Sex and grief, grief and sex. They aren’t really words we lump together often. And yet, we get questions about this topic a lot. A whole lot. When I started researching this article and posted on social media asking for questions, thoughts, and feedback, it felt like I had opened the floodgates for people to share something that felt like a big, unspeakable secret. Grief impacts sex. Sex impacts grief. But how, when, and why is pretty hard to predict.
There is significant heterogeneity, as they like to say in mental health. In other words, it looks very different for different people. The research is nearly non-existent (now, to be fair, there is one book on the topic that I imagine may include some research called Living, Loving and Loss: The Interplay of Intimacy, Sexuality and Grief. Unfortunately, the cheapest available copy is $125 on Amazon so its contents remain a mystery to me). But we do have other research and the feedback from thousands of grievers we’ve worked with over the years.
What we hear from people, like so many things in grief, is both all over the map and has common themes:
Grief has ruined my sex drive and I have no idea how to get it back.
All I can think about is sex, but I feel too guilty to act on it.
I’m having tons of sex and it’s great and I feel great about it.
I’m having tons of sex and it’s great but later I feel terrible about it.
I want to have sex but I’m worried I’ll regret it.
I have a desire to have sex but have surging emotional responses when I do.
Everyone has opinions about my sex and dating life now.
My partner is grieving and has lost their sex drive and I’m trying to be patient but it’s really hard.
The circumstances of my loss mean that, every time I try to have sex, it is intensely triggering and I’m worried I’ll never be able to enjoy sex again.
And on and on and on.
Though we can’t break down all the possibilities for you when it comes to grief and sex, we can assure you that there is a lot that is in the range of “normal”. We can say with some confidence that…
- You might lose your sex drive for a period of time.
- You might gain a jet-engine powered sex drive for a period of time.
- Your sex drive might not be impacted either way, but you might start having a range of new feelings about having sex.
I know, I know. That alone is not all that helpful; so let’s break it down a little bit further. Grief is a physical, emotional, and cognitive experience. Sex is also a physical, emotional, and cognitive experience. Layer those two things together and things get, well, complicated.
When Your Sex Drive Is in Overdrive:
The pain of grief, though often thought of as an emotional pain, is also a deeply physical experience. And though we often distinguish physical and emotional pain, the brain is activated in VERY similar ways when we experience emotional pain as when we experience physical pain. One study even suggests that Tylenol can reduce emotional pain. Weird, right?! So it’s no surprise that, when we are experiencing emotional pain, our brains will seek out ways to ease the pain response in the brain.
Having sex causes us to release feel-good neurotransmitters and pain-reducing hormones that can, at least temporarily, give us reprieve from the immeasurable pain or numbness. It can also simply be a meaningful physical connection with another human being at a time that can feel so isolating. As one WYG reader explained:
“In those moments, all my anxiety, my PTSD, my insecurities, my loneliness just melted away. I was able to be fully present, enjoying him and being together.”
And those good feelings aren’t even as temporary as you might think. Participants in a study at George Mason University reported still feeling higher levels of happiness the day after sex. And it didn’t matter whether the sex was particularly satisfying or if the person was in a relationship; people’s positive emotions, mood, and sense of meaning were, on average, increased the day after sex regardless.
When Your Sex Drive Disappears:
With all these feel-good, pain-reducing, mood-boosting benefits then, it might seem surprising that some people’s sex drives drop or disappear completely during grief. But as with many things in grief and neurology, there is rarely a single story. Grief can increase stress chemicals in the brain and, in some cases, can cause an onset of depression or exacerbate existing depression. Any of these things can physiologically make it harder to feel interested in sex or to get the same pleasure from sex.
One WYG reader shared a comment echoed by many:
“I am just never interested in sex now. It never seems appealing. Once I am actually having sex, it does feel good and often makes me feel a bit better—but I really have to force myself”.
From a strictly physical perspective, the interest just might not be there in the same way for you—and that, at least for a period of time, is very normal.
The Emotional and Cognitive
When Your Sex Drive Is in Overdrive:
Though the physical piece of having sex may be giving you a nice chemical boost, it’s important to look at whether your thoughts and feelings are doing the same. We heard from many readers who said something along the lines of:
“I had a lot of sex those first months/years and, though that’s not how I normally am, it was what I needed at the time and it really helped me through.”
But just because your sex drive is up doesn’t mean your thoughts and feelings are aligned with that drive. We had other readers say things like:
“I feel a deep desire to have sex, but I feel so guilty—like I am betraying my partner’s memory.”
Others said things like:
“My desire to have sex is up, but I keep thinking that it’s too soon, that I need to wait.”
That might be a story you’re telling yourself, but it might also be one that you’re hearing from other people and that might be creating some feelings of shame. One reader, whose sex drive was way up and who was finding great comfort and pleasure in sex, shared:
“A good friend judged me harshly for dating when she thought it was too soon. My dating life then stayed undercover; I’d date people in a city forty-five minutes away to avoid being seen.”
Other people’s judgment can quickly have an impact on us, even when we otherwise felt good about the decision.
These thoughts and feelings can quickly diminish the benefits of sex, leaving one feeling badly about their urges and actions. So it can be helpful to explore those thoughts and feelings. There is no rule-book, no “right” amount of time to wait—so part of the work of being comfortable if and when you decide to have sex is doing your own self-assessment. Though this post was about readiness to date, it may offer some insights that are also helpful when considering sex. And talking with a counselor can be a huge support in this.
When Your Sex Drive Disappears:
The thoughts and feelings that come alongside a disappearing sex drive can be wide-ranging. Perhaps the most common we hear from people is from those who are partnered and who experience immense guilt; guilt ranging from feeling like they are depriving their partner of sexual intimacy to guilt that their partners now may be taking it personally, thinking it’s a loss of attraction or interest. But for those who have lost their sex drive, whether partnered or not, it can feel a deep loss of identity coupled with feelings of isolation.
For those who previously had a very active sex life, the loss of interest is its own loss. Grief, which can be a deeply isolating and lonely experience, can feel even more lonely and isolated when sexual intimacy is no longer an outlet.
Talking with your partner about this, if it’s occurring, can be hugely helpful. Often partners struggle with feeling that the loss of interest is about them, even if rationally they know it is connected to grief. Reassuring a partner that it’s not about them may help to comfort them, and allow space to better communicate about other types of intimacy that might work for both partners.
It can also create a space to talk about or consider trying to have sex, even when you aren’t in the mood. You should never have sex against your will, but sometimes the actual process of touch can get you in the mood when you weren’t previously. This is something that can be valuable to explore if you’re interested in trying to get your sex drive back, but it requires good communication.
We have only scratched the surface of this complicated topic, so please leave a comment with anything from your experience to questions you would like to see in the next posts in this series.