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

Intimacy while grieving: how grief impacts your relationship and sex drive

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

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 romantic relationships and desire for sex is different for every individual. The way it changes our availability and enjoyment of sexual intimacy 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 as well as a wider impact of grief in your relationship which we'll be exploring in this article.

Sex and grief: intimacy while grieving

Grief impacts everyone differently, and a lower sex drive after the death of a loved one or struggling with sex after trauma is a common response. However, as we discuss below, you might find that your appetite for sex during grief increases as your mind seeks a way to boost oxytocin. If you lost your partner, you may find that your relationship with sex and grief presents itself as a sexual bereavement.

It's important to remember there's no correct way to feel. Be patient with yourself, practice self-compassion, process your feelings in your own time and seek support if you need to. Give your sex life time to find its own level after a traumatic event. You and your partner should give yourselves space to feel emotionally and discuss sexual readiness after grief in a comfortable and supportive way through open, candid conversation. Common reactions to intimacy after grief include the following: 

Grief makes me feel horny but I feel guilty

Arousal during grief is a more common response to loss or trauma than you might think, so why does grief make you horny? 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.  

My partner is being patient but grief stops me having sex

If you enjoyed an active sex life with your partner before loss it can be very confusing to find they have zero interest in sex. As the partner of the person grieving, you may even feel rejected and wonder how to deal with those feelings. If you are, consider your partner's headspace and their views on sex during grief. They may feel isolated and guilty for not being intimate with you. So how exactly do you talk about sex while they're grieving?

The answer is to pick the right time to talk diplomatically and honestly about your current sexual relationship and how it is making you both feel to avoid any misunderstandings. If you're the one experiencing grief, reassure your partner that any lack of emotional or sexual availability is not about them but about how you are feeling. Depression from grief has a big impact on your libido, after all and if you don't feel sexual desire, you don't have to be sexual.

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. There are many ways to get closer to your partner beyond sex. Simply touching can encourage feelings of intimacy which will help. And when you are ready to start thinking about sex again, techniques like Sensate Focus can help reintroduce it into your relationship.

Grief and relationships: what to expect

Your traditional role in a romantic relationship might change as a result of grief. You may need to become the one who relies on your partner for emotional support. Which, if you’ve previously been the emotionally stronger one in the relationship, can create a sense of loss for your partner who will have their own grief of sorts to contend with as the adapt to their new role in the relationship. Be sure to be gentle with each other and take things slowly.

What are the stages of grief?

It’s widely accepted that there 5 stages of grief or 7 stages of grief, each based on the work of psychiatrist Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her co-author David Kessler. Which grief model you subscribe to depends on what school of thought you follow.

  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 or trauma. 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.

How does grief affect your relationship?

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. Considering what stage you might be at in the grieving process may help you navigate how grief affects 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.

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. Often others don't know what to say to a grieving person and try to find what they feel is the best thing to say to you during a grieving period. Ultimately, these people have good intentions to console you and wish to offer their condolences. 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.

Read next

Ways to Get Closer to Your Partner Beyond Sex

What is the Relationship Between Depression and Libido?

How to talk about a sex issue

Do I have to be sexual?

How does low libido affect my relationship?

How to Deal with Rejection in Your Relationship

Feeling Insecure in a Relationship

How to Get the Passion Back in Your Marriage

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