Consent. Such a heavily loaded word, isn’t it?
Social media, self-help groups, therapists, activists: many platforms and avenues have helped open up a healthy conversation about the terminology around ‘consent’: a person’s choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an act, usually sexual. it’s important to discuss consent in a healthy relationship.
Consent has an everyday role to play in a healthy relationship: long-term or not. In most cases, once the headiness of the honeymoon period—where everything is marked through the lens of rose-tinted glasses—wears off. Couples, for better or for worse, progress into the next stage of their relationship: settling into comfort. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your sexual appetite takes a hit, and that things aren’t as exciting as they used to be. But, you may find yourself ‘not as in the mood’ as before. In fact, even during the honeymoon period, there may be times where you just don’t feel like having sex with your partner. And that is nothing to apologise for.
But here’s the million-dollar question: how do you tell your partner you don’t want to have sex—without hurting their feelings?
Rejection is another heavily loaded word. Many people equate ‘no’ with the feeling of rejection. That opens a pandora’s box brimming with fears: anger, insecurity, and low self-worth. When you say no to your partner, there’s always a chance that they’re going to take it personally. Your ‘no’ may spiral them into a dark hole of thoughts like: ‘what if he isn’t attracted to me anymore’, ‘what if she’s having an affair with someone else’, ‘what if we’ve lost the spark’, ‘what if I’m not satisfying her anymore’—which eventually lead to feelings of resentment and create a dreaded distance.
Now, assuming that you have been both rejector and rejected: you know what a single ‘no’ can do to your self-worth. This sinking feeling is all but too familiar; you may wish to spare your partner the pain of feeling ‘unwanted,’ and give in and have sex with them, even if you just don’t want to.
This brings us to the dangerous territory of ‘unwanted consensual sex’. You’ve convinced yourself that you’ll just ‘go along with it’ because you ‘don’t want them to feel bad’. But in the process, you’re not only doing a massive disservice to yourself, but are also creating a layer of doubt in your relationship. Speaking about unwanted consensual sex, Nicole Johnson, an Assistant Professor of Counselling Psychology, says that unwanted consensual sexual behaviour can “result in an unhealthy relationship with sex”, with the lack of association between sex and pleasure causing a “negative effect on the couple’s sex life”. She says that not only does this pose the possibility of the couple not enjoying that often, but it may also lead to larger mental health concerns and even PTSD. Simply put: in the larger scope of things, unwanted consensual sex will almost always lead to negative outcomes and may take a toll on your mental health.
This brings us back to the question—how do you say no to your partner without them thinking it’s a rejection?
Communication is key
“It’s easy to take off your clothes and have sex. People do it all the time.
But opening up your soul to someone, letting them into your spirit,
Thoughts, Fears, Future, Hopes, Dreams…
That is being naked.”
While this ‘good quote’ by American author Rob Bell on Instagram has been termed as a cliche by many, it drives home an important point: communication. Whether you’re in the initial stages of your relationship or celebrating decades of togetherness, communication is the key to keeping things together. So, if you’re in a situation where your partner is suggestively and enthusiastically initiating sexual contact and you don’t feel like it, communicate that to them. Tell them politely but firmly that you aren’t in the mood and that in no way reflects on them. Stress on the fact that this isn’t a rejection—a far cry from it in fact—and that they shouldn’t feel insecure or threatened. Be honest and don’t leave room for second thoughts. They’ll appreciate you all the more.
Go gently into the night
While you don’t owe your partner any reason for not wishing to have sex (it is your body and your choice), it is important to recognise that the ‘no’ could be taken in many ways. So do make an effort to be kind and approachable when you’re broaching the subject. Even if you’ve had a long and exhausting day and you’re feeling cranky to the core—don’t be aggressive or rude in your ‘no’ to their invitation. Explain to them, gently and kindly, that you aren’t feeling up to it and that you hope they understand. In most cases, they will.
Intimacy beyond sex
While having sex with your partner brings you to the peak of physical intimacy, it isn’t the be-all and end-all of a healthy relationship—even physically. If you’re saying no to sex with your partner, suggest other ways of intimacy: cuddling and watching a movie, holding hands and going for a walk, a bear-hug can do miracles in making it clear to your partner that you aren’t retreating from their physical touch.
Innovate, Imagine, Initiate
It’s important to note that there is never a time you need to feel guilty for saying to no to sex with your partner. But, make sure that it isn’t a pattern where your partner is expected to be the one initiating sex every time, because if they’ve been turned down repeatedly, they may be a little wary of approaching you suggestively again. In a situation like this, take charge—be the one to initiate, make them feel special and wanted. The ball, in most cases, is in both the courts.
(Edited by Kanishk)