grieving man sitting against a wall with his arms on his knees and his head resting on his arms
Illustration by Marta Pucci

How Does Grief Impact Your Sex Life and Relationship

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
8/1/2022
Last updated:
8/1/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
8/1/2022
Last updated:
8/1/2022

Grief is life-changing. It shakes foundations and impacts your sex life and intimate relationships.

We tend to associate grief with the death of a loved one or family member. Even a close friend or colleague. But we might equally mourn the loss of a pet or the end of a friendship, both of which also bring feelings of sadness.

Losing our home, business or wealth can trigger the same kind of grief response as the realization that certain hopes and dreams have passed us by. For some people, moving out of, or away from, the family home can trigger a sense of sorrow akin to mourning. This is about leaving childhood innocence behind and can prove a difficult time.

Traumatic events like an accident or crime committed against us can tip us into the shock of grief, then numbness, disbelief and long lasting pain that affect our desire for physical intimacy.

In situations like this, grief can be sudden and unexpected. Its power can overwhelm us with deep sadness that touches every part of our lives including our sex life. Any kind of loss can have a massive impact on our lives in the same way as a deceased parent.

How we deal with grief and how it impacts our desire for sex is different for every individual. The way it changes our sexual intimacy and relationship depends on how each of us negotiates the process. We’re also affected by the kind of support we get from our partner who might be grieving, too.

There are some common responses to sexual feelings around grief and relationship worth exploring:

Loss impacts my sexual relationship

This might present as sexual bereavement with no idea how to get it back or turbo charge your desire. Whatever you’re feeling is unique to you. There is no right or wrong, it is just the way your mind and body process grief. Part of that is practicing self-compassion and patience.

Grief makes me feel horny but I feel guilty

For some people, their libido goes into overdrive as having sex releases endorphins and oxytocin. These feel-good hormones create happy feelings of relaxation and intimacy and stave off anxiety and depression. These positive emotions can even last into the next day.  

People keep reassuring me things will get better

It’s very common for those close to you, particularly romantic partners and family members, to share their insights even when their advice is not wanted. Try not to absorb the reactions and advice of others unless it aligns with you. Seek out additional support from bereavement groups or mental health professionals to help you prioritize your own healing.

My partner is being patient but grief stops me having sex

Those who enjoyed an active sex life before loss can find it very confusing to find they have zero interest in sex. They may feel isolated and guilty for not being intimate with their partner. The answer is to talk openly and honestly about how you feel. Reassure your partner it’s not about them but about how you are feeling. You might discuss different types of intimacy like touch and closeness to bring comfort and communication to you both without the need to have sex. Simply touching can encourage feelings of intimacy which will help.

Grief has a number of stages

It’s widely accepted that grief has a number of stages, either 5 or 7 depending on what school of thought you subscribe to.

Considering what stage you might be at in the grieving process may help you navigate the impact of grief on your relationship. Sharing with your partner how you feel and what you’re experiencing in relation to your sexual desire can help them to understand that this is temporary and a process to be worked through.

  1. Shock is the way the body copes on auto pilot. Initially it’s hard to comprehend sudden grief and so disbelief regarding the loss of a friend or loved one is quite common.
  2. Denial is the way we try to avoid coming to terms with our loss. It can present as disbelief, failure to speak about the loved one who has died, or the event that has triggered grief or even denial of your own feelings.
  3. Anger can come out of nowhere and be targeted towards the situation, our partner, people close to us, or even ourselves. There is often a fury, especially at the death of someone we love if it feels unfair or at a younger age. Feelings of anger can affect our capacity for intimacy.
  4. Bargaining is all about 'what if's. What if we had done something differently? What if this or that had or hadn’t happened, our parent, child, loved one or home would still be here? Often irrationality creeps in at this stage as consider we could have, should have done.
  5. Depression can come at any time. The stages of grief don’t happen in sequential order. They are personal to each of us but one day we move beyond denial and anger and realize the situation is real. That’s when depression hits and it is time to grieve your loss.
  6. Testing is the time when you may experience feelings of depression and hopelessness. Occasionally they will be interspersed with signs of hope as you try to find ways to move forward and deal with the situation.
  7. Acceptance may feel impossible, but you will get there in the end. It may take years, even decades, and the pain will still exist only it will be less acute. You may be able to plan a little for the future and start to enjoy life again and your relationship with your partner.

These stages of grief and their impact on your feelings can challenge the dynamics of even the strongest relationship. Equally it can shine a light on issues that were present previously.

Your role in the relationship might change as a result of grief. You may need to become the one who relies on your partner for emotional support. If you’ve previously been the stronger one in your relationship, this can create a sense of loss for them with their own grief of sorts to contend with. Be gentle with each other and take things slowly.

Seek support if you need to and give your sex life time to find its own level. You and your partner should give yourselves space to feel emotionally and sexually ready to move forward in a comfortable and supportive way through open and honest conversation.

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