Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 46, Issue 8, pp 2339–2352 | Cite as

How Is Sexual Communication Different from Nonsexual Communication? A Moment-by-Moment Analysis of Discussions Between Romantic Partners

  • Uzma S. RehmanEmail author
  • Ivana Lizdek
  • Erin E. Fallis
  • Siobhan Sutherland
  • Jackson A. Goodnight
Original Paper


Our goal was to investigate whether systematic differences exist in how couples discuss sexual versus nonsexual conflicts in their relationships and to explore the nature of these differences. We compared sexual and nonsexual conflict discussions on two key dimensions of interpersonal behavior: warmth and dominance. Past theoretical work suggests that there are unique barriers to sexual communication that lead partners to perceive such communication as being more threatening to the relationship and to the self (Metts & Cupach, 1989). Empirical findings have supported this perspective by demonstrating that sexual communication tends to be avoided by couples (e.g., Byers, 2011). Extending this notion further, we reasoned that relationship partners should behave in ways to mitigate the increased perceived threat associated with sexual communication, leading to observable differences in how couples navigate sexual versus nonsexual relationship conflicts. We recruited a sample of 115 couples in established relationships and asked each couple to engage in two recorded interactions: one sexual and one nonsexual conflict discussion. Subsequently, each partner was coded continuously on the two dimensions of warmth and dominance. We found a number of differences in how couples discussed sexual versus nonsexual conflicts. Further, couples reported higher levels of anxiety in advance of sexual, as compared to nonsexual, conflict discussions. However, anxiety did not mediate the observed differences in communication. The theoretical and clinical implications of these findings are discussed.


Sexual communication Interpersonal theory Romantic relationships 



This research was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada awarded to Uzma Rehman.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

Uzma S. Rehman, Ivana Lizdek, Erin E. Fallis, and Siobhan Sutherland declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Uzma S. Rehman
    • 1
    Email author
  • Ivana Lizdek
    • 1
  • Erin E. Fallis
    • 1
  • Siobhan Sutherland
    • 1
  • Jackson A. Goodnight
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of DaytonDaytonUSA

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