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How Couples Negotiate Sexual Rejection

Saying no without damaging your relationship.

Since an intimate relationship consists of two individuals, each with his or her own needs and desires, conflict is inevitable. Therefore, the occurrence or even frequency of conflict isn’t necessarily a sign that the relationship is in trouble. Rather, what’s important for the well-being of the relationship is how couples resolve those conflicts.

One of the most common types of conflict that couples report is a discrepancy in sexual desire. It’s also one of the most emotionally damaging conflicts that couples face. This is because sexual rejection raises personal insecurities about attractiveness and value as a mate. Does “no” mean “I’m no good”?

Sexual rejection is also frustrating because couples in committed relationships typically expect their partners to be monogamous. Especially when one partner regularly rejects the other’s sexual advances, the frustrated partner is put in a double bind. That is, they’re not getting their sexual needs met within their partner, but they also can’t seek satisfaction outside of the relationship without doing it great harm.

At the same time, each partner retains autonomy over their own body, and they need to be able to say when they don’t feel ready for sex at that time. Perhaps it’s the case that it’s not the sexual rejection per se, but rather how it’s expressed, that determines how hurt the other partner will feel. This is the hypothesis that University of Toronto psychologist James Kim and his colleagues tested.

Based on preliminary surveys of married couples, Kim and colleagues found that sexual rejection strategies could be grouped into four categories.

  • Reassuring rejection. You explain that you don’t want to have sex tonight, but you reassure your partner that you love them and are still attracted to them. You also offer alternative forms of physical contact, such as kissing and snuggling, while promising to make it up to them in the near future.
  • Hostile rejection. You display frustration toward your partner, or you criticize other aspects of the relationship. Likewise, you may give your partner the silent treatment or criticize the way they initiated sex.
  • Assertive rejection. You explain to your partner in a clear and direct manner why you don’t want to have sex. While you’re honest with them, you also show little regard for their feelings.
  • Deflecting rejection. You pretend not to notice that your partner is interested in sex. You may also turn away from them, lie in a position that’s hard to snuggle with, or pretend to be asleep.

To test the impact these rejection behaviors had on the other partner’s sexual and relationship satisfaction, the researchers recruited 98 couples who’d been living together for at least two years. Each evening for 28 days, each partner filled out a survey that measured the degree of sexual desire discrepancy between themselves and their partners, as well as their sexual and relationship satisfaction. They also reported whether their partner had rejected a sexual advance in the last 24 hours. If so, they also indicated the degree to which that rejection was reassuring, hostile, assertive, or deflecting.

The results were perhaps not surprising. When respondents reported that their partner had rejected their sexual advances in a reassuring manner, they also indicated a boost in relationship satisfaction compared to the previous day. However, when they’d been rejected in a hostile manner, their relationship satisfaction declined. This finding shows the importance of saying no to sex on a particular occasion in a way that shows your partner you still love and desire them.

Interestingly, neither assertive nor deflecting rejections had any effect on the rejected partner’s relationship satisfaction. However, it’s important that while these behaviors apparently did no harm, they clearly also didn’t serve to strengthen the relationship either. Meanwhile, it’s clear that hostile rejection inflicts damage to the relationship above and beyond the simple rejection itself.

The four rejection patterns found in this research reflect the patterns of communication in conflict that relationship scientists have been studying for a quarter of a century. In short, no one communication style works in all situations. Rather, the style has to be tailored to the particular situation.

In most minor conflicts, a reassuring style is generally going to be the most effective. However, when it comes to major relationship difficulties, such as an addiction problem or a potential infidelity, an assertive approach is most likely to yield the desired result. And yet, as this research shows, when it comes to differences in sexual desire, direct or assertive rejection isn’t the best approach, although it’s also unlikely to cause significant harm either.

What is clear is that a hostile approach to conflict resolution is never helpful. It sets your partner on the defensive, and it hurts them at their most vulnerable. If you find yourself responding in a hostile fashion during a conflict with your partner about sex or any other issue, you’ll do yourself and your relationship a favor by reflecting on where those hostile feelings are coming from.

For instance, you may not be interested in sex because you’re overburdened with housework or worried about performance issues. But instead of taking out your frustration on your partner, it’s better to be open about these roadblocks to sexual desire. An assertive approach will communicate these issues clearly to your partner, but if you can also be reassuring that you’re sensitive to their needs as well, the outcome is likely to be much better for both of you in the long run.

Facebook image: Syda Productions/Shutterstock


Kim, J. J., Muise, A., Sakaluk, J. K., Rosen, N. O., & Impett, E. A. (2020). When tonight is not the night: Sexual rejection behaviors and satisfaction in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0146167220907469

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