I’m Not In the Mood for Sex (But My Partner Is)

“If I am not in the mood to have sex and my partner wants to, what do I do?”

This is a hard question to answer without any context.  If I assumed that your relationship is free of violence and coercion the short answer to your question might be that you should tell your partner you aren’t in the mood to have sex, and see what happens next.  Maybe they’ll ask why.  Maybe it will start a great conversation.

Maybe after talking (or arguing) you’ll find your mood has changed and you want sex.  Maybe at that point they won’t want sex.  

But that’s not an assumption I make.  We don’t talk about it much (especially not in popular sex education) but many  of us are in relationships where there is some sort of violence – sometimes threatened, sometimes carried out – as well as emotional and/or psychological manipulation that leaves us feeling like saying no isn’t something we can do or isn’t something we want to do given the alternative.  

Sometimes when we’re in a relationship like this for long enough we can come to feel as if we have consented, or at least that we’re to blame because we haven’t left. Neither of those things is true. Just because you can’t find a way out of a bad situation doesn’t mean you consent to it or that you are to blame for it.  Consent isn’t so clear cut (more on that below).  And blame isn’t a word that I use when one is on the receiving end of violence or coercion.  

Not knowing anything about your relationship means I can’t get very specific, but I really appreciate you taking the time to email and ask the question, it’s a big question, and one that I think all of us have to figure out at some point.  So I’m going to offer an answer in general and hope that some of it is useful.  You can always email me if you want to get more specific. 

What Does “in the Mood” Mean?

A lot of the language we use when we talk about sex is vague (this isn’t surprising given how we all carry some feelings of shame about sex).  Being “in the mood” is a good example of this. What exactly does it mean for you to be in the mood?  Does it mean that you feel like:

  • initiating sex
  • having someone initiate sex with you
  • being touched, feeling turned on, having an orgasm
  • touching your partner, turning them on
  • connecting emotionally and physically, communicating, sharing a moment
  • a distraction from life, an escape

This list could go on and on.  My point is that if “not in the mood” means you don’t want to be sexual with your partner, that’s fine. You don’t need to explain or justify not wanting sex.  Saying no (or no thanks) should be enough.  But if it’s a relationship you’re committed to and a partner you want to have sex with in the future, it can help a lot if you’re able to unpack what being in the mood means.

In the Mood vs. in the Mood to be in the Mood

One of the drawbacks to being vague in how we talk about sex is that we don’t always make room for our complicated feelings about sex. Here again, mood is a good example.  

Not being “in the mood” might mean that you don’t feel like initiating sex and even if you had a partner who was willing to get things started and be attentive to your needs and desires, you just don’t want to go there.  We might describe that as not being in the mood to even get in the mood.

On the other hand, not being “in the mood” might mean that you don’t feel like initiating sex and you aren’t feeling sexy, but you’d like to feel that way, and you know there are things your partner could do to help you get in the mood.  We might describe that as not being in the mood, but wanting to get there.

This raises a basic question that a surprising few of us take time to consider:  do you know what it feels like to want sex?  Can you describe what that feels like?  Can you identify thoughts and feelings in your body?  Do you know the difference, for yourself, between being okay with having sex and really, REALLY wanting it? This isn’t a test, and you aren’t meant to feel good or bad if you can or can’t answer that question.  It’s more like a prompt for self-reflection.  

Because there’s so much silence around sex these are questions we aren’t encouraged to ask ourselves very often.

In the Mood for What?
In reading your question one of my own questions was: what does it mean when you say your partner wants to have sex?  Does having sex always involve the same series of sexual activities? If it does, is it possible that having sex the same way all the time is contributing to you not being in the mood?  Again, the reason for you not being in the mood is a secondary point to your question, which is more about how to communicate your mood.  But if you’re in a relationship where open and honest communication feels safe, it’s worth thinking about the relationship between your desire for a thing and the thing itself.

Consent & What Your Options Should Be
At the center of your question is the issue of consent.  Ideally sex should only happen when everyone involved really wants it to.  Any time someone wants to have sex with you, you should be able to answer “yes” or “no” or “ask me again later” or “it depends” with or without an explanation.  

Consenting to sex doesn’t always mean saying yes every step of the way.  Consent also isn’t the absence of a “no.”  Ideally consent means that you’re able to be yourself, as much of yourself as you choose to be, while making decisions around whether or not to have sex, what kind of sex to have, when, and with whom.  It means that you feel freedom to consider your options, and make the decision that feels right to you.

That’s ideally.

Consent & What Your Options Are
As I’ve already hinted, consent isn’t simple.  It’s easy to say that if there’s consent sex is good and if there isn’t, sex is bad.  But what happens if  you don’t feel like you can say no? What happens if you have sex with someone and you don’t really want to, but also you sort of don’t care either way.  What happens if you start having sex with someone and it goes from boring to uncomfortable or painful?  Did you consent?  Didn’t you?  And if you didn’t speak up, does that make it your fault?  

The answer to the last question is a big NO.  If some one forces you or pressures you into having sex and you do, it isn’t your fault, and you aren’t to blame.  But all those other questions don’t have such easy answers and the truth is that you’re the one that needs to answer them.  What is right for you in your relationship can’t be answered by someone else.

Starting with you then, the question is:  when your partner wants sex but you’re not in the mood, what is it that you want to do?  How would you like to respond?  

The next question is:  what gets in the way of you responding how you want?  Do you feel pressure?  Do you feel guilt?  Do you just want to avoid a fight? Some people have started using the term enthusiastic consent as a way of highlighting how consent is active not passive, and that ideally you aren’t just having sex to go along with it, but you enthusiastically want it.  It’s the difference between not saying no, and saying YES!  

People who use that term point out that in order to consent you need to have at least some sense of what it is you want.  If you don’t know what you want, if you don’t feel like you are both capable of and worthy of sexual pleasure, you can’t give enthusiastic consent.  It’s an interesting idea (although it doesn’t work for everyone and I only share it as one of many ways of thinking about this).

Bottom Line
If you wrote because you are agreeing to sex that you don’t want to be having, then you should know that it’s not right for someone to be either forcing you to have sex or putting you in a position where you feel like you can’t say no.  If you are in that situation it isn’t always easy to see your way out.  For many people terms like “domestic violence” or “abusive relationship” or “sexual assault” are things that happen to other people. Except they aren’t.   They are (unfortunately) part of many of our lives and pretending otherwise doesn’t really help anyone.

If you think you are in a situation like this, there is a lot of help available online and in person.  Here’s one place to start learning more about safety in relationships.  If that doesn’t feel right and you want some other resource email me and I’ll try and connect you with support or help closer to where you live.

If you wrote this because you are in a relationship where you feel like sex is consensual, but you’re bored or not sure how to say you want something different, or there are differences in sex drive between you and your partner, I hope some of the ideas above sparked new thoughts.  It’s easy to find yourself in a pattern (some would say “rut”) in your sexual relationship and the one thing I can say after speaking with thousands of people about their sex lives is that everything can change.  And one thing I know is true for all of us is that we deserve to have whatever kind of sex life we want for ourselves.