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When Your Partner Says No to Sex

Being refused need not be the end of the world, just a disappointment.

Key points

  • Being refused is an essential part of life for anyone who is proactive in getting their desires met.
  • For those who are reluctant to ask for sex, rehearsing beforehand can make it easier.
  • When a person wants more sex than their partner, they need to problem-solve rather than start a fight.
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Of course, it's a disappointment when your partner isn’t interested in sex when you are, but that’s all it is—a disappointment. If you're in a long-term relationship, there will be other times.

I often hear from women, who are usually not as experienced at initiating, “I’ve tried being the one to start things a few times, but I hate being turned down.” Do you imagine that men enjoy it? No one likes to be turned down for something he or she wants, even if it’s just a dance. Men may be more experienced in hearing no, but that doesn’t make it any easier. If any person is inexperienced in hearing no, he or she is just not putting themselves out there often enough. Being refused is an essential part of the life of a person who is proactive in getting his or her wants met.

In a long-term relationship, the partner with the higher libido—which is not always the man in a heterosexual couple—may feel as if their partner doesn’t care about them, because he or she is “always” saying no. If it feels like the refusing is frequent, the matter needs to be brought up and discussed in daylight: “How would you prefer me to approach you, since I feel you’re always turning me down?” If you have a non-communicative partner who doesn’t like to discuss sex, or who answers with a shrug or an “I don’t know,” it’s okay to push a bit more: “Would sex before dinner be more appealing, or when we wake up rather than when we go to sleep?” If you’re the one who wants more sex, then it’s your problem, and what you need to do is problem-solve, not start a fight, so keep at it.

And what if it’s the way your partner says no, even if it’s not that often? Say so: “When you’re not interested in sex, I sure wish you’d make a counteroffer rather than just saying no. Could you try something like, ‘I’m not in the mood right now, but try me again this evening’? That way, I won’t feel so rejected.”

A person who asks explicitly for what he or she wants—not hints, but asks plainly—is much more likely to receive it. If you are reluctant, perhaps rehearsing by yourself will make it easier. And what if you’re a person with a partner who really is generally unwilling to have sex with you or is physically unable? As the population ages, the latter situation occurs more and more often. Let’s address the former first—a partner who is no longer interested in having sex, or just in having sex with you. Are you strong enough to hear it? Better to find out sooner than later to see what, if anything, can be done about it—sex therapy, couples' counseling, opening the relationship, breaking up. The only way to reach even a semi-satisfactory solution is to have an honest discussion about what is possible. Hoping in silence that something will change is usually futile.

What if your partner does admit there are physical obstacles—she finds intercourse painful, or he can’t be sure of getting or keeping an erection? Again, it's better to know that than to feel like you personally are being rejected. And now it’s time to problem-solve, with a physician’s help, to see what solutions might be possible.

To sum up: When a long-term partner begins refusing sex with you, or when the number of times they say no outnumber the times they say yes, it’s time for a conversation. Is this a problem? Then there is likely some solution that can be arrived at through honest discussion. If it's just a matter of occasional disappointment, well, that’s life. Still, hearing no from your partner can be made a bit more acceptable if he or she does so in a kinder manner. Let them know.

More from Isadora Alman MFT, CST
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