Coastal zones, which connect terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, are among the most resource-rich regions globally and home to nearly 40% of the global human population. Because human land-based activities can alter natural processes in ways that affect adjacent aquatic ecosystems, land-sea interactions are increasingly recognized as critical to coastal conservation planning and governance. However, the complex socioeconomic dynamics inherent in coastal and marine socioecological systems (SESs) have received little consideration. Drawing on knowledge generalized from long-term studies in Caribbean Nicaragua, we devised a conceptual framework that clarifies the multiple ways socioeconomically driven behavior can link the land and sea. In addition to other ecosystem effects, the framework illustrates how feedbacks resulting from changes to aquatic resources can influence terrestrial resource management decisions and land uses. We assessed the framework by applying it to empirical studies from a variety of coastal SESs. The results suggest its broad applicability and highlighted the paucity of research that explicitly investigates the effects of human behavior on coastal SES dynamics. We encourage researchers and policy makers to consider direct, indirect, and bidirectional cross-ecosystem links that move beyond traditionally recognized land-to-sea processes.