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Turning Toward Your Partner When They Want Sex and You Don't

How to keep connection when your partner's sexual bid is unwanted.

Key points

  • Emotional and sexual connection are imperative for stable relationships.
  • Initiating sex is a vulnerable act and we long for a responsive reaction. But sometimes our partner is not in the mood.
  • Partners have internal reasons about not wanting sex that can be communicated with emotional intelligence to keep connected.
fizkes/iStock; used with permission
man lifting woman
Source: fizkes/iStock; used with permission

For couples, emotional connection and sexual intimacy are dynamically related with other aspects of the marriage. Difficulties in one area, such as sex, often destabilize other areas and threaten to loosen our attachment to our partner. For some people, the desire to be sexual is the result of warm emotional connection. But for others, perhaps because of their histories, physiology, or attachment styles (their particular love map), sex may actually be the necessary precursor for emotional vulnerability.

Often in a marriage, one person seems to be designated as the sexual initiator because of relational tradition, culture, or gender. Or, without those factors, perhaps one spouse’s preferred way of seeking attention is through touch, affection, and sex. When a partner takes the lead in the couple’s lovemaking, they bear the brunt of intimate rejection more often. Initiating sex requires enough vulnerability that having a sexual bid (Gottman 2001) disregarded or rejected can be especially painful.

Every partner initiating sex longs for a receptive, excited reaction from their lover. But sometimes the bid doesn’t come at the right time or isn’t welcome, given a person’s state of mind or the couple’s state of the relationship. Rejecting a sexual bid might be complicated by many factors. Fortunately, we can have different needs and still not damage our attachment if we are honest, vulnerable, and direct.

Here are three scenarios when a partner originally rejects or ignores a sexual bid, with some suggestions about how they might better turn towards their partner:

After lunch on a Sunday afternoon, Adam wiggles his eyebrows at his pretty, dressed-up, wife, Sharon, suggesting a nap for themselves while their children are napping. Feeling stressed after corralling young children to church and lunch, Sharon sighs and heads for the bedroom.

Sharon might have both accepted the spirit of the advance and honestly leveled with Adam about her true needs. “Sweetheart, I’m afraid I’m frazzled and need my own quiet time to recover from the morning before I can mix it up with you. Can we take a real nap and then I’ll be refreshed before this evening together?”

Lavonne comes up behind Trevor after his evening shower while he’s brushing his teeth and puts her arms around his waist, saying, “My man is one hot man!” While he feels desire for her, Trevor has become increasingly anxious about his occasional erectile dysfunction. His anxiety comes out as an angry retort, “Lavonne, you expect too much!” and breaks out of her embrace.

Trevor could have contained his anxiety, stayed vulnerable, and turned towards his wife’s overture with, “Well, why don’t you run the bath, baby, while this hot man grabs two glasses of wine.” Sitting in a sensuous, slippery tub together for fifteen minutes would have given his erectile medication time to begin working and allowed him to feel calm, connected, and confident.

Daniel begins to stroke his husband Jean-Paul early in the morning before work. Without a word, Jean-Paul leaves the bed to use the bathroom and then starts the shower for his morning routine.

Jean-Paul, still angry over their late-night fight, wasn’t ready to make up even though he recognized Daniel’s overture as a bid to reconnect. While it might have left Daniel sexually spurned, a clearer communication would not have been so completely rejecting as ignoring his bid altogether. Jean-Paul might have directly said, “I’m still upset about last night; I don’t want sex until we’re through with that conversation.”

A sexual bid at the wrong time may make us feel uncomfortable. Even if the moment is wrong, however, we can turn towards our partner with reassurance about their desirability and our commitment to their sexual needs with a clear explanation about our different needs.

More from Laurie J Watson PhD, LMFT, LPC
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