We’ve all been there. You’re lying next to your partner, thinking about how sexy they look. You roll over for a little foreplay and hear those dreaded words. They could be anything from, “Jesus, not again!” to “Can’t you just masturbate and say we did?” to “Not tonight, honey.”

No matter what they say, it’s going to sting. Most of us weren't taught to handle rejection, especially not in sexual contexts. Plus, some kinds of rejection pills are easier to swallow than others. Unless you’re looking for a little masochism, a polite “not tonight” hurts less than a curt “take care of it yourself.”

These situations are virtually impossible to avoid. At some point, you and your partner will have different levels of sexual interest. It’s normal and OK. In fact, it’s one of the most common things that bring couples to sex therapy. One day you’re into it, another day they’re into it. Most of the time it’s no big deal. Couples learn to deal with it. In extreme cases, it causes conflict within relationships. Either way, there's a good way to deal with turning down our partners and some not so good ways. We'll take a look at both.

What Does Science Say?

If this is something that can wreak havoc in your intimate life, then it deserves a closer look.

A new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships did that. They learned the way you let your partner down can affect the quality of your relationship and your sex life.

Let’s say you’re in the mood to mingle and your partner isn’t. There are a few principle ways your partner can handle that situation.

  1. They can have sex with you anyway to ensure you don’t get mad.

  2. They can have sex with you anyway to acknowledge your needs and give you pleasure.

  3. They can turn you down by getting upset, criticizing you, or starting a fight.

  4. They can turn you down and offer an alternative, such as cuddling, kissing, or reminding you how much they love you.

The study showed that people’s relationship and sexual satisfaction remained highest when their partner

  1. Had sex with them to give pleasure, or
  2. Turned them down by offering an alternative.

Their relationship and sexual satisfaction were the lowest when their partner turned them down by criticizing them.

Shocking, I know.

This isn't the first study to show that sexual rejection affects the health of your relationship.

  • A study in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology showed that men often perceive their wives’ time with male friends as sexual rejection. They respond with anger and frustration. The more time their wife spent with male friends, the more frustrated they became.

  • A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior showed that women take sexual rejection a little harder than men. Researchers think this is in part due to gender expectations. Men tend to be more open to casual sex, so rejection is a bigger deal. It may also be related to gender conformity. The more feminine a person's identity, the more offended they may be.

  • Building on established research, a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that people willing to have sex with their partner when they aren't in the mood have happier relationships and better sex lives. Partner-focused decision-making results in both people enjoying satisfaction over the long run.

What You Can Do

Disparate sex drives, be they variable or static, can happen for a variety of reasons. The first step is exploration. Why does one person want sex more often than the other? Is it biological? It’s possible one of you is facing side effects of a medication or has a medical issue. There could be a sexual dysfunction, fatigue, or hormonal imbalance. It may be more psychological. Things like stress, depression, trauma, or body image issues can crop up. Conflicts within the relationship can have long-lasting effects on intimacy. If possible, getting at the root of the problem is the best solution for long-term success.

Having an open conversation with your partner is a great place to start. Ask a lot of questions; probe deep to find out what the possible source may be. Make a list of potential causes. Physical, psychosomatic, psychological, social. Exhaust all your options - but do it together, otherwise your partner might see it as an affront.

If you can’t find the cause or don’t want to talk about it, compromise is an option. Science tells us there are ways to approach the issue that will more likely preserve your relationship - not to mention your partner's feelings.

If you’re undecided, put yourself in a “communal” frame of mind. Decide for the good of the relationship and go from there. Having sex to show your partner love, pleasure and solidarity is OK. However, giving in to appease them, manipulate them, or keep them around is not. They’ll usually be able to tell the difference. So keep that in mind when you make your decision.

If sex is off-the-table, be kind and loving with your rejection. You can offer kisses, cuddles, or more sex later. Just make sure they don’t feel criticized for asking.

Just Be Nice

Relationships are complicated. You probably weren't handed a guide on how to navigate the sexual conflicts in which you find yourself. Science tells us rejecting your partner likely can’t be avoided. And that's OK. After all, rejecting your partner in a kind, positive way may be better for your relationship than (grudgingly) giving in.