Sometimes you're just not in the mood for sex – and that's okay. There is, however, a right way and a wrong way to turn down your partner's sexual advances, at least when it comes to the health of your relationship, a new study suggests.
This suggests that a mismatched sex drive, a common factor of many long-term relationships, doesn't necessarily mean a partnership is doomed.
Researchers from Canada carried out two surveys with 642 adults and found that people would prefer their partner to turn them down in a reassuring way (for instance, by saying you love them, are attracted to them and will make it up to them in future), than to have unwanted sex to avoid disappointing them.
“We were interested in this topic because couples often encounter times when one partner wants to have sex while the other partner does not," study c0-author James Kim of University of Toronto Mississauga told PsyPost. "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."
Unsurprisingly, people were happiest when their partner accepted their advances enthusiastically, and least satisfied when they were met with frustration and criticism from their partner.
Interestingly, the researchers found that sex that's based on "avoidance goals" (namely, to avoid conflict or causing offence), can be more damaging – particularly in longer relationships and relationships in which sex is less regular – than rejecting a partner's sexual advance in a positive way.
“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 behaviours that convey love and reassurance may be critical to sustain relationship quality,” the researchers said.
Twenty-eight-year-old Talia's lack of interest in sex with a former long-term partner was one of the biggest contributing factors to the relationship's demise. She now realises she took the wrong approach when she frequently turned down his advances. "I'd often say I had a stomach ache and/or headache and so wasn't feeling up to it, or I'd say I was too tired and ask to have sex the next morning instead – making sex with him sound like a terrible ordeal that had to be endured," she told Refinery29.
"My physical attraction to him had definitely waned after so many years of being together, which he'd probably already guessed, and there's no doubt my terrible excuses made matters worse."
Meanwhile, Naomi, 25, says the few occasions in which her partner turned her down years ago affected her sexual confidence for years. "It happened a few times when I was at university," she told Refinery29. He would spend up to five hours travelling to see her after a full day at work, and would use the excuse of being shattered when she "tried it on".
"I became so nervous about trying it on with him and I pretty much stopped. I hated how the rejection felt – even though it was for a legitimate reason – and really went into my shell sexually. When we moved in together later on, he brought up my timidness and reluctance to start proceedings, so I told him how devastated I was when he was too tired that one time We laugh about it now, but it really upset and frustrated me."
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