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What Partners Can Do When One Isn’t in the Mood

New research on rejection and intimate communication.

Key points

  • Due to social norms and gender roles, many intimate couples find it difficult to talk about sex.
  • Indirect patterns of sexual communication easily lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
  • Non-responses to subtle signals of sexual interest are often perceived as partner rejections.
  • Satisfying relationships require open and direct communication about sexual preferences.

Sex is the glue that holds an intimate relationship together. Studies show that couples who have sex frequently are generally more satisfied with their relationships than are those who are intimate less often. Furthermore, a mismatch in partners’ sexual desire can destroy an otherwise workable relationship, and it’s one of the most common reasons why couples seek counseling.

People in committed relationships have to strike a balance between meeting their own needs and their partner’s. Thus, one key to a happy relationship is open communication with your partner about your sexual needs.

For many couples, sex is hard to talk about.

However, talking about sex is something that many intimate couples have difficulty with for several reasons. First, people need to strike a balance between resisting unwanted sexual advances and not hurting their partner’s feelings. So, instead of a direct response, they try to convey their disinterest indirectly, such as through body language or changing the subject. This can often leave their partner confused as to whether they’ve been rejected or not, and it can even discourage them from initiating on future occasions.

Second, most intimate partners are uncomfortable talking about sexual issues in general. Many people grow up learning that sex is something you do in secret and never talk about. Even couples who can have straightforward discussions about other topics often feel exceedingly anxious communicating their sexual interests to the one person they’re having sex with.

Finally, we grow up with certain cultural scripts about how sex is supposed to play out. Specifically, we’re taught that men are the initiators while women are the gatekeepers. Thus, a man may feel a need to live up to expectations by signaling a desire for sex because “it’s the right time,” whether he has a strong desire for it at that moment or not. Likewise, a woman may feel she needs to resist her partner’s advances even if she’s still open to the possibility.

Indirect communication leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

These typical patterns in sexual communication in intimate couples can easily lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Partners can feel frustrated or imposed upon. Moreover, couples can miss opportunities for sexual intimacy by falsely reading their partner’s signals.

Thus, an important question for relationship scientists is how accurately people can perceive their partner’s indications of sexual interest or disinterest. Some research indicates that people generally know their intimate partner well, suggesting that they should generally have good intuitions about whether their partner is currently in the mood or not. Other research, however, has found that people have a biased memory for partner rejections, namely believing they’ve been rejected more often than they have been at this question of whether people are accurate or biased in their perceptions of partner sexual rejection, University of Illinois psychologist Kiersten Dobson and colleagues recruited 130 cohabiting couples to take part in a 21-day diary study. Each day, each partner responded to a short survey in which they indicated whether they or their partner had initiated sex and whether they’d gone through with the sexual activity.

Because both partners of each couple responded, the researchers could determine whether they were accurate or biased in their reports of sexual rejection. For example, if Will says that Danielle rebuffed him three times, and she says she refused him three times, then Will’s perception was accurate. In contrast, if he’d reported more than three rejections, his perception would have been biased.

The results of the study indicated that people’s perceptions of their partner’s sexual rejections were both accurate and biased at the same time. Specifically, people were very good at detecting when their partners started rejecting them more frequently. However, when this occurred, they exaggerated the frequency of rejection.

Non-response can easily be perceived as rejection.

When we consider how most intimate couples use “silent cues” to signal their interest in sex or lack thereof, we can see how this pattern of accurate and biased perception takes place. For instance, Will can tell from Danielle’s behaviors and body language that something is pressing on her mind. She even told him about a big project at work with the looming deadline. So, he’s aware she’s not in the mood very much these days.

One night, Will tried to have sex with Danielle, but she said she was too tired. Although he understood her preoccupation with work, he still felt hurt when she said no. He also felt bad about pushing her when he knew she wasn’t in the mood. It’s just that they hadn’t had sex in a long time, and he wanted to be intimate with her.

To minimize hurt feelings on his part as well as hers, Will only gave Danielle subtle hints about having sex after that. But when she didn’t pick up on these, he still felt as though he’d been rejected, even though it never occurred to her that she’d done so. Thus, Will was accurate in his perception that Danielle had less interest in sex recently, but he was biased about the frequency of rejection.

Satisfying relationships require open communication.

This study by Dobson and colleagues has important implications for therapists. Mismatch in sexual desire is one of the most common reasons why couples seek counseling. The job for the therapist then is twofold: first to help their clients understand how easy it is to misperceive sexual rejection, and second to teach them how to engage in more effective communication strategies that can help them avoid such misunderstandings in the future.

Most of us feel uneasy talking about sex, even with our sex partner. Instead, we rely on subtle hints to signal our sexual desires, even though these can be easily misunderstood. And yet, if we want to have a happy and healthy relationship with our significant other, we need to overcome our anxieties over talking about sex so that we can negotiate a frequency of intimacy that will satisfy both partners.

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Dobson, K., Kim, J., & Impett, E. A. (2021). Perceptual accuracy for sexual rejection in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Advance online publication. DOI: