For couples seeking
a closer and more satisfying relationship, part of the answer might be
something so simple they can do it lying down.
“Communicating with a partner immediately after sexual activity —
referred to as ‘pillow talk’ — is an important way for partners to
develop intimacy and bonding that can extend beyond the moment,” said
John P. Crowley, assistant professor in the Department of Communication within the College of Arts and Sciences
at the University of Delaware and an author of recently published
research on the subject. “There’s a heightened emotional intimacy at
this time that may prime people to develop a greater connection with
Previous studies have also found this potential for greater intimacy
in pillow talk, but the new research found for the first time that
increasing the time spent in such talk also increases the satisfaction
heterosexual men feel in the relationship. The study, which involved
only heterosexual couples, did not find a similar increase in
satisfaction among women.
Specifically, when couples participating in the study doubled the
amount of time they spent in pillow talk for a few weeks, men were more
likely to report increased satisfaction with the relationship than men
who didn’t change the amount of time spent in such talk. (Previous
research has found that the average time a couple spends in pillow talk
is about 12 minutes.)
The research, published in March in the National Communication
Association’s Communication Monographs journal, was co-written by
Crowley, Amanda Denes, Kara L. Winkler, Anuraj Dhillon, Ambyre L.P.
Ponivas and Margaret Bennett.
The researchers worked with 50 couples, randomly assigning half to a
group that was asked to double the number of minutes they normally spent
in pillow talk for three weeks. The other couples made up the control
group and were not asked to change their behavior after sexual activity.
Crowley said the results show how beneficial pillow talk can be and
suggest that counselors and therapists might encourage couples to
increase the time they spend on it in order to strengthen their
The difference in satisfaction results between men and women can
likely be attributed to traditional gender roles and expectations,
“Men in our society don’t usually have the opportunity to express
their feelings and emotions as much as women do,” he said. “But when the
study deliberately fostered this kind of intimacy, it showed that men
were especially receptive to it, and it increased their relationship
A second aspect of the research investigated whether the couples who
increased their pillow talk would also show a difference in the stress
they experienced in later discussions about difficult issues in their
relationship. In other words: Did the positive feelings from such
increased intimacy carry over to times when the couples were in conflict
and lessen that stress?
Those results were less clear-cut, said Crowley, whose research often
focuses on how people, especially romantic couples, handle conflict.
During the “difficult conversation” the couples were asked to have in
the research lab, the men in the increased-pillow-talk group did show a
reduction in the stress hormone cortisol, Crowley said. But he and his
co-authors noted that the men also came into the lab with higher stress
levels, possibly because they were anticipating conflict.
The subject is worth further exploration, Crowley said, but for now,
he and his colleagues view pillow talk as a kind of “relationship
maintenance” tool with the potential to help couples in various
“There may be a different kind of intimacy and warmth and love that
develops with pillow talk that can help relationships manage problems,”
More about Crowley’s research
Crowley, who joined the UD faculty in 2019, often collaborates with
Amanda Denes, who is an associate professor of communication at the
University of Connecticut and the first author on the pillow talk paper.
They, along with Lindsey S. Aloia of the University of Arkansas, are
the editors of a book due to be published in June by Oxford University
Press. The Oxford Handbook of the Physiology of Interpersonal Communication
includes essays from 33 leading scholars in communication studies,
physiology, psychology and neuroscience on the subject of how our
physiology influences our communication and vice versa — a growing area
of research in recent years.
Crowley’s research focuses on the intersection of interpersonal
communication and health, particularly seeking to understand how people
coping with difficult life experiences, including discrimination, can
communicate in ways that help them cope.
He is also studying the relationship between hormones such as
oxytocin — a natural hormone that plays a role in interpersonal bonding —
and factors including pillow talk and forgiveness.
Article by Ann Manser; photo by iStock
Published April 8, 2020