You’re cleaning up the house, thinking about the bills you have to pay, the friend you haven’t called in weeks, and that oh-so-awkward conversation you had with your new coworker yesterday, when your partner appears, touching your waist and giving you a sexually suggestive wink.
Maybe sex seems like a fun and welcome distraction. In that case, great! Enjoy it.
But maybe you’re thinking something more along the lines of “Are you kidding me? You want sex right now? That's certainly not happening!”
But being the person who is rejecting sex doesn't feel that great, either. Maybe we are annoyed that our partner initiated sex and clearly couldn't read our mood or the situation. And so we roll our eyes, criticize our partner’s timing and initiation strategy, or even push them away entirely. Or we might feel bad because we hate saying no and disappointing them, so we agree to have sex to make them happy.
The latest sex research suggests that — compared to going along with sex to avoid negative outcomes — turning down sex doesn't necessarily hurt relationship satisfaction, as long as we do it in positive ways.1 Here are three approaches to keep in mind.
1. Clearly explain why you're saying no.
If you’re not in the mood for sex when you’re partner initiates it, one of the best things you can do is explain to them why you're not in the mood.
That’s because many people naturally take sexual rejection personally. We can drive ourselves into a tizzy trying to come up with a reason why we're being turned down, often landing on it having something to do with us (e.g., they don't find me attractive anymore, they are angry with me, they don't love me as much as they used to).
So if you’re feeling too tired for sex, say that. If you had a long day, and you’re distracted by the stress at work, share that. It helps your partner understand your inner world a bit better and shows that your lack of interest in sex isn’t a reflection of your lack of interest in your partner.
Or, if your lack of interest in sex has everything to do with your partner (e.g., you're fighting or not getting along these days, and sex feels temporarily off the table), say that. It's much more helpful to start that conversation (even if it's difficult) than to let more tension build up with silences and misunderstandings.
2. Suggest another time — soon(ish).
Think about rejecting sex similarly to making social plans with friends. If we invite a friend out for a bite to eat, and they just say "no," it can feel pretty jarring. We might wonder: "Are they saying they don't want dinner tonight? Or are they trying to hint that they want to hang out less frequently? Maybe they don't like me as much as they used to?" It feels unsettling, because we don't have all the information, and so we are left to fill in the gaps.
On the other hand, if you invite your friend to dinner, and they say: "Sorry I really need to recharge and have a night at home tonight, but maybe could we try next week?" It clarifies that the "no" is just a "not right now." You know where you stand, and there is a plan to spend time together again soon.
Likewise, when it comes to sex, a flat out "no" can feel pretty harsh. We similarly tend to wonder, how long is that "no" for? And should we ask again in an hour? A day? A week? Never? Are they trying to tell me something else by turning down sex?
But sexual rejection usually feels a lot more manageable when we’re given a safety net. Something like: "I'm not feeling it right now, but maybe we could try on the weekend, once my work deadline has passed? Or later tonight after I go for a run? Or in the morning before work, after I've had a good sleep?"
3. Find another way to connect.
Just because you're not in the mood for sex doesn't necessarily mean you have to turn down other bids for connection and closeness.
We know from the research that women and men get so much more from sex than just physical gratification (like feeling loved and feeling safe). So perhaps sexual activity is off the table, but a nice cuddle, hand holding, a meaningful conversation, or even a game or activity you both enjoy might feel pretty good.
It might not be sex, but if your partner is reaching out as a way of feeling close, there are several different ways that this can be accomplished, even when sex doesn't feel like an option. If there is some relationship-affirming activity you're in the mood for that would make you feel good and closer to your partner, try suggesting that instead.
Rejecting your partner's sexual advances with these three tactics doesn't ensure there won't be any conflict or that your partner won't be disappointed you said "no" to sex. But that's not necessarily the end goal. Differing preferences for desired frequency of sex is one of the most common challenges in relationships and a key area of sexual concern for many, many couples. However, it's important to keep in mind that it’s not conflict itself that hurts or strengthens relationships, but rather the way that couples manage conflict.
Most people don't like feeling rejected (or being the one to do the rejecting), but offering a "no" that 1) provides an explanation, 2) suggests another time in the near-ish future, and 3) provides an alternative way to connect can help you let your partner down a bit easier.
1. Kim, J., Muise, A. & Impett, E. A. (2018). "The relationship implications of rejecting a partner for sex kindly versus having sex reluctantly," Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35, 4, 485-508.