You initiated sex, but your partner said “no”. My six-step process for gracefully handling rejection

March 30,2021

Xander turned me down for sex. 

And it sucked. 

We’ve put so much work into communicating about our wants and needs, initiating sex more skillfully, and turning each other down gracefully. I did a good job initiating, and Xander did a good job reacting. 

And yet, it still sucked.

There’s just so much vulnerability that goes into initiating sex!

Anytime you ask for anything you want, it’s a vulnerable experience. You’re putting yourself out there, and in the position to be turned down.

And no matter what the circumstances, getting turned down always sucks!

So today I want to talk about how to deal when you want sex but your partner says “no.”

Step 1: Accept the “no”

Yes, getting turned down sucks. 

And the bottom line is that your partner always gets to decide what they do with their own body. 

I know you understand that, and I know you don’t want your partner forcing or pressuring themselves to have sex with you if they’re not feeling it. No one likes pity sex! You want to know that your partner actually WANTS to have sex with you!

So tell your partner that you respect their decision. Do not push, guilt, or manipulate them into changing their mind. 

Step 2: Feel and validate your feelings

Next, allow yourself to feel whatever comes up for you.

It’s OK for your partner to say “no”, and it’s OK for you to feel bummed out about it. 

Trying to pretend you don’t care is only going to make you feel more frustrated, so it’s best to honestly acknowledge your own feelings. 

Take a moment to say to yourself, “OK, this stings. This sucks. It’s OK for me to feel this way.” 

You can also remind yourself that you get to have needs! 

Hearing “no” can bring up a lot of shame. When you add sex to the equation, it can magnify that shame. (And if you’re a woman with a male partner, there’s even more shame, but that’s an entirely separate email.)

It can make you feel like you shouldn’t have asked or shouldn’t even have wanted sex in the first place. 

But don’t do that to yourself. 

You get to have needs. Your partner saying “no” doesn’t invalidate your needs.

Step 3: Express your feelings

Depending on the circumstances, you may want to share your feelings with your partner. 

You have to be really careful here, because you’re not aiming to guilt your partner into changing their mind.

Your only goal here is to express your feelings and be seen in those feelings. 

Being seen is one of our deepest human needs, and it feels especially good when we’re having challenging emotions. 

Gently, and without expectation, tell your partner that you’re bummed. I love the word “bummed” because it feels pretty gentle to me. (As opposed to “disappointed”, which, for me, implies a strong judgment.)

Aim for the same sort of tone you would use if you wanted sushi for dinner but it’s your partner’s turn to pick and they want Mexican. You’re bummed, but it’s not the end of the world. 

Now, let’s step into your partner’s shoes for a moment. It’s easy for the partner who is saying “no” to think that all you were looking for was sex. (Especially if sex has become a challenging topic in your relationship.)

But I’m guessing that what you’re really looking for is connection and intimacy! After all, if you just wanted an orgasm, you could go masturbate. 

I think it’s really helpful to share your true motivations with your partner. 

When Xander turned me down, I said, “I accept your ‘no.’ And I just wanted to share that I’m bummed about not being able to connect with you. I’ve been missing you all day and wanted to have some quality time together.”

Another key piece here is to reiterate that you respect your partner’s decision. If they get defensive or upset, say something like, “I’m not trying to convince you to change your mind. I see and respect your ‘no’. I just wanted to share my experience with you so you can see and acknowledge me too.”

Step 4: Get curious

If your partner says “no”, but doesn’t give a reason, you can try very, VERY gently asking what’s coming up for them. 

But ONLY if you can ask with genuine curiosity and openness, instead of argumentativeness or entitlement. 

After I told Xander I was bummed about not being able to connect with him, I asked him, “How did you feel about me asking you to have sex?” (Notice that this question is nice and open, instead of something judgmental like, “What’s wrong with you?”)

We take being turned down personally, but the reasons our partner turns us down often have very little to do with us. 

For example, your partner might be stressed from work or distracted by the trash that you promised you’d take out.

If you can feel genuinely curious about what’s coming up for your partner in that moment, you may find that there are ways for the two of you to work together as a team to remove those roadblocks. 

Maybe your partner just needs to vent about work for 10 minutes before they can relax into intimacy with you. Or maybe if you took the trash out, that would clear some brain space for them. 

It’s not your job to fix everything, and sometimes your partner may just not be in the mood anyways, but you may be able to help them relax to the point of being more open to intimacy and connection. 

Step 5: Take care of yourself

Next, see if you need to take any time to take care of yourself. 

Again, this is all about giving yourself permission to feel your feelings. Would it help to go on a quick run? Go sit in your room alone for a few minutes? Masturbate? 

Give yourself some space to move through your feelings. 

Step 6: Loop back around

I want to acknowledge that you may find yourself in a situation where your partner is turning you down the vast majority of the times you initiate. This is definitely the case for so many couples. 

If initiation has become a huge issue in your relationship, or if you feel like your sex drives are wildly mismatched, you may need to have a separate conversation about your sex life. 

Do not try to have this conversation right after they’ve turned you down! Instead, come back to the conversation a separate time. 

Want initiation to feel FUN in your relationship? We have a masterclass called Initiate Sex So Your Partner Will Want To Say “Yes”, And Consider Your Partner’s Initiations Even When You Feel Like A “No”.


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I'm Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and writer specializing in helping you have more fun in the bedroom.

I have bachelor’s degrees in human sexuality and sociology from Brown University, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. I’m also a licensed psychotherapist. I’ve been working in the sex therapy field since 2002 and have been featured by The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and many more.

If you’re interested in improving your sex life, you can work with me via my online courses or personal coaching sessions. I look forward to supporting you in creating the sex life you’ve always wanted!