Rejecting sex doesn’t harm your relationship — if it’s done in a positive and reassuring way

New psychology research investigated whether accepting sex reluctantly or rejecting sex kindly is better for maintaining a romantic relationship. The findings, which appear in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, suggest that declining your partner’s sexual advances won’t harm your relationship — if you do it in a positive way.

“We were interested in this topic because couples often encounter times when one partner wants to have sex while the other partner does not, and this can be a particularly challenging issue for romantic partners to navigate. During these times, it’s not always clear what people can or should do to sustain the quality of their relationship and sex life,” said study author James Kim of University of Toronto Mississauga.

In two surveys of 642 adults, the researchers found that people indicated they would rather have their partner reject their sexual advances in a reassuring way than have their partner accept their advances only to avoid relationship troubles. Reassuring rejections consisted of a partner stating “they love you and are attracted to you and offers to make it up to you in the future.”

Unsurprisingly, the participants said they were most satisfied when their partner enthusiastically accepted their advances, and least satisfied when their partner rejected their advances by displaying frustration and criticism.

“Romantic partners sometimes (or often) engage in sex with their partner for avoidance goals (like to avoid upsetting their partner or avoid conflict),” 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.”

A follow-up study found slightly different results when it came to sexual satisfaction. Kim and his colleagues also examined 98 couples who completed nightly surveys for 4 weeks.

The researchers found that rejecting advances in a reassuring way did not appear to harm the couples’ overall relationship satisfaction. But having sex to avoid relationship problems was always associated with greater daily sexual satisfaction compared to rejecting sexual advances in a positive way.

“We find less robust evidence that positive rejection helps sustain sexual satisfaction compared to having sex for avoidance goals,” Kim explained to PsyPost. “In our daily experience study, partners experienced higher sexual satisfaction on days when they engaged in sex for avoidance goals than when they rejected their partner in a positive manner. However, this is not surprising given research suggesting that sexual satisfaction is more closely tied to having one’s physical sexual needs met.”

They also found that having sex to avoid relationship problems was particularly detrimental in longer relationships and in relationships were sex occurred less frequently.

“When people are not in the mood for sex and find that the main reason they are inclined to ‘say yes’ is to avoid hurting their partner’s feelings or the relationship conflict that might ensue, engaging in positive rejection behaviors that convey love and reassurance may be critical to sustain relationship quality,” the researchers concluded in their article.

The study, “The relationship implications of rejecting a partner for sex kindly versus having sex reluctantly“, was authored by James Kim, Amy Muise, and Emily A. Impett.