The Science of How Married Couples Act After Sex

From pillow talk to takeout in bed, psychologists have plenty of ideas for your post-sex playbook—and one to cut out.

When not tasked with explaining to their kid what they just witnessed, parents spend their post-sex time in a variety of different ways depending on their specific preferences (ordering food, watching old episodes M*A*S*H, playing Candy Crush). But post-coital behavior is at least slightly predictable and can be used to understand the power dynamics underlying an adult relationship. Although every couple is different, the body of research on heterosexual couples suggests that pillow talk and cuddling are important to women. Men, on the other hand, seem to prefer a drink. Those may sound like thinly drawn romantic comedy conventions, but there are actually dynamics derived from evolutionary biology at play.

In terms of the research corpus, post-coital behavior was first addressed by Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 and 1953 reports, in which he noted that sex woke some people up while putting others to sleep. There was not much follow-up on this predictable finding over the next few decades, though some studies seemed to indicate that women sometimes craved post-coital contact. Since then, cuddling, kissing, and pillow talk after sex have been linked with sexual satisfaction in both men and women, but it’s hard to separate the causation (satisfaction?) from the correlation. Additional findings suggest that cuddling before and after may be important to the happiness of partners, but, again, there a limited amount of work that has been done.

“Research has also closely explored the pre-intercourse period,” clinical psychologist Noam Shpancer explained in Psychology Today back in 2014. “However, the period of time right after intercourse—known variably as ‘after sex,’ ‘after play,’ ‘pillow talk,’ ‘aftercare,’ or ‘post-coital time interval’—has served mostly as fodder for stale humor about snoring husbands and eye-rolling wives.”

As much as science suggests that cuddling is conducive to individual and relationship health for men and women, there are important post-coital preferences to consider. An in-depth 2011 study, published in The Journal of Sex Research, found that cuddling and professing love were important to both genders, but far more important for women. Women initiated more kissing after sex; men initiated more kissing before sex. After sex, men opted for activities like eating, smoking, fixing a drink, and trying to have more sex. The gap between men and women’s preferences may mirror females evolutionary interest in seeking stable, long-term bonds, key for the increased survival of their offspring and themselves, versus men’s evolutionary interest in fathering more children sex or drawing out a post-coital high.

Studies confirm that women are more primed for positive post-coital interactions provided they’ve had an orgasm first. The findings may seem obvious, but given that the Kinsey Institute estimates that women only orgasm during roughly 29 percent sexual encounters — men orgasm during close to 75 percent of encounter — this could help to partially explain women’s apparent clinginess: The sex is simply not good enough to facilitate bonding.

Whether they cuddle, talk, have a snack, couples (read: men) should try not to fall asleep right away. Research shows that whoever snoozes first is more likely to leave their partner unsatisfied. Exhausted parents would be better off watching T.V. than sleeping — maybe the only time that’s true — as this can help facilitate bonding.

The great news is that after-sex activities don’t need to be particularly involved or at all stressful. The best thing partners can do for each other and themselves is just lay around after all that exertion. As it turns out, taking a beat helps even if sleep is sometimes the sexier option.