It’s your last term at college and you’re close to being done for the year. After tomorrow morning’s exam, that is. It’s your toughest subject and you’ve been studying for days, so the last thing on your mind is sex. Even if it is with your girlfriend, who’s lying naked in bed next to you. She just happens to have written her last exam and it’s clear that sex is the only thing she’s thinking about. How do you tell her you’re not in the mood? Does this even matter?
It turns out the way you turn down your partner definitely matters. In any relationship, there will inevitably be times when one person wants to get it on and the other doesn’t. Figuring out the best way to deal with those moments is especially important since there tends to be a lot of emotion wrapped up in disagreements about sex.
‘I think what it has to do with is the emotional vulnerability that is present,’ Canadian researcher James Kim told Love Matters at the 2016 International Association for Relationship Research (IARR) conference. ‘There are a lot of areas of conflict that couples experience in their relationships – like who does the dishes or who takes out the trash. But when it comes to sex in monogamous relationships, your partner is the one person who can meet your sexual needs. So in these situations you’re really putting yourself on the line, and there can be a lot more at stake because it’s not easy to hear that your partner doesn’t want to have sex with you.’
Kim was curious about the ways people tell their partners they’re just not in the mood. He also wanted to see if some approaches work out better than others when it comes to a satisfying relationship and sex life.
First, he asked over 1200 participants how they turn down their partners in bed. He came up with four categories and gave Love Matters examples of each. Then, in the second half of the experiment, Kim looked at which ways of saying ‘no’ were better than the rest.
Four ways to say no
Kim divided the ways people reject their partners into four categories.
1. ‘Let’s just kiss and cuddle’
Let’s start off with the positive. If you’re not up for sex, you might tell your partner that you love them or say you’d rather kiss or cuddle. In this way, you’re going about the business of rejection by confirming you care about him or her. This is the category labelled ‘reassuring’, and it’s linked to a satisfying relationship and sex life, the research showed. ‘It’s basically telling your partner “It’s not you – I still love you, I’m still attracted to you,” Kim explains.
2. ‘Ugh, get off me!’
That’s just what the approaches in the next category – appropriately termed ‘hostile’ – fail to do. These include negative things that might even hurt your partner like criticising the way they came onto you or flat out ignoring them in bed. Not surprisingly, hostile approaches were linked with unhappier relationships and sex lives in the study.
3. ‘Nope, not in the mood’
There’s also the ‘assertive’ rejection, which involves being direct without exactly caring about your partner’s feelings. An example would be saying plainly, ‘No, I’m not in the mood for sex.’
Finally, Kim’s research identified roundabout or ‘deflecting’ methods of turning a partner down – basically dodging out of sex. These include things like pretending to be asleep or lying in a position that’s hard to snuggle in.
What works best?
So which approach is best and worst? Well, it’s not hard to work out that if you’re not in the mood for sex, being ‘reassuring’, loving and kind to your partner is obviously the way to go. And being ‘hostile’, angrily laying into your partner, is not exactly going to make your relationship any sweeter.
What about simply being ‘assertive’ with a clear ‘no’? Or dodging the issue by ‘deflecting’? Well, it’s not clear exactly how these approaches affect a relationship. Directly saying ‘no’ may feel unpleasant over the short-term, but down the road it could be more beneficial to a relationship than roundabout methods since at least you’re dealing with the issue.
Chances are good you’ve used some of these without giving them too much thought. Though it may seem like no big deal, the way you tell your partner you’re not in the mood matters. Rejection is tough and it can be hard not to take it personally.
How to say no
‘It’s easy to get caught up in the notion that if your partner doesn’t want to have sex with you, it means that you’re not sexually desired.’
‘You might worry they don’t love you, there’s something wrong with you, the sexual relationship is going down the drain,’ Kim says.
Fortunately, reassuring your partner through positive words or actions is a pretty easy thing you can do. If you’re not up for sex, make sure you remind your partner it’s not about them, you still find them really sexy, you still really love them. Sex maybe isn’t going to happen right now, but it will do another time soon, and it’s going to be sizzling!
Kim’s words of wisdom: ‘When it comes to relationship maintenance, little things can go a long way.’