Let me say it right up front, so there is no confusion. It is every person’s right to be able to say ‘no’ to having sex. Period. So as I write about the hurt and burdens that this decision places on a relationship, I am not suggesting people shouldn’t make this decision if they feel they need to. But, like many difficult decisions, it does have ramifications that need to be considered.
Partners tell me they stop having sex because they ‘feel unsafe’ in their relationship, which usually translates (in the details) to ‘there is too much anger, hard feelings, yelling, manipulation or discord in the relationship for me to feel comfortable making myself vulnerable in sex.’ Having sex doesn’t feel good or natural as a result. And some who have said ‘no’ to sex say they feel they have a (usually male) partner who dominates them. They have become lost in their relationship as a result. Refusing sex serves, in these cases, the dual purpose of protecting oneself from domination and exerting control over – or fighting back against - that dominating partner. It is often an act of finding oneself again.
This is one reason why some therapists who work with individuals suggest taking time off from intimate relations. And, from the perspective of the individual, it may be useful advice.
Yet ‘the finding oneself again’ idea also demonstrates one of the pitfalls of refusing sex as a strategy for relationship improvement. The other spouse often hates the idea of being refused sexual access to his or her partner. It’s hurtful, scary, and moves the relationship to an unexpected, and often even higher-tension place. Further, once refusal to have sex is tied to the idea of building one’s personal strength, the barriers to resuming sex become tremendously high. In essence, everything has to be ‘perfect’ in order to give up the hard-won sense of control that refusing sex provides.
So, your partner doesn’t want sex right now. What do you do?
First, acknowledge that the person refusing sex has every right to do so. You might not be happy about it, but it is his or her right to choose what to do with his or her body. Railing against the decision simply confirms, in your partner’s mind, that yes, indeed, you are trying to control him/her and that the ‘no sex’ policy should stay in place. (Or put another way, if a partner who has refused sex relents because she feels bullied into it, the long-term results will be disastrous.)
The second step is to listen to your partner. Really listen. Calmly. What issues, specifically, are behind the decision? Seek help from a counselor if you need to. Ask lots of questions. Use Learning Conversations (see my books). Try your hardest to remain calm and non-defensive. If you can manage this, you’ll get a lot of information about what your partner feels needs to change. Remaining calm will also increase the chances that your partner will listen to YOUR concerns, as well.
Third, remind yourself that this won’t last forever. And the calmer you are about it, the faster you will likely reach resolution. Your partner is simply exerting control over his or her own life at this point and time, and has every right to do so. (And, yes, I know that this also impacts your own life and well-being…which, for better and worse, is part of being in a couple instead of being single.)
Fourth, seek to be positive. This may well be the last advice you were expecting! Having a partner refuse sex feels like an insult and injury. How can you remain positive? I like to suggest that this situation is simply part of the journey towards wherever your relationship is meant to go. Either you will acknowledge (or better yet, embrace) your partner’s right to control his/her body, and respond to your partner’s very real (and very loud) cry for help; or you will become angry, dig in, become remote, or become hurtful in your retribution. These paths, both of which I’ve seen executed, lead to very different relationship outcomes, only one of which is positive.
Another way to look at this? Your partner is saying – loudly and clearly – that there is something grossly wrong in your relationship and the pain is so significant that s/he can no longer move forward as s/he has been doing. This often last-ditch effort to put everything out on the table may, possibly, save your relationship if you respect it. Sometimes the truth hurts.
Fifth, once things seem to be headed in a somewhat better direction, start talking realistically, and without pressure, about how you will, some day, hope to re-enter the sexual relationship. If it’s a woman who is refusing sex, it’s likely that she will want the relationship to be ‘fixed’ before engaging in sex again. Research suggests that women prefer to have sex when they feel the relationship is in good order. But this isn't really possible.. Because if you aren’t having sex, everything isn’t fixed, by definition. This means that at some point you are both going to have to take a chance and jump into the unknown… and my preference is that you try to make this happen as soon as it seems remotely possible, in order to take the additional pressure that not connecting physically creates..
The trick to doing that (after you’ve each listened and adjusted and started to heal) is to take some of the pressure off the conversation about sex, by making sex LESS important than it used to be. This is the opposite of what is actually going on. If one partner is refusing sex, then sex has become very outsized in terms of importance in the relationship. One effective way to counteract this is to strip sex down to its very basics – make sex only about having fun. At least for a while, push aside its emotional significance. Forget about the baggage you have attached to it in the past. Don’t worry about whether one sexual experience means you must commit to continued sex.
Just have fun. Be curious and positive and see where it goes. No obligation to do it again. You might consider starting slowly - with touching and extended foreplay...as if you had just met and weren't sure you were going to have sex.
And, with that fun, you might have sex ...and then one or both of you feel regret. In this case, my advice would be to accept an additional lull in your sex life. Acceptance that there were misgivings about that first sexual experience, and a discussion (with a therapist, most likely) about those misgivings (fears?) are the most direct route to eventually engaging in that second sexual encounter you desire.
Or, your sex might go to a place of joy. You had fun. You felt good. It was much freer than previous sex you've had. The sexual experience brought you closer than you have been for a long time.
Or it might be somewhere in between. But your ability to start by seeking fun has helped you overcome the huge barrier that one partner’s refusal to have sex for a while created for your relationship.
Refusal to have sex is a decision that most partners do not make lightly. It is usually an indication that things are grossly wrong in your relationship – a cry for help. Know that it cannot go on forever – it is not reasonable to say “I am unwilling to have sex with you but expect you to remain monogamous” for an indefinite period. By following these five steps you can respond to this relationship trauma in a way that may improve your chances of holding your partner in love and pleasure again.