How to Handle Hearing "No" to Sex

Nicholas A. Natale, PhD


While driving home from work, a tantalizing thought hits you: Since the kids left for spring break yesterday, Sheila and I will have time to ourselves. Unconsciously, you find yourself speeding to get home in anticipation of the intimate time, only to feel disappointed later at the words, “Not tonight, honey, I’m too tired.”               

Sound familiar?

One of the most common concerns I hear from couples working to improve intimacy centers on dealing with feelings of rejection.  You may relate.  Rejection: that isolating feeling which permeates you after your spouse says “no” at your attempt to initiate.  It can often leave you feeling left-out, a little embarrassed, or even question whether you’re wanted. 

The issue can become a serious obstacle in your relationship.  If a person consistently feels rejected, s/he may stop initiating all together; begin resenting his/her spouse; start withdrawing emotionally; and in some cases, instigate looking elsewhere for his/her desires for attention to be met.  

How a person handles hearing the dreaded “no,” “not tonight,” “I’m sorry,” or “maybe later?” can make all the relational difference in the world. 

An Opportunity

Here’s a guiding thought that helps with this issue:

“What you do when sex is not flourishing can actually help sex to flourish.”

In other words, your response to rejection either helps or hinders your sexual pursuits.  Consider your reaction when your spouse expresses disinterest in sex now as an opportunity to demonstrate love and grace in your relationship that can help later.  I know, I know – “easier said than done!”  Trust me, though, how you act to the rebuff makes all the difference.  Handling the situation with love, understanding, and patience proves a worthwhile endeavor.

What to Do in the Moment

It’s not easy to hear that he doesn’t want to be with you right now.  “I stepped up and initiated; something he said he wanted me to do more.”  You may have been thinking about it all day. You took the risk to make your move, fantasizing how it might unfold only to be shut down! Very frustrating!

Hearing “no” can stir all sorts of thoughts and questions – “Is there something wrong with me?”  “Does he still love me?  Where is she getting it if not from me?  Does he find me attractive?”  Questions like these influence unpleasant and negative emotions and escalate the possibility of lashing out in hurt, and building even more marital tension.  Instead, quickly learn to gain perspective of what’s really going on without allowing your emotions to exacerbate the situation. 

A couple things can help make the most of a potentially tricky situation:

1.      Take a moment to gather your thoughts and emotions, especially anger, before you respond.  Breathe before you speak. 

2.      Let him know that you understand and you’re not upset. 

3.      Express your sincerity in wanting to be with her at some point when she’s ready. 

4.      Verbally express your love to her. 

5.      Ask him to let you know when he is ready. 

6.      Involve yourself in another activity to get your mind off it.  The last thing you want to do is fixate on negative emotions.  Move on. 

Is there a Bigger Issue? 

These tips are helpful in the moment, but is there a bigger issue in the relationship?  Usually, a person doesn’t experience feelings of rejection if s/he is confident the current decline is only an isolated event.  Feelings of rejection develop when the issue becomes a pattern; s/he expects to be rejected.  If there’s chronic rejection by either or both partners, it’s worth taking time to investigate what may be going on. 

Here are three questions that can help determine if there’s a significant concern:

  How frequent are you being blocked?  Is it happening often?  If you are being blocked more times than not, there may be an underlying problem. 

  How pervasive is this?  There may be an unaddressed matter your spouse is concerned about.  For example, your spouse may be troubled by a certain sexual activity or expectation.   

   Is it personal?  A sincere worry may revolve around an issue specific to you.  Is there a lack of strong emotional connection between you?  Does your partner believe that you’re only interested in her for sex?  Does she feel neglected in other areas?  Do you no longer find her attractive?  While serious, by addressing thoughts, experiences, and feelings honestly and directly, marriages often experience vast improvement. 

It’s Sooo Worth It! 

In every committed relationship, there will be times when the two of you may disagree about sex, such as timing, frequency, activity, and intensity preferences.  Begin by fostering open communication about this area of your relationship.  It’s worth it!  Instead of viewing your spouse’s lack of interest as a personal affront to you, consider it as an opportunity to demonstrate love, patience, and understanding.  You might surprise yourself and experience a flourishing sex life by incorporating these suggested ideas.

If you believe there is a significant issue that isn’t being addressed in your relationship, take the time to discuss it.  As a significant part of your life and relationship, it’s worth the time and risk to talk about sexual and emotional intimacy.  If you need help examining this area of your relationship, seek out a professional specifically trained to help couples in the area of sex and intimacy.  A therapist or counselor can help you navigate your feelings regarding this very personal and sensitive subject. 



Dr. Nic Natale is a sex therapist practicing in Columbia, SC.  His practice focuses on helping couples flourish in their intimacy.  Leading research, cultural trends, and a biblical perspective informs his work.  For information about Dr. Natale, go to or contact him at