When Your Partner Rejects You Sexually
“Dr. Lisa — My sexless marriage is killing me! When my partner rejects me sexually, what can I do?”
As an experienced marriage counselor and relationship coach, I’ve heard this more times than I can count. I know being out of synch sexually with your partner can lead to a lot of hurt feelings and conflict in your relationship – all the things that make it (paradoxically) more difficult to create the emotional intimacy and feelings of connection that allow mutual pleasure in sexuality to flourish.
It can feel really hurtful when you want to have sex with your partner, but they don’t want to have sex with you. Feeling like you’re being rejected sexually can be painful because sex can be so tied up in our minds with love, body image, gender expectations, and some deep insecurities about being “good lovers.”
For all these reasons, feelings of rejection can curdle into a ball of toxic resentment for your relationship — if you haven’t yet learned to navigate these conversations with vulnerability, empathy, and compassion. On the flip side, if you can use this experience to create a deeper connection, your relationship and your sex life will improve dramatically. I hope this article shows you the way!
I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on why you might be experiencing sexual rejection, and what you can do if your partner is rejecting you sexually and it’s becoming a problem in your relationship. My guest is Dori B. (M.S., SAS, MACA), a sex therapist and couples counselor here at Growing Self. Dori has helped countless couples navigate differences in sexual desire, reignite their sexual “spark” and keep things spicy for years to come. Now she’s sharing her insight about why people experience “sexual rejection” in their relationships so that you can navigate this tricky terrain like a pro. You can tune in on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
When Your Partner Rejects You Sexually
Sexual “misfires” happen in every long-term relationship, but feeling rejected can damage the emotional bond in your relationship if they’re not attended to with care.
If one partner feels rejected frequently, it’s easy for them to begin feeling hurt, frustrated, and resentful about it. The partner who has a lower sex drive in the relationship is likely to feel defensive, and they may even begin to avoid physical affection with their partner out of anxiety that it will turn into a sexual advance and then a fight.
Nothing kills the mood like simmering in a stew of frustration, resentment, anxiety, and avoidance. If you want more sex (and a better relationship), navigating differences in desire with thought and care is important.
Feeling Rejected vs. Being Rejected
If you’re the partner who’s feeling turned down, keep in mind that there’s a difference between feeling rejected and being rejected. When your partner doesn’t want to have sex, that reflects their feelings about having a sexual encounter with you at that moment — not their feelings about you in general.
Even if your partner rejects you sexually or turns you down repeatedly over a long period of time (which happens, and is super frustrating), that isn’t a statement about their feelings for you, only their feelings about sex during that phase of your relationship. To work through it together, you’ll both need to be able to communicate about your sex life in an open and emotionally-safe way, which will be easier if you can resist taking the rejection personally.
Pay attention to the story you’re telling yourself about sexual rejection. If you’re feeling like it’s about more than sex, communicate those feelings with your partner.
Gender and Sexual Rejection
While many women in heterosexual relationships find themselves in the “pursuer” role, it is often the case that men initiate sex more often. Men tend to have stronger libidos and to experience more “spontaneous desire,” meaning that they could be moved from having a sexy thought to having sex without a lot of buildup in between.
On the other hand, women are more likely to experience “responsive desire,” which means their interest in having sex is more likely to grow gradually in response to sexy stimuli. For most women, getting in the mood is a process, and a lot can stand in the way of that process unfolding. Being tired, stressed, or preoccupied with other things can all put the kibosh on the gradual ramp-up of desire that female libido usually requires, which can leave the more sex-ready partner feeling rejected — even when their partner not wanting to have sex right then truly has nothing to do with them.
Of course, men are not the only people who feel rejected in heterosexual relationships. For many couples, the dynamic cuts in the other direction, with the female partner wanting more sex than the male partner. This desire discrepancy can be more challenging because cultural attitudes about how sex between men and women is “supposed” to work and about how men are “supposed” to feel about sex (ready and willing at a moment’s notice) can leave both partners feeling like there’s something wrong with them, or with the relationship if it’s not playing out that way.
The woman may be quicker to take it personally when her partner shoots her propositions down. The man may feel pressure to perform sexual desire he doesn’t feel to avoid hurting her feelings or stirring up conflict.
In reality, men do not want sex all of the time. Male libido can fluctuate for various reasons, from age-related hormonal changes to stress to no discernible reason whatsoever. A man not wanting sex as often as his female partner does not necessarily mean there’s anything wrong.
Navigating “Sex Rejection” in a Relationship
The “sex rejection” conversation is like so many things: less about what you say, and more about how you say it.
Your partner may feel “rejected” by you — even if you love them to pieces and enjoy being intimate with them. It’s important to let them into how you’re feeling when you’re not in the mood. Otherwise, they can personalize your not wanting to have sex in ways that feel hurtful.
When you don’t feel like having sex at that moment and need to communicate that to your partner, remember the meaning that we can make around “sexual rejection,” and how tender our feelings about it can be. Do what you can to help your partner feel loved, accepted, and desired by you, even if you aren’t in the mood for sex. Reassure them that they can still get you all hot and bothered — just not at the moment.
This is also a great time to open up a conversation about what you are in the mood for. Many couples get into an all-or-nothing routine when it comes to sex, but many alternatives meet many of the same needs, especially if your partner’s love language is physical touch. Maybe you could cuddle or go for a massage. Maybe a few sex acts are on the menu for you, even if you don’t want to commit to a full five-course meal. Communicating openly about what you want when connecting with your partner will only strengthen your relationship and your sexual connection.
If you’re declining opportunities for sexual intimacy with your partner, make sure you’re still prioritizing emotional intimacy. Continue to share your feelings — including your feelings about your sex life — so you can stay close and connected, even through “dry spells.”
When you’re the partner who doesn’t want to have sex, it can sometimes be tempting to “give in” and do it anyway, especially if not having sex has become a point of conflict. But this is a bad idea. No one should have sex they don’t want to, and doing so can create problems in your relationship and your sex life. It’s always better to be honest with yourself and your partner about how you’re feeling when you’re not in the mood, and then work through that together. This allows you to understand each other more deeply and strengthen your relationship.
Creating Rituals of Connection
There are few things less sexy than a spreadsheet, yet sometimes that’s the best way for couples to navigate desire discrepancy and have a healthy, fulfilling sex life. When you have routines in your life that intentionally support your emotional and physical connection with your partner, it’s easier for your desires to align.
If you schedule some mutually agreed upon time for intimacy with your partner — whether that means having sex or not — you might find that you have more sex with each other and experience less “rejection.” With your rituals of connection in place, neither of you will have to battle the nagging sense that you should be doing something else during your dedicated time together. There will also be more time for the excitement to build, helping both of you feel ready to go when the time arrives.
It’s true that you lose some of the spontaneous fun of sex when you have to send your partner a Gcal invite a week in advance, but if rejection has become a problem in your relationship, it’s probably been a while since you pounced on each other in the kitchen anyway. For most long-term committed couples (especially with kids!) the expectation that “sex should be spontaneous” is a myth and one that hurts their relationship.
Getting Help for Sexual Rejection in a Relationship
Just about every committed relationship involves some differences in sexual desire. Still, when couples go through long periods of time where sex isn’t happening (especially when one partner is more disappointed about that than the other), it can be hard on the relationship.
The partner who wishes they were having more sex can feel rejected, creating fertile soil for hurt feelings and resentment to grow. And when you start associating sex with conflict, restoring a positive sexual rhythm only becomes more difficult.
Working with a good sex therapist can help you and your partner build your understanding of each other, deepen your emotional and sexual intimacy, and find new ways of approaching sex in your relationship that feels more satisfying for you both.
Music in this episode is by La Femme with their song “Francoise.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://lafemmeressort.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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