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How to navigate sexual rejection as a couple

Couples that handle sexual rejection well can improve their relationship, but persistent or hostile patterns of rejection are never healthy.

  • Sexual rejection will be a part of any committed relationship.
  • Studies show that how the rejecting partner turns down an advance can alter how the initiating partner views the relationship.
  • Desire can lessen over time, but there are ways to, and ways not to, reignite that spark.

You get home a few hours before your partner. You've had a good day, and you're feeling in the mood. You cook a fabulous dinner, uncork a bottle of wine, and even do dishes while your partner unwinds in the bath. Afterward, you begin massaging his or her shoulders delicately, lean in, and whisper about moving things into the bedroom.

Without hesitation, your partner shoots you down; he or she is far too tired to even think about sex tonight. But while you're back there, would you mind getting the lower back, too?

If you've been in a committed, long-term relationship, you've lived some rendition of this story before. While couples joke about it with friends, truth is, sexual rejection is a difficult, natural, and potentially astringent part of our relationships.

Because of this, men and women will at some point sexually reject their partner and be sexually rejected in turn. With luck, it will be only momentary, though it may grow to be habitual. But it will happen, and the results can be painful either way.

The ups and downs of sexual rejection

A recent study—in preprint as of this writing—looked at the emotional effects sexual rejection has on people in committed relationships. The researchers asked 115 couples to keep sex diaries. Every day for three weeks, the participants logged whether they initiated sex or if their partners made a sexual advance. They also wrote whether it led to sex and recorded daily levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction.

Most of the results aren't too surprising. Couples that had sex reported higher levels of sexual and relationship satisfaction. This was true for the participants who initiated sex and those who accepted the advancement. Who knew?

Also unsurprising: Rejected partners felt a stifled sexual satisfaction, a sting that could last for up to 48 hours.

Interestingly, participants who were sexually propositioned enjoyed an uptick in sexual satisfaction, whether they accepted the offer or not. A buzz that lasted for up to 72 hours. The reason is likely that the being propositioned signaled that they were desirable in their partner's eye—a lovely gift to anyone's self-esteem.

This means, the authors note, that being asked for sex is emotionally low risk. Conversely, being the partner who initiates sex comes with emotional risks. As the authors wrote, "These results indicate that making a sexual advance may be risky for romantic partners, which may lead those who feel less sure of their partner's response to an advance to do so less often, therefore missing opportunities to bolster intimacy, closeness, and satisfaction."

Let me down reassuringly

A reassuring rejection mixed with other form of intimate contact can strengthen relationship satisfaction.

(Photo: Wilson Lau/Flickr)

Of course, anyone has the right to reject an offer of sex. We're autonomous beings and even the most loving and intimate of couples won't maintain perfectly synchronicity. Sometimes work, children, and all that life clamps down on our sex drives. Sometimes we don't feel sexy or well. And one partner's libidinous appetite may simply outpace the other's.

How can we navigate sexual rejection while limiting the emotional risk to our partners? One study's suggested answer is "reassuring rejection."

The study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, looked at ways people reject a partner's advances. They found rejections fell into four behavioral patterns: reassuring, hostile, assertive, and deflecting. Writing for Psychology Today, David Ludden, PhD, describes the behaviors as:

  • Reassuring rejection: Reassure their partner that they love them and perhaps offer alternative forms of physical contact, such as kissing and cuddling.
  • Hostile rejection: Outward displays of frustration to their partners while criticizing other aspects of the relationship.
  • Assertive rejection: Explain the lack of interest in a clear, direct manner.
  • Deflecting rejection: Pretend not to notice the advance, the "pretend to be asleep" strategy.

Like the previous study, the researchers had couples fill out a surveys for 28 days. The participants reported whether their partner rejected a sexual advance within 24 hours and the degree it met one of the four patterns. They also filled out a survey that measured the sexual desire discrepancy between them and their partner, as well as sexual and relationship satisfaction.

The researchers found that reassuring rejections could improve relationship satisfaction compared to the previous day—a stark contrast to the study results above. Naturally, hostile rejections harmed relationship satisfaction, while assertive and deflecting rejections neither strengthened nor harmed the relationship in the partner's eyes.

"Romantic partners sometimes (or often) engage in sex with their partner for avoidance goals (like to avoid upsetting their partner or avoid conflict)," study author James Kim told PsyPost. "They may do this because they think it would be worse to reject their partner for sex.

"However, our findings suggest that rejecting a partner for sex in positive ways (e.g. reassuring a partner that you still love and are attracted to them) actually represents a viable alternative behavior to having sex for avoidance goals in sustaining both partners' relationship and sexual satisfaction."

Novelty isn't a new toy

These studies looked at sexual rejection in the short term, but maintained rejection is bound to wear on a relationship, whether reassuring or not. It is difficult to admit, especially about the ones we love, but seductive appeal can lessen throughout the years, and this can led to patterns of sexual rejection.

According to relationship therapist Esther Perel points out in her TED Talk, dulled desires result from our requiring partners to reconcile two fundamental, yet incompatible, human needs: our need for security and the unexpected.

We put our partners in the unmanageable position of being our source of dependability and insatiable passion. They must be our best friends and intimate confidants yet remain mysterious and novel. They must remain desirable to us while keeping their own desires for the unexpected in check. And they must continue this balancing act while living longer lives than any other previous generation of humans.

Couples try to reconcile this inconsistency by keeping things fresh—a phrase that typically translates as, "Let's introduce a new toy or lingerie into the mix." But that's a heavy ask of some silicone and gossamer fabric.

Instead, novelty comes from seeing our partners and ourselves in a new light. As Perel notes:

But novelty isn't about new positions. It isn't a repertoire of techniques. Novelty is, what parts of you do you bring out? What parts of you are just being seen? Because in some way one could say sex isn't something you do. Sex is a place you go. It's a space you enter inside yourself and with another, or others.

According to Perel, couples that do manage to reconcile dependency and seduction have a few things in common. These couples:

  1. Have a lot of sexual privacy and each an erotic space that belongs to them.
  2. Don't wait until right before the deed to initiate foreplay. It's a daily, continuous activity.
  3. Understand that responsibility and desire butt heads, so they leave that responsibility outside of their erotic space.
  4. Understand that passion comes and goes. Rather than grow discouraged, they take steps to resurrect it.
  5. Don't believe in the myth of spontaneity purported by porn and bodice-rippers.

"Committed sex is premeditated sex," Paral concluded. "It's willful. It's intentional. It's focus and present."

But what about the persistently rejected? Those who find themselves in relationships where their partner rarely wants to have sex and rejects their advances in assertive or hostile ways? Unfortunately, caring intimacy doesn't automatically equate to good or alluring sex.

Relationship columnist Dan Savage claims the vast majority of the mail he receives comes from people in sexless marriages who either don't want to end it or can't afford to. His standard advice—barring circumstances like children—is to end such relationships as they are not healthy for either partner. He writes:

[O]dds are good that rejection and resentment will have curdled the frustrated half of the couple's affections so thoroughly that the relationship simply can't survive. And there's a better than 50/50 chance that the problem isn't stress or work-related, but not-attracted-to-you-related, and how long do you want to hang in there before you find that out?

Obviously, any advice is specific to the couple asking for it, but sexual rejection doesn't have to be a corny punchline in public and emotional weight in private. If we accept sexual rejection as a part of any relationship, engage with empathy, invest in our erotic spaces, and are truly honest with each other, then sexual rejection can be navigated without lasting harm to the relationship or individuals within it.

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