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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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

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