Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Aug 13, 2018

The Relationship Implications of Rejecting a Partner for Sex Kindly Versus Having Sex Reluctantly

Image of woman sitting on the edge of the bed, upset/thinking, with man frustrated laying in bed

Romantic couples often find themselves in situations in which partners have discrepant levels of sexual desire, and research shows that conflicts of interest about sex predict negative relationship outcomes and are among the most difficult types of relationship issues to resolve. Given the pertinence of this type of conflict for couples’ lives, it is essential to understand how partners might be able to navigate these situations more successfully to sustain the quality of their relationship and sex life.

For example, Mary may want to have sex one night, but Joe is not in the mood. During these times, Joe may experience conflicting goals: While he might not want to disappoint Mary or risk conflict in the relationship, he may also want to find a way to decline Mary’s sexual advances while preserving their connection.

In one scenario, Joe might consider accepting Mary’s advances and engaging in sex, but he might pursue sex with Mary for avoidance goals such as to avoid disappointing her. In another scenario, Joe might instead express his disinterest in having sex and decline Mary’s advances in positive, reassuring ways such as by letting her know he is still attracted to her. But between these two particular scenarios, might one predict better outcomes than the other for Joe and Mary’s relationship?

In the present research, we were interested in examining how the consequences of engaging in sex for avoidance goals would compare to rejecting a partner in positive ways. On the one hand, since avoidance sexual goals are associated with lower satisfaction, people might be better protected against experiencing negative relationship outcomes if their partner declines their advances in a way that shows understanding, validation, and caring for their needs. On the other hand, in light of research showing that couples typically report higher satisfaction on days when they engage in sex compared to days when they do not, it is possible that engaging in sex for any type of goal—including avoidance goals—might be better than declining or being declined for sex, even in reassuring and loving ways.

We first examined these possibilities in an online experimental study. Participants in romantic relationships responded to a hypothetical situation in which they imagined initiating sex with their partner, and were then presented with scenarios depicting distinct types of partner behaviors, which included their partner either: (1) accepting their sexual advances for avoidance sexual goals (e.g. to prevent a partner from being upset) or (2) rejecting their sexual advances but in positive, reassuring ways. Participants then reported how satisfied they expected to feel about their relationship and sex life. We found that being rejected by a partner in reassuring ways was associated with significantly greater relationship and sexual satisfaction compared to a partner engaging in sex for avoidance sexual goals. We also replicated these findings in an additional experimental study that used a within-person design to maximize statistical power.

In another study, we sought to test our research question within couples’ daily lives. We conducted a daily experience study of romantic couples, in which both partners filled out daily surveys concerning their relationship and sex life for 4-weeks. This study design allowed us to contrast levels of daily relationship and sexual satisfaction when sex was pursued for avoidance goals with levels of satisfaction when rejecting a partner for sex in positive, reassuring ways. We found that individuals and their partners experienced no differences in relationship satisfaction on days in which they rejected their partner for sex in more positive, reassuring ways compared to days in which they had sex for avoidance goals at higher than average levels. We did not find a similar pattern of results for sexual satisfaction in Study 2, however. Engaging in sex for avoidance goals (or when one’s partner pursued sex for avoidance goals) was always associated with greater daily sexual satisfaction than rejecting (or being rejected) in a positive manner. These findings, however, are not too surprising since sexual satisfaction may be more contingent on having one’s sexual needs physically met and less so on how one feels about the relationship more generally. Additional analyses provided evidence for the generalizability of our findings as gender, sexual frequency, and relationship length did not consistently moderate our effects. Furthermore, longitudinal analyses were conducted to test whether higher levels of avoidance sexual goals and positive rejection over the course of the diary predicted satisfaction at the end of the study. These findings suggested that over time, chronically engaging in avoidance sex may have detrimental consequences and engaging in positive rejection behaviors may help sustain satisfaction, particularly for partners.  

In short, the current set of studies provides initial insight into alternative behaviors that couples like Joe and Mary can pursue in situations of conflicting sexual interest when their avoidance goals for sex are high. The current set of studies suggest that positive rejection is a viable alternative behavior to engaging in avoidance motivated sex that can help romantic both partners sustain the quality of their relationship.

James Kim is a graduate student in the Social Personality Research Group at the University of Toronto.

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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