What’s the best way to let your partner know you’re not in the mood?

By Charlotte Caswell & Grace Schwenck

This blog is a summary of the published article: Kim, J. J., Muise, A., Sakaluk, J. K., Rosen, N. O., & Impett, E. A. (2020). When tonight is not the night: Sexual rejection behaviors and satisfaction in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin46(10), 1476-1490. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220907469

Sexual rejection is a common experience in romantic relationships, and often occurs when a couple experiences differing levels of sexual desire. [1] In a study sampling a 3-week period, couples reported desire discrepancy on more than two-thirds of days, [2] and a study of married and cohabitating couples found that sexual rejection occurred about once a week [3]. Although common, sexual rejection can be a painful emotional experience and is associated with lower levels of relationship and sexual satisfaction. [3]

Considering how common it is to have differing levels of desire within a couple, then what’s the best way to let your partner know you’re not in the mood while maintaining relationship and sexual satisfaction? That’s what Kim et al. [1] set out to determine over the course of 4 studies!

As such, the purpose of this research was two-fold:

  1. Create and validate the Sexual Rejection Scale (SRS) which evaluates the specific behaviours people engage in when rejecting their partner’s sexual advance (Studies 1 and 2).
  2. Determine if there are specific rejection behaviours that preserve the relationship and sexual satisfaction of the rejected partner (Studies 3 and 4).

How was this done?

All participants in Pilot Studies 1 and 2, and Studies 1, 2, and 3 were sexually active, older than 18, in relationships and recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to complete online surveys.

The two pilot studies were completed to determine the different rejection behaviours people use to decline their partner’s sexual advances. Participants answered the open-ended questions regarding things they did to prevent their partner from feeling negative emotions when they were rejecting them sexually (Pilot Study 1; 226 participants) and some ways they sexually reject their partner that may make their partner feel negative emotions (Pilot Study 2; 230 participants).

Based on their responses, four sexual rejection behaviours were identified: reassuring (e.g., being reassuring, showing love), hostile (e.g., criticizing), assertive (e.g., being straightforward, direct), and deflecting (e.g., pretending not to notice).

In both Study 1 and 2 participants completed the SRS, indicating how frequently they engaged in each of the sexual rejection behaviours on a 5-point scale (1 – never and 5 – very frequently).

In Study 3, in addition to the SRS, 315 participants responded to a variety of questions about their relationship and sex life. They also completed a partner perception version of the SRS (e.g., “On average, how often does your partner reject your sexual advances?”).

In Study 4, 98 Canadian couples, older than 18 and living together in a relationship for at least 2 years, were recruited from Kijiji.ca. Each participant completed an online survey responding to questions about their background information, and then completed a daily survey for 28 days. The daily survey included questions about their sexual relationship and rejection behaviours.

What did we find?

  • When someone perceives a higher frequency of sexual rejection from their partner, they also report lower relationship and sexual satisfaction.
  • However, on days when people perceive their partners as using more reassuring rejection behaviours, they reported greater relationship and sexual satisfaction compared to the previous day.
  • On the other hand, on days when people perceived their partner’s rejection behaviour as more hostile, they reported lower relationship satisfaction (but not lower sexual satisfaction).
  • There were no significant findings regarding participants’ perception of assertive or deflecting rejecting behaviours and their reports of sexual and relationship satisfaction.

Why are these findings important?

While sexual rejection is a common occurrence in long-term, romantic relationships, these situations can also be extremely sensitive and emotionally charged. This research supports the importance of using reassuring behaviours (e.g., letting your partner know you are still attracted to them and love them, offering alternate forms of physical contact) when sexually rejecting a partner. Using reassuring behaviours will support the maintenance of relationship and sexual satisfaction when couples find that their sexual interests do not match. In contrast, hostile rejecting behaviours (e.g., criticizing how your partner initiated sex or aspects of your relationship, giving your partner the silent treatment) is associated with the most negative outcomes for satisfaction.

These findings have important implications for therapists and couples navigating desire discrepancies and other sexual problem in relationships. Specifically, couples in which one or both partners experience clinically significant sexual problems (e.g., chronically low sexual desire, pain during sex, erectile dysfunction), as these couples may have more difficulty communicating their needs while maintain their relationship and sexual well-being.


[1] Kim, J. J., Muise, A., Sakaluk, J. K., Rosen, N. O., & Impett, E. A. (2020). When tonight is not the night: Sexual rejection behaviors and satisfaction in romantic relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin46(10), 1476-1490. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220907469

[2] Day, L. C., Muise, A., Joel, S., & Impett, E. A. (2015). To do it or not to do it? How communally motivated people navigate sexual interdependence dilemmas. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 41(6), 791-804. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167215580129

[3] Byers, E. S., & Heinlein, L. (1989). Predicting initiations and refusals of sexual activities in married and cohabiting heterosexual couples. Journal of Sex Research, 26(2), 210-231.