The other day, I did something I thought I'd never do: I had sex solely because it seemed like my partner wanted to. He seemed so excited about it, I just didn't have to heart to tell him "no." I couldn't figure out how to turn down sex without hurting his feelings. The sex wasn't unpleasant or anything; I just had other stuff I wanted to get done and wasn't super in the mood. And he didn't violate my boundaries; he wouldn't stopped if I say "no" or became unresponsive. It was more like I violated my own boundaries.
I know I'm not alone. Many people, especially women, have trouble saying "no" to all sorts of things including sex. Of course, we should be able to say "no" to sex in any way we want, especially if someone's being pushy. But many of us feel nervous about potentially bruising our partners' egos, implying that we're less into them than we are, or discouraging them so that they stop initiating sex altogether.
"Many times in a relationship, there are ebbs and flows to sex and desire," Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist Marissa Nelson tells Bustle. "The cycle I see many couples go through is: one partner will request sex and the other will not want to engage in sex and holds back from touch and foreplay for fear that their affection will lead to their partner demanding sex. Then, guilt, anxiety, and blame set in, both never really addressing what their sexual and emotional needs are."
But there are healthy ways to turn down sex without withdrawing from your partner or hurting their feelings. Here are a few.
Let Them Know It's Not Them
Your partner will be less likely to take your lack of interest personally if you make it clear that you love them and are attracted to them. You could even add that you'll let them know if you're in the mood later, though you should certainly feel no pressure to be. Your goal should be "to convey 'I may not want sex, but I always want and care for you,'" says Nelson. This gives you "the space and freedom for desire to unfold for each person," she adds.
Plan Sexy Dates
If you find that you're not in the mood for sex when your partner initiates it spontaneously, it may help to plan sex in advance. To help get you both in the mood, you can accompany the plan with a romantic or sexy date.
"This builds anticipation and makes couples intentional about their sexual life and connection to each other," says Nelson. "Each date, couples should allow each other to be completely uninhibited and incorporate fantasy, seduction, and eroticism. It can be the place to explore fetishes and things that they would normally keep to themselves so that their sex life is constantly evolving and they are exploring intimacy in different ways." Of course, even then, there's no obligation whatsoever to have sex if you're not both into it.
Focus On Foreplay
Even if you're not enthused about sex at the moment, you might still enjoy foreplay (or you might not, which is also fine). Some people won't engage in foreplay because they're scared it has to lead to sex. But your partner might be just as excited about oral or manual sex as they are about intercourse.
Continue Showing Affection In Other Ways
Instead of withholding touch because you're scared it will lead to sex, establish an understanding that one form of touch doesn't have to lead to another, and continue showing affection. This can include "bathing together, massages, cuddling and kissing — all of which desire can come from — or not," says Nelson. "This touch creates safety around pleasure with the only intention of bonding and intimacy without the guilt and demands. It allows freedom to explore without feeling guilty or convinced to have sex when you don want to." This also prevents your partner from confusing a lack of sex with a lack of love.
You should never have to feel afraid of turning down sex, because there are so many other ways for you and your partner to connect, and it's always OK to say "no."