Science Explains Why Make-Up Sex Is a Terrible Way to Apologize

Great sex can only do so much.

In the classic spy-on-spy dramedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt famously have raucous make-up sex after making a series of assassination attempts on each other. After the steamy scene, it’s tempting to think their relationship is back on track — but it soon becomes clear that the fix is only temporary.

Hollywood may perpetuate the stereotype that make-up sex is an effective emotional band-aid for broken relationships and that a blowjob can fix a broken heart, but Bucknell University psychologists recently showed how wrong that assumption is. On Wednesday, they published a study in which they analyzed what men and women considered the best form of reconciliatory behavior. Turns out that no one really wants to have make-up sex — or, at least, they’re both aware of much better ways to make amends.

The research, which was published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, encompassed two studies in which groups of 75 and 164 undergraduates were asked how they felt about the effectiveness of certain apologetic behaviors. Overall, the researchers found that people across all genders prefer for their partner to employ non-sexual forms of intimacy when making amends after a fight.

At the top of the list, according to both men and women, is open communication with their partner and spending more time together. Meanwhile, make-up sex was rated as only a neutral means of making amends by men and was considered “unlikely to work” by women.

A partial list of reconciliation acts, ranked on a 7-point scale by both genders.

Wade et al.

Despite the fact that the response to make-up sex was neutral at best, the psychologists pointed out that men are more likely to prefer it than women. They explain by citing research suggesting that men value sexual availability in their relationships more than women, and are more likely to define intimacy in terms of sexual acts.

The overarching idea behind the study was to show that men and women evolved different “mate-retention strategies” to ensure reproductive success and prevent the emotional and physiological pain that can come with a breakup. Using existing research, they hypothesized that men would broadly prefer it if their partner performs acts that signal “sexual accessibility” (because they’re more concerned with getting cucked), and that women prefer behaviors that signal “emotional accessibility” (because they worry about their mates becoming emotionally divested from the relationship). Their findings generally supported their hypothesis — men and women preferred slightly different ways of making amends — but the overarching pattern was that both men and women preferred the acts that tend to make for a healthy relationship in the first place.

It's more effective when you metaphorically reconnect as a couple instead of only doing it literally.

Unsplash / Chiến Phạm

Of course, the study findings should be taken with a grain of salt. The participants, like those in much of scientific research, were largely cis-gendered, heteronormative, and white. Also, the paper relied on a survey that used a 7-point scale to describe how effective each act would be at winning them over. There were about three times as many women who responded as there were men, and about one in every ten responders had never had sex. Furthermore, their responses were purely speculative and, as the researchers point out, may not match with people’s responses after a real fight — when answering the surveys, the participants had no way of knowing whether their hypothetical offending partner was apologizing for making a rude joke or for having a full-blown affair.

Limitations aside, the study’s conclusions are simple and poignant: The best way to say sorry is to communicate, express yourself honestly, accept responsibility for your actions, and spend time as a couple. And while men did rate make-up sex as more effective than women did, the overall perception of that choice across both genders was largely negative. In the end, open communication and accepting the blame show a greater commitment to actually solving the problem rather than just trying to cover up whatever you did wrong in the first place with a rowdy romp in the bedroom.

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