Have you ever felt like not having sex... yet felt obligated to when your partner got all mopey and whined about not having it for so long? That's called sex guilt, and suffice it to say, it's not cool.
"Sex guilt can be overt, like your partner getting angry, using pressuring or coercive tactics, or pushing for sex even when you're not in the mood," sex expert Lorrae Bradbury of Slutty Girl Problems tells Scary Mommy. "Sex guilt might also be more subtle, like moping, withdrawing, or giving you the silent treatment when you don't want to have sex. Your partner may even blame you and make you feel responsible for their own feelings or any disconnect in the relationship."
It goes without saying sex is one of the best things in a relationship. But while there's a certain expectation around having sex when in a relationship, it's also not something that should ever be weaponized, like when a partner "sex guilts" you into doing it. If sex guilt is a scenario you've encountered within your relationship, Bradbury shares what you can do about it.
Why does "sex guilt" come up in a relationship?
When one partner feels that the sexual relationship is less than their expectations, Bradbury says it can trigger their own insecurities, feelings of inadequacy, fears that they're not desirable, or an underlying fear of abandonment. "Yet, instead of taking responsibility for those feelings and approaching you in a respectful way that builds connection and emphasizes empathy, your partner externalizes it to become a conflict," she explains.
Therefore, your partner guilting you about sex only leads to more disconnect in the relationship, which creates more pain and resentment over time. "There are much more positive, supportive, and empowering ways to work together to increase sexual satisfaction and pleasure for everyone — and none of them involve guilting you about sex," she says.
What can you do if your partner sex-guilts you?
No one likes feeling guilty or rocking the boat of their relationship, which is probably why sex guilt is an effective tactic for the other party to get what they want. "When our partner guilts us, we may feel the pressure to do things that are not aligned with us, just to keep the peace," Bradbury says. "Yet, you always have the right to say 'no' and have your desires respected, and it's not your responsibility to meet all of your partner's sexual desires."
If your partner starts to sex guilt you, she advises talking to your partner openly and honestly about how their actions make you feel and making it clear that you don't want to feel guilty or pressured into having sex. "In fact, their guilt and pressure are only making you feel worse and creating even more disconnect between you," she says.
Instead, she recommends expressing your desires and what your partner can do to help you feel more emotionally and physically connected in your relationship. "Perhaps you're craving more intimacy and date nights, or you need your partner to take some stress off your plate by helping with kids or chores. Instead of sex becoming another chore, how can you create a healthy environment that cultivates emotional and physical intimacy and nurtures passion to thrive?"
She also notes that your partner also needs to learn how to express their feelings and desires in a more respectful way. "Encourage your partner to approach you with more compassion and curiosity, to inquire about how you're feeling about your sex life, and what they can do to help you feel more turned on, connected, and bring you more pleasure."
And don't forget to acknowledge and honor your own feelings. "Your partner's actions may make you feel angry, hurt, resentful, scared, or could even be affecting your self-esteem," Bradbury says. "Your feelings are valid. Your partner should not be guilting you, and the guilt only creates more disconnect and pain in the relationship, which reduces desire even more."
How can you improve your sex life without the guilt?
Because everyone's needs are different, Bradbury's first step to improving your sex life is cultivating an environment that is supportive, encouraging, and non-judgmental. "Set the communication expectation that you will work together as a team, with open, honest, and most of all, respectful communication," she says. "Your desires and boundaries deserve to be heard with empathy and with the goal of understanding one another better."
Additionally, she recommends taking the time to get curious about your desires and explore what would turn you on and increase connection and pleasure. "That might be incorporating new things into your sexual routine, such as new techniques, toys, or kinks. Or, it could be more quality time, connection, relaxation, romance, and date nights."
You can also address what decreases your desire or gets in the way of interest and pleasure. "You can work together to reduce stress, the overwhelm of chores, or the responsibilities of raising children — or any underlying communication issues, emotional connection gaps, or past resentments in the relationship," she says.
When should a couple seek therapy?
Bradbury suggests seeking couple therapy if your partner isn't able to meet you to discuss your sex life with respect and compassion; if it's bringing up a lot of triggered feelings or withdrawal; if the guilt doesn't stop, or if you're having trouble finding solutions together.
"You can find certified sex therapists through AASECT, who can serve as both a mediator and an objective perspective to help partners connect and see the situation through a fresh lens," she advises. "A therapist can also help address the underlying issues causing emotional disconnect, sexual shame, insecurity, or guilt so that you can each heal those inner wounds and approach the relationship with more understanding to foster intimacy."