How Saying No to Sex Can Help You Learn to Love It Again

Intimate couple during the act of sex

People often ask me to tell them one single thing they can do that will change their sex life for the better. My often surprising response? Say no to sex. That’s right: I firmly believe that the occasional, well-delivered “no” can make for more loving, pleasurable, mindful sex – a topic I spent a good amount of ink writing about in my book, Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction, and an idea that has resonated with many women and men I speak with at book clubs, parties, conferences and events. So how does this work?

We know from research studies that both women and men – but most often women – have sex that they don’t want to have. They may feel obligated to have sex, as if it’s their duty to their husband or partner or that if they don’t have sex with their partner then they may lose them. Many women have resigned themselves to believe that it’s easier to lie there and have sex, even to feign enjoyment, than to deal with their feelings of guilt, conflict or worries about being somehow sexually inadequate.

Sometimes having sex when you don’t want to turns out well. A few minutes into kissing or touching you may think “Hey, this feels good! How come we don’t do this more often?”

Other times, sex feels the opposite of good. It feels sad. It feels disconnecting or empty. You wonder why your partner can’t tell that you don’t want to be there doing what you’re doing. And soon you enter what I call a Cycle of Dread where bad sex begets dread which begs more bad sex which begets more dread: On the way home from work, you start thinking about how your partner is going to try to have sex with you or you go to sleep early, or fall asleep in your toddler’s bed after story time, hoping to avoid another attempt at sex.

This is where the “no” comes in.

You may shy away from saying “no” to sex because you worry – or have seen first hand – that your partner will feel rejected, unloved, or unwanted. He may have asked if you still find him attractive or if you’re in love with someone else. Trying to explain and deal with your different desires can be overwhelming or just plain annoying.

But what if you learned to say “no” in a way that didn’t hurt the relationship but actually enhanced it? What if it could free you of the Cycle of Dread and bring back pleasurable sex?

In Because It Feels Good – my attempt to turn science-backed information about sex into concrete tips that women and men can apply to their everyday lives – I wrote in depth about the concept of the enhancing “no”. To deliver an effective, enhancing, better-sex-no, you need to:

1)   Be personally aware of, and honest with yourself, about the true reason you don’t want to have sex (Too tired? Stressed? Angry at your partner? Feeling sick? Different sex drives?)

2)   Communicate the true reason to your partner.

3)   Offer something else that is relationship-enhancing.

What does this look like?  Consider something like this:

“As much as I love you and want you and need you, I’ve got to tell you: I am utterly exhausted after chasing the kids around today and it’s easier for me to get into sex, and to enjoy it, when I’m relaxed and rested. I’d love to take a rain check for another night or for the weekend, when your parents have the kids.”

Or this:

“I want to be sexual with you tonight but for some reason, the idea of sex the way we normally do it isn’t where my mind’s at tonight. What do you think about making out for a while and then maybe masturbating together or having oral sex? It’s been a while since we did that.”

As I wrote in Because It Feels Good, there’s no way around it: a “no” is still a “no.” But a “no, not tonight” feels a lot like rejection to many of us whereas a “no, but can we do this other thing?” helps us to feel closer and stay in the game. It also opens the door to opportunities for making out, oral sex, or sex on another night that feels deliciously pleasurable and, most of all, wanted. Which, over time, helps get women (or men) out of a Cycle of Dread and back into the real of desire.

[Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.]

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.

  • http://beasexpert.com/ Chelle

    This is some really great information. I really appreciate you sharing it and I can’t wait to pick up your book.

  • http://beasexpert.com Chelle

    This is some really great information. I really appreciate you sharing it and I can’t wait to pick up your book.

  • Rob

    One would have to carry through on the follow-up activities for this to work. I’ve been following an online group for sexless marriages this year, and there would appear to be a lot of partners (of both genders and orientations) who reach a point in a relationship where they are unwilling to end it for whatever reason, but will use any excuse or delaying tactic to avoid intimacy. This gets to be very wearing on the other partner…

  • Rob

    One would have to carry through on the follow-up activities for this to work. I’ve been following an online group for sexless marriages this year, and there would appear to be a lot of partners (of both genders and orientations) who reach a point in a relationship where they are unwilling to end it for whatever reason, but will use any excuse or delaying tactic to avoid intimacy. This gets to be very wearing on the other partner…

  • B G..

    Hey Debby,
    I’ve only just discovered your blog today and it’s pretty awesome… This post interests me quite a bit as hearing no can send my mind into all sorts of trail of thoughts..
    I’ve had quite a high sex drive ever since puberty but didn’t first have sex until I was 18, so until then it was day in day out masturbation mostly multiple times a day. So at 18 along comes my current partner whom I have been with for nearly 11 years. The sex, foreplay and desire can be great but our sex drives are far from close.
    She can go days, weeks with out any sexual contact and I honestly can’t go any longer than 24 hours without it driving me mad.

    The concept of saying ‘no’ doesn’t really work for me, I do believe that being in a relationship it’s my responsibility to provide sexually for her when needed as it is hers for me. And this isn’t only a reference to intercourse this includes anything masturbation, oral etc..
    I’ve always been the person to initiate anything sexual in our relationship probably 90%+ of the time, and getting a knock back (no, I’m too tired, I don’t want too etc) quite often leaves me feeling like rubbish and sends my mind into overdrive with all the why nots, or any past problems we’ve had (sexually related and non sexually related problems). It’s also a similar feeling when she says yes and makes it blatantly obvious she doesn’t want to do it.

    When it comes to sex, I don’t need to have intercourse I just have the desire to be aroused and fulfilled whether it be intercourse or masturbation etc.. For me sex/arousal is amongst the best feelings on earth, it can clear my mind and make any stresses vanish for the moment.
    If I have a hard stressful day or just a stressful period in my life the demand for sexual arouse increase and provides that feel good factor, so when it comes to seeking that from my partner in stressful times and getting a negative reply it just feels it adds an extra kick to the stress.

    This is something we have discussed on several occasions, but never seems to change and I’m not trying to put my partner down we can have great sex, we have many toys and can be quite adventurous at times discovering different pleasures. For me it’s not quality that’s the issue its frequency. And I kind of understand that my daily demands for sexual arousal from my partner as well as my daily self masturbation maybe generally higher than others.

    I would love to have a partner with an equal sex drive, but I love my partner so much that that isn’t an option for me.

    So all in all a ‘No’ doesn’t work and has never worked for me! It leaves my emotions highly strung, stresses me out and makes me question things..

    You say in your book you spent quite a bit of ink on this topic and I am interested in reading this section, although it scares me to think what would happen if my partner read it.. Would it be like an extra encouragement to say no….

    I’ve bookmarked you’re blog site… And can’t wait to read more of your blogs..

    Hope your well and looking forward to Christmas..

    B