In the not too distant past, the rules of sexual engagement seemed quite straightforward: the man, being subjected to sexual urges, would ask his wife for sex, and the woman, being not troubled by any sexual feelings, was obliged to do her marital duty and submit to her husband.
Of course, that wasn't how it played out in all relationships, particularly if the woman had a higher drive than the male. In those cases, he was inadequate and she was aggressive.
However, things became much more complicated when the sexual revolution kicked off in the 1960s. Sex was no longer a simple embrace with a bit of extra activity: it had to be passionate, varied, intense, hot, prolonged and, both partners should initiate it 50/50.
In addition, new layers of meaning were added to sexual interaction, as saying no to sex was no longer merely an abrogation of marital duty, but also became interpreted as personal rejection, selfishness, sexual hangups, lack of attraction –- particularly if the "no" was more frequent than the "yes". Yet, in my clinical work, I find that couples often don't have the skills to work out what might be the real issue, and what to do about it.
Differences in sexual wants and needs is one reason to say no. There are, however, other reasons why someone says no to sex.
1. Different levels of libido
There are many couples who have a good relationship and similar appreciation of sex, but one partner wants sex more often than the other. Imagine a once-a-week person with a three times a week partner -- there are clearly going to be instances where the higher drive partner is keen and the other just isn't into it.
Perhaps surprisingly, Australian research shows that the majority of couples in this situation seem to work it out to a good enough degree. The lower-drive partner is sometimes willing to have sexual activity of one kind or another when they would otherwise prefer to do something else, and the higher-drive person makes up the difference with either solo sex or quiet forbearance.
For those who haven't reached this level of understanding, the way forward is genuine, respectful communication about what would be a reasonable compromise, based on what each is prepared to do to meet the needs of the other.
We live in a 24/7 society where many people seem busy and stressed, so it's no surprise that this impacts on a couple's sex life. Often couples leave sex until the end of a day which has been filled with work, kids, domestic chores, and social media or television. Some people feel more like sex in the morning, but if the partner needs to get up and get organised for the day, there are few opportunities, so last thing at night seems to be the default.
Problems arise when one partner finds sex a great stress reliever or a good way to get to sleep and the other just wants to sleep. One practical option is that the couple put away their devices and go to bed early -- you can always get up later to catch up on anything you may have missed. Alternatively, if the sleepy partner agrees to sex, keep your expectations low, this isn't the time to want high performance sex; sometimes, if they stay conscious, that's a bonus.
3. Performance anxiety
Magazine articles and self-help books promise the secrets of great sexual performance, and we never see a man lose erection or a woman fail to climax in erotic movies. Given all this pressure, some individuals say no to sex if they worry they are going to fail in some way. Nevertheless, many couples who have a sexual difficulty such as coming quickly or not reaching orgasm at all, still have satisfying sex lives.
So what is their secret?
They focus on what they and their partner bring to the encounter, not what might be missing. They say what is right, such as "I love having cuddly sex" or "that was just what I needed", and given this positive feedback, both feel more confident and more likely to say yes. Many people, males and females, that I talk to just want to know that their partner is happy to be so close to them, so a smile, eye contact, a touch of the face, a stroke down the back or a languorous snuggle can be more important than hot and happening sex.
Resentment is the most toxic reason why one partner refuses the sexual advances of the other. It is more representative of a relationship problem than a sexual one, but plays out in the sexual arena. The triggers for one partner to store resentment are diverse, but the core issue is usually that the partner who says no doesn't feel respected by the other (often shown by calling the partner names such as "stupid" or "useless" or worse); doesn't feel listened to by their partner (no matter what they say, their partner often ignores or belittles their point of view); or their partner ignores attempts to address any problems, often denying there is a problem (if one partner says there is a problem, there is clearly a problem).
This isn't about saying no to sex to punish their partner, and it isn't blackmail. How can a person be close to another and want to have intimate connection with them when the message is their partner doesn't really like, love or care for them? The best way to improve your sex life is listen to your partner and respectfully discuss the issues that concern them.
Few couples are perfectly matched, so saying no to sex is almost inevitable. How you say it (softly, kindly) and how you respond (gently, with understanding) will help maintain future intimacy.