Making Amends at an Expense: The Conditioning Effects of Make-Up Sex

By: Deric E. Toney, M.A., BCBA, University of Nevada, Reno


Every relationship has its ups and downs and every relationship manages this dynamic in its own unique fashion. The ebb and flow of relationships make them interesting, exciting, and at times even “passionate.” But what if this passion is tied to the worst conditions of the relationship? Some relationships that survive episodes of anger, argument, and conflict have established practices to help each partner move past the issue and let bygones be bygones. One practice that is commonly used to restore relationships after these episodes is make-up sex.

Make-up sex can be defined as a sexual experience with a partner following an intense time of conflict. To many, make-up sex is a highly intimate and passionate experience that brings couples closer after a time of distress or distance. In addition to recovering any damage done to a relationship during a fight, most report that make-up sex is the most gratifying type of sex to have (Ben-Zeev, 2013). Although this may be the case for many, a behavioral analysis of the conditioning that occurs during make-up sex might make couples change their minds when the moment arises.

In order to best examine the conditioning that occurs, we must first outline the events that lead up to and include make-up sex. To start, one of the partners in the relationship has to engage in an act that negatively affects the other. This will be event one in the sequence and we will call this act “offensive.” In response to this offensive act, the opposing partner engages in an “offended response” that initiates an argument between the partners (Toney & Hayes, 2012). The occurrence of the argument is contingent upon event one and will be considered event two in the sequence. Finally, the conditions of the argument give rise to make-up sex, which is event three in the sequence.

Throughout this sequence, an array of functionally and topographically different responses occurs, all of which are subject to conditioning. Some responses are acquired and maintained by the consequences they contact from the opposing partner. These responses and their effects will be analyzed in terms of the operant paradigm. Occurring simultaneously with these operant responses are physiological responses also subject to conditioning. These responses will be analyzed in terms of the respondent paradigm.

The first type of conditioning considered during make-up sex is operant conditioning. The primary operant effect of make-up sex is clear: having a passionate and stimulating sexual experience contingent upon a heated argument reinforces having such arguments. After all, sexual contact is one of the most powerful unconditioned reinforcers and if fighting reliably produces sex, the rate of fighting will increase. Another potential operant effect is the reduced effectiveness of any punishing responses made during the argument upon the offensive response. Most arguments occur when a partner engages in an act that the other partner prefers not be repeated. Having an all out brawl over something the partner did would likely punish this offensive behavior—that is, of course, unless this brawl was an antecedent for passionate sex. Therefore, the punitive effects of the argument upon the offensive response have now been voided resulting in the rate of the offensive response being unaltered and the only function the argument is actually serving is foreplay.

The conditioning effects of the greatest concern are those related to respondent conditioning. While in the midst of an argument, we experience many heightened physiological states related to “anger” such as an increased heart rate, feeling hot, chills, changes in muscle tension, sweating, and goose bumps (Tavris, 1982). These physiological changes are almost identical to those experienced in times of sexual arousal, except under these conditions, we are experiencing arousal symptoms under times of distress instead of harmony within our relationship. After repeated experiences associating arguments with sexual arousal, we may begin to see a diminished arousal state in the absence of anger. Ultimately, arguments come to elicit physiological responses related to sexual arousal and fights becomes a “turn on” while harmony in the relationship is a “turn off.”

Physiological responses of these sorts have been investigated in various populations but never have they been investigated in terms of respondent conditioning in make-up sex. Palace and Gorzalka (1990) found presenting anxiety-evoking stimuli enhanced genital arousal for both sexually dysfunctional and non-dysfunctional women. Dutton and Aron (1974) stated that sexual attraction is heightened in times of hate, pain, aggression, and anxiety. In their study, Dutton and Aron (1974) found that men who were exposed to fear-inducing conditions were significantly more sexually aroused than men who were exposed to safe conditions.

Neither of the two aforementioned studies consider that heightened sexual arousal during times of anger, fear, and anxiety may be due to respondent conditioning.  It can be assumed that, through a series of events in which sexual arousal occurs in temporal contiguity with episodes of anger, fear, and anxiety, the eliciting effect of sexual stimuli can be transferred to the stimuli present in times of anger by means of respondent conditioning. A similar type of process has been called “arousal transfer” in which the aroused state from one situation is simply transferred to another (Ben-Zeev, 2013). Here, arousal transfer is discussed in terms of the excitement experienced during a fight transferring to the excitement of make-up sex. Although similar, a respondent conditioning account of sexual arousal during a fight through a history of make-up sex may offer a more thorough explanation of the issue and, in turn, provide methods to counter any conditioning of maladaptive sexual behavior.

Despite the gratifying and exciting nature of make-up sex, a behavioral analysis of the conditioning that occurs illustrates the potential unwanted effects of routinely having make-up sex as a means to mend a relationship after a fight. Through both operant and respondent processes there is an increased rate of fighting, reduced effect of punishment on offensive responses, the association of sexual arousal with anger, and as a consequence, reduced arousal during periods of harmony in the relationship. Make-up sex may momentarily produce a sense of closeness after a time of distress in a relationship, but over time and as a result of conditioning, both partners and their relationship may end up in a worse position than before.


Ben-Zeev, A. (2013, Feb. 10). Why make-up and breakup sex are so good. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Dutton, D., & Aron, A. (1974).  Some evidence for heightened sexual under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510-517.

Palace, E. M., & Gorzalka, B. B. (1990). The enhancing effects of anxiety on arousal in sexually dysfunctional and functional women. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 99, 403-411.

Tavris, C. (1982). Anger: The misunderstood emotion. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Toney, D., & Hayes, L. (2012, May). Say you’re sorry: A behavioral interpretation of apologies and forgiveness. Paper presented at the 38th annual Association for Behavior Analysis International conference, Seattle, WA.







This piece was originally published as a part of the Summer 2014 SBRP SIG Newsletter.

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