The Right Way to Say 'Not Tonight, Honey'
If you've heard the song "Let's Talk About Sex" by Salt-N-Pepa, you may recall the catchy lyrics giving us the green light to talk about "all the good things and the bad things." Somewhere between the good and the bad are awkward moments, such as telling your partner you don't feel up for sex.
The awkwardness can stem from having learned about consent as a conversation between relative strangers, possibly under a shroud of darkness and inebriation. Perhaps it's not so dramatic. Consent is for any and all lovers. But even among people who know each other well, navigating sexual needs can be challenging.
Imagine coming home after a long day and all you want to do is curl up on the couch and watch Netflix. Your partner wants to have sex, and it's the last thing on your mind. What happens if you say, "Not tonight, honey." Will your partner feel rejected? Will their feelings be hurt?
Everyone has the right to decline sex
"The ability to say no to sex is precisely what gives the 'yes' its meaning," said Tom Murray, Ph.D., a sex and relationship therapist at A Path to Wellness Integrative Psychiatry in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Your relationship status and previous engagement in sexual activity are not a substitute for obtaining your partner's consent, now and in the future. Consent requires affirmative words or actions and applies only to the activity in which you are currently engaged. The moment sexual activity becomes anything other than active, enthusiastic and voluntary, you have the right to withdraw your consent.
"'No' is a full sentence," said Daryl Appleton, Ed.D., M.Ed., a psychotherapist and work-life balance expert from New York City. "If you don't feel like you want to have sex, there is no reason why the conversation has to continue beyond that."
Although not required, sharing your reasons for declining sex can help improve communication and understanding of each other.
The type of relationship matters
Let's say you're turning down sex regularly or you're no longer interested in sex. "It's totally fine to no longer be interested," Murray said. What isn't fine is expecting your partner to lose interest, too.
In an open relationship, one or both partners can be romantically or sexually involved with other people. By contrast, monogamy rests on the assumption that you're exclusively interested in your partner's sexual needs. Accordingly, when you turn down sex, your response should include a "recognition of the need and a promise to engage imminently," Murray said. Resentment can build if you say, "Let's do it tomorrow," and then renege on your promise.
Monogamy can lose its appeal if one partner is no longer interested in sex.
"[It's like] you're forcing your partner into celibacy, which is no more appropriate than being pressured into sex," said Murray, who suggested outsourcing sex to another party, such as a sex worker or a friend-with-benefits arrangement.
For any type of relationship, disregarding your partner's needs isn't wise. Your partner may become angry or resentful, especially if they're the one who initiates sex most frequently. Similarly, you may become frustrated if your partner is consistently misreading your signals or ignoring your needs.
There's no such thing as a normal sex drive
Sexual desire ranges from thoughts and fantasies to solo and partnered sex. It varies across people and for the same person over time. Low sexual desire happens for different reasons, including medical conditions, side effects of medications, body image, mental health concerns, pregnancy, postpartum issues and menopause. Throw in a global pandemic and it's not surprising to see people with a live-in partner having less sex, as documented in a 2021 study in the International Journal of Sexual Health.
As Murray explained, "We're moving away from thinking of sexual desire as a sex drive, instead recognizing that desire differs in type more than level." Distress arises when people remain attached to the idea of a "normal" sex drive. Whichever type of sex you desire (or don't desire) is right and perfect for you, and certainly not something to pathologize.
For some people, sexual desire may not kick in immediately but increases during foreplay. Being willing to have sex is different from desiring sex. In any case, going through the motions without the willingness or desire doesn't serve you or your relationship.
Rejection isn't about you
"Feeling physically rejected, for a lot of people, can be a trigger to self-worth," Appleton said.
Instead of considering your readiness to engage in sex, your partner might default to feeling unworthy or undesirable. They might use tactics such as emotional manipulation, gaslighting and retaliation to pressure you about sex, Appleton noted.
It's important to separate your partner's reaction from your feelings.
"You don't have control over your partner's reactions," Murray said, explaining rejection as involving a "degree of entitlement." A sign of sexual maturity is not taking rejection personally.
What to say to your partner
When declining sex, Appleton recommended an approach known as assertive sandwiching:
- Begin with validation. "I care about you," "I find our intimate time together amazing" or "I want to make sure we are on the same page because our open communication means a lot to me."
- Explain your needs. "I am feeling burned out, and sex has started to feel like a job" or "I need to feel like we are in a stronger place in our partnership before we can work on our intimate time together."
- Close on a high note. "I want to make sure our relationship continues," "It feels like this could get worse if we don't fix it now" or "This is a great opportunity for us to change some things and work together."
If your partner feels rebuffed, Appleton suggested validating them and reminding them that not wanting sex doesn't equate to not wanting them as a partner (unless that's the case, which necessitates a different conversation). You can explain to your partner the issues you're experiencing and potential solutions. You may need to pause and have the discussion at another time, especially if emotions are running high.
It's important to reassess the health and well-being of your relationship if your partner continues to pressure you about sex.
"You are a support for the people you love but cannot and should not ever be your partner's therapist," Appleton noted.
There are many ways to inspire sexual interest that don't involve guilt or pressure: Show your partner respect and thoughtfulness. Make their life easier. Create some mystery. Invest in yourself and your relationship. Importantly, find ways to have fun and be playful with each other.