Saint Louis University Researcher Advises Couples On How To Become Better 'Sexual Communicators'

Researcher Melanie Reyes discusses the role partner responsiveness plays in boosting relational and sexual dynamics.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 27, 2024

A recent paper published in Sexual and Relationship Therapy explored the dynamic relationship between partner responsiveness, sexual communication and relationship outcomes.

I recently spoke to Melanie Reyes of the Department of Psychology at Saint Louis University, lead author of the paper, to discuss the effects of partner responsiveness—feeling cared for, understood and validated by a significant other—on sexual communication and how it influences intimacy, sexual and relationship satisfaction. Here's a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to study the relationship between partner responsiveness and sexual communication in relationships?

A lack of sexual communication is a barrier to sexual satisfaction, especially for women in mixed-gender relationships. Thus, studying what may facilitate sexual communication will ultimately help with understanding what may cultivate a satisfying sexual relationship. In regard to perceived partner responsiveness, few studies have examined associations between partner responsiveness and sexual outcomes.

Partner responsiveness has been associated with sexual desire, sexual function and sexual satisfaction, but there was limited research on the association between partner responsiveness and sexual communication. Partner responsiveness may increase sexual communication, as well as comfort with sexual communication, given that it may decrease negative emotions.

What role does the responsiveness of a partner play in establishing intimacy in a relationship?

If an individual feels cared for, understood and validated by their romantic partner, they are likely to self-disclose to their partner more. As shown in my research, they also may be more likely to communicate their sexual needs and preferences.

Much research in relationship science has shown that self-disclosure is associated with increased romantic intimacy, which is associated with many other positive outcomes such as relationship satisfaction.

In addition, partner responsiveness may encourage deeper self-disclosure, rather than superficial self-disclosure. Relationship science has shown that the deep self-disclosure that tends to occur over time establishes even greater intimacy between romantic partners.

Are there any other factors that influence the sexual communication between romantic partners?

What may influence sexual communication are negative emotions, such as fear and anxiety. I argue that partner responsiveness likely alleviates or eliminates negative emotions, though future research should directly test this given that we did not assess the emotions that individuals may experience when they think about communicating their sexual needs and preferences to their partner.

Furthermore, sexual scripts and gendered sexual beliefs may be barriers to sexual communication. Heterosexual sexual scripts indicate how men and women are expected to behave in their sexual encounters with one another. They suggest that men should play a dominant role, and women should play a passive role. Given these sexual scripts, a woman may begin to endorse the belief that she should not be sexually assertive—or in other words, sexually communicate—in her sexual encounters with men.

Finally, the pressure to orgasm may be another factor, especially among heterosexual women. Orgasm coercion may encourage orgasm performance (i.e., pretending to orgasm), which is negatively associated with sexual communication.

How do you envision your research findings being applied in relationship counseling?

These findings should be applied through interventions aimed at helping partners increase their responsiveness to one another, as well as increase sexual communication. Perhaps relationship interventions should also focus on helping couples give and be open to sexual feedback. Sex is a sensitive topic, even for long-term, committed couples. Thus, it would help to work on feeling more comfortable with discussing sex in relationship counseling.

What advice would you give to a couple seeking to improve their sexual communication and satisfaction?

Of course, I would encourage couples to start communicating about sex more often, if they're not already doing so. Consistency will lead to more comfort and greater sexual satisfaction over time.

Mixed-gender couples should discuss orgasm goals given the orgasm gap (i.e., the discrepancy in orgasm occurrence during partnered sex between heterosexual men and women). In addition, it is important to keep in mind that it is normal for desire and satisfaction to fluctuate and that a satisfying sexual relationship requires effort to maintain.

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