Hormones are only part of the story.
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It's probably happened to you: You're in a relationship, the sex is great, and then—for one reason or another—it dries up. You're probably understanding at first; maybe your partner's been stressed at work. But then you start getting a little upset. Resentful. Even angry. Soon, you're primed for a fight—the kind that starts with, "I just think it's funny that…" and ends with someone tossing and turning on the living room couch you've been meaning to replace for the very reason that it's impossible to sleep on. There you are, grinding your teeth, wondering where everything went wrong.
That reaction? It's fairly common. And the anger? It's valid. But why does it happen? Some have posited that being angry when you don't have sex comes down to the lack of "feel-good" chemicals—dopamine, oxytocin, all those endorphins—being released in your brain. That's part of it, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Not to be crude here, but we both know that an angry bout of self-love in the shower won't make up for the fact that the person you love isn't down to get physical, no math how much dopamine the act floods your head with.
"For many couples—if not the majority—sex represents a significant means of intimate connection, in physical terms of course, but also in an emotional capacity," says Amanda Gesselman, a social psychologist and research scientist at The Kinsey Institute. "While it's by no means a perfect correlation, satisfaction with our sex lives tends to be linked with how happy we feel in our relationship generally. It's not surprising that when our partner's desire for sex begins to decline—maybe because they're stressed, depressed, or tired, or because the frequency of sex tends to decrease as relationships progress—we interpret that decline as a sign that something is wrong."
Because your mind is capable of amazing feats, many of which include turning valid concerns into insurmountable mountains of anxiety, the lack of sex can quickly be interpreted incorrectly. "A person may interpret this decline as a signal that their partner no longer finds them attractive, no longer enjoys sex with them, or no longer wants to be with them, even if none of these are true," Gesselman says.
As we all know, however, something doesn't have to be true to keep us up at night. And because asking for sex puts us in a vulnerable position—yes, even if you've been together for years—being rejected can activate the insecurities you've been carrying with you from one relationship to another. And that triggers all that anger and annoyance. There's no reason to beat yourself up over this, though, because that activation is often outside of your conscious control. In fact, it can go back all the way to childhood, when you first learned how to attach to others by bonding with your parents.
"There are well-documented individual differences in attachment style, which is how people approach bonding with partners," Gesselman says. "Some people have more anxious attachments to partners, which means they tend to need a bit more validation and try to evoke this from their partners. Some research has shown that people with more anxious attachment styles—people who worry a bit more that their partner will leave them, and need more validation—are more likely to view sex as a kind of meter of relationship stability."
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"For those people, a partner not wanting sex could feel very distressing because they may place more weight on sex as a marker of security," she adds. Vanessa Marin, a Los Angeles-based therapist, agrees. She sees this problem often in her practice and while she stresses that it's common, she also says that the intensity of the feelings that come up when sex is off the table often come as a huge surprise.
"A lot of couples seem to think that sex is just about sex," Marin says, "but it's about so much more than that. Your partner's not initiating just because they want to have an orgasm. Sure, that's the really fun part of sex, but it's really about prioritizing each other and your relationship over a million different things fighting for our attention. If your partner turns down sex because they're working on emails or they're just vegging out in front of the TV, it has a way of sending this message that these things are more important than spending time with you."
Here's the bigger problem: When you get angry but don't talk about it, your partner notices. And that simmering tension? Marin says it does turn your partner off, creating a negative cycle that she's seen too many times. But talking about those feelings isn't easy, either. "We're just not equipped to talk about these feelings of rejection and deal with those feelings of rejection," she says, "so we let them simmer inside of ourselves and it stirs up all of these other old feelings of rejection. It takes you back to when you were in elementary school and getting picked last for the dodgeball team."
So what can you do if you're not having sex and beginning to feel angry? It all goes back to communication, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable that can be. In her practice, Marin says, she works on helping couples understand that they're not working towards never being rejected for sex, but being able to understand and process the feelings that comes with that rejection. That, in turn, allows both partners to speak to each other more clearly about their desires. And that means less arguing and more time together. And a lot less resentment.
Redefining what sex means for you as a couple is also a helpful way to stave off feelings of rejection and resentment. "A lot of couples tend to default to intercourse," Marin says. "You have to create a bigger menu. There's a lot of different ways to have sex, but we lose our creativity and think that we've got to do the same old, same old." So if your partner's turning down sex because they're bored with the whole thing—sometimes it just take too long, you know?—then perhaps it's time to consider actual intercourse just one part of an experience meant to bring you closer together.
"What if it's just one person giving oral sex to another person?" Marin asks. "What if it's one person talking dirty to the partner while they masturbate? What if it's watching porn together? There are so many other things you can do, and once you realize there's a wider array of things to choose from and the kind of effort it will require, it makes it a lot easier to say, 'Yeah, okay, I'm really not in the mood to do anything for myself right now, but I'm happy to talk dirty to you, or get naked for you while you masturbate, or give you a quick handjob, or just lay by your side.'"
One more thing that can help? Seeing your sex life as something that requires time and effort rather than just something that should snap into place if you're with the right person. According to new research from the University of Toronto, those people who believe that their sex life is a growing and developing process tend to feel better about working on these issues within the relationship. So the next time your partner turns you down, allow yourself to feel your feelings, but don't stew in them. Try something new instead—and yes, that includes talking about it.
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