Unavailability Isn’t the Same as Rejection
There are a lot of reasons our sexual desires and interests don’t always match up with those of our partners. Changing tastes, medical or mental health challenges, busy work schedules, stress and juggling different demands, and simply having different libidos can make it hard to find a common ground. In both my personal life and in my professional work, I’ve noticed a pattern that can get in the way and make it harder to enjoy sexual connection, pleasure and intimacy: we often react to a partner’s unavailability as if it’s a rejection.
I’m not talking about a partner who says that they’re tired or that they have a headache to avoid saying that they don’t want to have sex or as a way to control the situation. That kind of passive communication happens (quite frequently, in some relationships), but I’m talking about when one person is simply too stressed, or busy, or in pain, or having a medication reaction, or any of the many other reasons we sometimes don’t have much desire to have sex. In these kinds of situations, being upfront and honest can help, but it’s not a guarantee that our partners will hear it in the way we hope.
I’ve been on both sides of this dynamic. I’ve gone through phases when I was incredibly stressed out and was wound so tightly that I couldn’t relax into enjoying sex. I’ve had times when I was dealing with some deep emotional healing that took all of my attention and derailed my libido. My partner has some health issues that can sometimes make sex difficult or impossible. And we both have very demanding jobs, with schedules that don’t always line up. So I get it. I know how hard it is to want to have sex with a partner who isn’t up for it, and I know what it’s like to be the one to not be in the mood for a while.
But even knowing that, it can be really hard to not take it personally when my sweetie’s health concerns need to take priority. No matter how much I know in my head that she isn’t withholding, no matter how aware I am that I would feel the same way if I were in her shoes, there are times when it sets off a shame spiral in my heart. That’s because it feels like a rejection, even when it isn’t.
Shame spirals are tricky things because once they start, they often become self-replicating and self-reinforcing. It can take a lot of emotional resilience to pull ourselves out of them. When we make ourselves vulnerable (like if we ask our partners to try something new in bed, or simply if they’d like to have sex), being told “no” can feel like a rejection, which can set off shame. And that can easily feel like withholding, rather than unavailability.
Part of what makes this so challenging is that the person who’s unavailable can also feel shame, whether that’s because they think that they “should” be interested in sex, because they see their partner’s hurt feelings, or anything else. I’ve talked with a lot of couples who have ended up in mutually-reinforcing shame spirals:
A asks if B wants to have sex.
B says no.
A feels rejected and withdraws.
B feels guilty and shuts down.
There are lots of other ways this can play out, of course. Some people react by getting angry and lashing out. Some act out by cheating. Some try to cajole or convince their partners. Some get aggressive or force their partners to have sex. We each have our unique ways of reacting to what we perceive as withholding and rejection. It’s a really triggering situation for a lot of us, and it can be hard to not take it personally when a partner says that they aren’t available for sex.
But difficult isn’t the same as impossible. Here are a few things I’ve found that make it a little easier.
First, ask the question in advance. For example, instead of waiting all day for the perfect moment and hoping for a spontaneous roll in the hay, ask your partner earlier in the day. If they have a medical issue or if they’re taking a medication that affects libido or sexual response, you might need to figure out the optimum time. But even more important, raising the question before you’re all hot and bothered means that there’s less momentum. If they do say “no,” you haven’t built up as much attachment to the outcome of your question, so it’s easier to hear their answer.
That also gives you much more room to do a little creative problem-solving. If your partner isn’t interested in intercourse, maybe they’ll want to kiss and caress you while you jack off. Or you can trade backrubs and get some physical contact, even if it’s not directly sexual. Or maybe they need some time to stretch and do yoga to take care of a painful knee injury. Or they can take their pain meds a little earlier so you can both take advantage of the best time for sex.
Another really useful step to take is to sit down and have a talk about what your (or your partner’s) unavailability means. What causes it? What does it look like? How is it for them, and how is it for you? Lots of people I’ve spoken with about it feel frustrated with the situation, guilty for “putting their partner through it,”and ashamed for not wanting sex more. None of those emotions are conducive to feeling hot and sexy, but they also resist being set aside. Learning how to put them on the table and talk about them without sinking too deeply into them isn’t easy, and it’s very much worth the effort. Work with a good therapist, if that’s what you need to find ways to work through them and develop new skills.
Speaking of skills, building some shame resilience and learning how to maintain emotional and physical connection even when sex isn’t possible can keep a relationship thriving. Brene Brown’s amazing book I Thought It Was Just Me is the best one I’ve found for explaining how shame works and what we can do about it. And if you can set aside his insistence on heterosexual, monogamous, Christian marriage as he only way to create good relationships, Chapman’s The Five Love Languages has a lot to offer when it comes to keeping things happy.
Whatever route you actually take, I think the first step is to be able to hold onto recognizing that unavailability isn’t the same as rejection. It doesn’t mean that your partner is rejecting you or that they don’t want you. Those feelings might also be there, and that’s ok. It’s totally fine to know one thing in your head and feel something else in your heart, as long as you can hold onto BOTH of those pieces at the same time. For a lot of folks, that’s the first step towards changing the emotional reactions that hold us back and keep us stuck.
So the next time you find yourself in that spot, say it out loud:
“This doesn’t mean you don’t want to have sex with me.”
“You aren’t rejecting me. Sex just isn’t possible for you right now.”
“This situation isn’t because there’s something wrong with me or our relationship.”
Of course, you can come up with whatever statement is most relevant for you and your relationship. But say it out loud- it’ll help you hold onto it and let your partner know that you’re trying. And that might be all that it takes to go in a new direction.
How does one recognize the difference between unavailability and rejection? At one point does “maybe they’re just not that into me” become a reasonable explanation for persistent unavailability?
Nick, mostly, I think it depends on the situation. Unfortunately, a lot of people learn to say “maybe later” or “not right now” when they mean “never.” It it’s happened a couple of times, try saying something like “well, if that changes, you know where to find me” and leave it at that.
I probably should have mentioned that my question is in the context of established relationships. Lately I’ve been reading and talking to people about sexless relationships. The people involved all feel a profound sense of shame and rejection. Reading your insightful piece, I think it’s important to recognize that it may very well not be rejection, it may simply be unavailability. That sounds like the case for one blogger at The Sexless Father where his wife is pregnant.
At the same time, I’ve read and heard stories of people going without for months, without children or pregnancies as complicating factors. A common theme I hear is that one partner “wants to want to” but ultimately the reality is that the desire simply isn’t there. Is that unavailability? Is that rejection? Something else?
Nick, mostly, the difficulty in answering your question is that there are many different situations. A lack of interest in sex can be because of medical concerns, aging, stress, emotional and mental health issues, enmeshment in the relationship (see Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage for more about that), difficulty communicating, and more.
Everything in our lives affects our sexual interactions. If someone genuinely wants to want sex, then it’s worth asking what steps they’re taking to deal with their lack of desire. But that’s a different situation than someone who wants sex, but not right now or not with a particular person.
This is a very helpful article for me. I have a stronger libido than my partner and there have been times that medical situations, stress and work schedules have interfered with our sex lives. We are very physically intimate with each other so there isn’t a lack of kissing, hand holding or non-sexual touching. It is helpful to remind myself that he isn’t rejecting me and that he is physically/sexually/emotionally attracted to me. Rather, timing is an important factor of which we need to be intentional.