When Makeup Sex Isn’t a Good Idea

Credit - Illustration by Katie Kalupson for TIME

A client who is new to dating, sex, and relationships recently asked me “Is makeup sex healthy?” The person, in their late 20’s, has been dating someone seriously for the first time. Things were progressing slowly sexually with his girlfriend, so their question about makeup sex struck me as a great one to ask before ever having the experience firsthand.

We discussed the pros and cons of having an argument that ended with sex, and I explained what I’ve seen as a sex coach. On one hand, it can feel really good to reconnect with a partner after a challenging discussion or verbal disagreement. Sex can be the ultimate display that the fight is over, allowing both partners to move on without any lingering ill will towards each other. On the other hand, makeup sex could be masking deeper issues in the relationship if it’s an ongoing strategy used to resolve conflict in the relationship.

Makeup sex feels like somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. We know it happens, and maybe it’s even happened in our own relationships. But, is it a good thing or something that should be avoided at all costs?

A quick scroll on TikTok reveals a wide range of opinions on the subject. Some people strongly advise against it as it could reinforce bad behavior from your partner. Many posts lean more towards the commonly held belief that makeup sex is a great way to bond after an argument. Other posts suggest that there is something qualitatively different about makeup sex, that includes a heightened state of emotions that you just can’t get to without a fight beforehand. And it's true that people who see makeup sex as more intense feel a carryover effect from their fight in the sexual experience that follows. This is called “excitation transfer,” which is when you are physiologically aroused by one thing and it transfers over to other areas of your life.

But there’s more to makeup sex than this. A 2020 study of 107 newlywed couples shed some light on what the benefits of makeup sex really are and how sexual quality is impacted by conflict. The study showed that when sex occurred after a flight, it had a greater impact on how people felt about the relationship by reducing the negative effects of conflict. This seems to coincide with the view that makeup sex is a way to feel closer to their partner. What’s surprising is that the study also showed that participants reported that the quality of sex after a fight was actually worse than the sex that occurred without a fight. So even though the sex itself wasn’t perceived as great, there were longer term emotional benefits for the relationship. This helps debunk the assumption that makeup sex is somehow just better than other sex. It also shows the real benefits of sexual connection after healthy conflict.

Where makeup sex gets tricky, though, is when it is used as the sole means for conflict resolution. Given that sex is one of the many ways we bond, it can be seen as an easier way to shift from negative emotions that are stirred up in a flight. But those negative emotions may still be there even after you have sex if you don’t take the time to process them yourself and with your partner. I’ve worked with couples where this dynamic is present and it can become very toxic over time. Feelings pile up that only get relieved through sex, which isn’t necessarily all that satisfying or pleasurable for one or both parties. There can be an aversion to sex for this reason and then feelings have nowhere else to go. This can cause ongoing tension at the least or periodic blow up fights at worst. As a result, people usually have to work with a couple’s therapist to develop healthy conflict resolution skills and be better communicators in general.

Read More: How to Make a Relationship Last

There is also a risk of having the perception that the relationship is on solid ground when it isn’t. I’ve heard from people that they have sex regularly, but feel stuck when it comes to day-to-day, non-sexual intimacy with their partner. When sex is the de-facto way to express emotions—joy, sadness, anger, or grief—there can be a lack of emotional closeness in the relationship. Makeup sex could be one way to avoid connecting with each other more deeply, resulting in what looks on the surface like a healthy relationship but is actually one without true intimacy.

Intimacy isn’t just the sex you have with your partner. It’s the ability to recognize the need for healthy conflict and repair. If you are in a healthy relationship where conflicts come up and are worked through, makeup sex can make you feel closer to each other. It’s a way to deepen the intimate connection that’s already there because you made it through something hard together. But it can’t— and shouldn’t—be the only way we connect with our partners. It’s just the cherry on top.

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