While declining a partner’s sexual advances is a normal part of long-term relationships, new research sheds light on the fact that some ways to turn down a partner are less harmful than others. The findings were published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Research suggests that it is remarkably common for couples to experience a mismatch in sexual needs and to encounter situations when one partner needs to turn down the other’s advances. Given that sexual rejection can be very painful for the receiver and is associated with reduced relationship satisfaction, researchers were motivated to explore whether there are specific ways to turn down a partner that are better received than others.

“We were interested in this topic as limited past research had looked at the impact of sexual rejection in relationships, especially in terms of the specific ways that romantic partners reject one another for sex,” said study author James J. Kim of the University of Toronto.

“As couples regularly experience sexual conflicts in their relationship, it can be difficult to navigate situations where partners have divergent levels of sexual interest. We wanted to know whether there might be optimal ways that people can decline their partner for sex to help maintain the quality of their sexual relationship.”

In two initial studies among samples of sexually active men and women in relationships, Kim and his colleagues identified a list of common sexual rejection behaviors and came up with a 20-item scale they deemed the Sexual Rejection Scale (SRS).

“We found four distinct types of behaviors that people use when rejecting their partner for sex, characterized principally by: reassurance, hostility, assertiveness, and deflection,” Kim told PsyPost.

In a follow-up study, the researchers then tested an adapted version of the SRS scale that measured a person’s perception of rejection behaviors coming from their partner. They found that respondents who perceived more sexual rejection from their partners had lower sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction.

Interestingly, certain behaviors appeared to protect against the harmful effects of rejection. People who perceived their partners to be using reassuring behaviors (i.e., showing care and love when rejecting them) showed greater relationship and sexual satisfaction. Those who perceived hostile behaviors from their partners (i.e., acting hurtfully when rejecting them) showed lower relationship and sexual satisfaction.

Finally, the researchers conducted a 28-day study to examine how sexual rejection behaviors would influence daily relationship and sexual satisfaction. The study authors additionally examined whether perceived partner responsiveness might help explain the harmful effects of hostile behaviors and the positive effects of reassuring behaviors.

A sample of 98 Canadian couples who were living together was sent daily electronic surveys to complete every evening for 28 days. The couples filled out the surveys separately and were instructed to refrain from discussing the surveys together. At each survey, the respondents indicated whether they or their partners had higher sexual desire that day. On days when they indicated that they were more interested than their partners and did not engage in sex, they were asked to rate the extent that their partners’ had communicated their sexual disinterest by engaging in hostile, reassuring, assertive, or deflecting behaviors.

The findings followed a similar pattern to the previous study. “On days people perceived their partners as more reassuring in their rejection behaviors, they reported greater relationship and sexual satisfaction from the previous day, whereas on days when people perceived their partner as communicating their sexual disinterest in more hostile ways, they reported lower relationship satisfaction, but not significantly lower sexual satisfaction,” the researchers reported.

The researchers also found that perceived partner responsiveness mediated these effects. When people experienced rejection that was communicated in a reassuring way, they felt greater perceived responsiveness from their partners, and in turn, greater relationship and sexual satisfaction. When people experienced rejection that was hostile, they felt their partners were less responsive and, in turn, experienced lower relationship and sexual satisfaction.

“Importantly, we found that conveying reassurance during rejection (e.g., letting your partner know you still love them or are attracted to them) helps to buffer against the negative effects of sexual rejection, and that this type of reassurance uniquely predicted higher relationship and sexual satisfaction in couples,” Kim told PsyPost.

These findings are in line with Risk Regulation Theory, which posits that when rejection is a possibility, feeling accepted and valued by one’s partner offers a feeling of security that dissuades the self-protection response and promotes the goal of seeking connection.

“As these situations are highly sensitive and emotionally charged in nature, the current research revealed the importance of demonstrating responsiveness and positive regard when rejecting a partner’s sexual advances,” Kim and his team wrote in their study. “Indeed, we found robust evidence across studies that reassuring sexual rejection behaviors represent an important way couples may be able to maintain satisfaction when partners’ sexual interests are at odds.”

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“Here, we examined the daily effects of sexual rejection in couples over a month-long period, so we cannot speak to the longer-term effects of how distinct sexual rejection behaviors might shape relationship outcomes,” Kim explained. “Also, we primarily focused on people’s perceptions of their partner’s rejection behaviors, which may not always correspond to partners’ actual behaviors. The degree to which people’s perceptions of sexual rejection from their partner tend to be accurate or biased remains an avenue for future work.”

“Our study focused on sexual rejection dynamics between partners in established long-term relationships,” Kim added. “In this relationship context, our findings highlight how crucial it is to communicate reassurance when declining a partner’s sexual advances given the sensitive nature of sexual rejection.”

The study, “When Tonight Is Not the Night: Sexual Rejection Behaviors and Satisfaction in Romantic Relationships”, was authored by James J. Kim, Amy Muise, John K. Sakaluk, Natalie O. Rosen, and Emily A. Impett.