—particularly the ability to ask for specific acts—is a mediator between sexual self-esteem and sexual satisfaction. Other studies show that higher levels of sexual communication positively correlate with more orgasms experienced and a higher frequency of intercourse. Studies show that this is true for men and women alike.

Why Are Married Couples Not Great at Sexual Communication?

It is very common to think that good communication skills take time and effort. We learn each other's needs over time and become skilled in expressing our needs after investing more and more effort into it. So, marriage should be perfect for developing sexual communication skills, right?

Apparently not, it doesn't work like that. One can only speculate why, and future studies should continue investigating this. The first possibility is that the average length of marriages is longer, thus we see a diminishing marginal effect, as several longitudinal studies show in researching other effects of marriage over time. This means that with time, the will and passion to invest in asking what you want decline. Hence married people report lower levels of sexual communication skills over time.

The second possibility is that the correlation between being married and reporting higher levels of sexual communication skills works in reverse: people with lower levels of sexual communication skills are more likely to marry. They might want to feel safer and cover for their lower levels in this realm and, thus are negatively self-selected into marriage. In other words, those with lower levels of sexual communication get married earlier and stay married for more time and thus affect the results.

In any case, it seems that being alert and fresh is more important in developing good sexual communication skills and feeling good about what one wants. Unmarried couples and singles do this naturally, and apparently they have something to teach their married peers.

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