How couples negotiate sexual rejection


Since an intimate relationship consists of two individuals, each with their own unique needs and wants, conflict is inevitable. Therefore, the occurrence or even the frequency of conflict is not necessarily a sign that the relationship is in trouble. Rather, what is important for the well-being of the relationship is how couples resolve these conflicts.

One of the most common types of conflict reported by couples is a gap in sexual desire. It is also one of the most emotionally damaging conflicts couples face. This is because sexual rejection raises personal insecurities about attractiveness and worth as a partner. Does “no” mean “I am no good”?

Sexual rejection is also frustrating, as couples engaged in relationships generally 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, their sexual needs are not being met within their partner, but neither can they seek satisfaction outside of the relationship without causing them great harm.

At the same time, each partner maintains autonomy over their own body, and they must be able to tell when they are not feeling ready for sex at that time. Maybe it’s not the sexual rejection per se, but rather the way 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 her colleagues found that sexual rejection strategies can be grouped into four categories.

  • Reassuring rejection. You explain that you don’t want to have sex tonight, but reassure your partner that you love him and that you are still attracted to him. You also offer alternative forms of physical contact, like kissing and hugging, while promising to catch up with you in the near future.
  • Hostile rejection. You display frustration with your partner or criticize other aspects of the relationship. Likewise, you can give your partner the silent treatment or criticize the way they initiated sex.
  • Rejection affirmed. You explain to your partner clearly and directly why you don’t want to have sex. Although you are honest with them, you also show little respect for their feelings.
  • Refuse the rejection. You pretend not to notice that your partner is interested in sex. You can also turn away from it, lie down in a position that is difficult to snuggle up with, or pretend to sleep.

To test the impact of these rejection behaviors on the other partner’s sexual and relationship satisfaction, the researchers recruited 98 couples who had lived together for at least two years. Every evening for 28 days, each partner completed a survey that measured the degree of sexual desire gap between them and their partners, as well as their sexual and relationship satisfaction. They also indicated whether their partner had rejected a sexual advance in the past 24 hours. If so, they also indicated how reassuring, hostile, assertive or deviant that rejection was.

The results were perhaps not surprising. When respondents reported that their partner reassuringly rejected their sexual advances, they also reported an increase in relationship satisfaction compared to the previous day. However, when they were 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 that you love them and still want them.

Interestingly, neither assertive rejections nor deviant rejections had any effect on the relationship satisfaction of the rejected partner. However, it’s important that while these behaviors apparently didn’t hurt, they clearly didn’t serve to strengthen the relationship either. Meanwhile, it’s clear that hostile rejection inflicts damage on the relationship beyond the mere rejection itself.

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

In most minor conflicts, a reassuring style will usually work the most. However, when it comes to major relationship difficulties, such as an addiction issue or potential infidelity, an assertive approach is more likely to yield the desired result. And yet, as this research shows, when it comes to differences in sexual desire, direct or assertive rejection is not the best approach, although it is also unlikely to cause significant damage.

What is clear is that a hostile approach to conflict resolution is never helpful. This puts your partner on the defensive and hurts them to the most vulnerable. If you find yourself reacting in a hostile way to a conflict with your partner over sex or any other issue, you will be doing yourself and your relationship a favor by reflecting on the origin of these hostile feelings.

For example, you might not be interested in sex because you’re overloaded with household chores or worried about performance issues. But instead of blaming your frustration on your partner, it’s best to talk openly about these barriers to sex drive. An assertive approach will clearly communicate these issues to your partner, but if you can also make sure that you are sensitive to their needs as well, the outcome will likely be much better for both of you in the long run.

Facebook image: Syda Productions / Shutterstock

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