For all of us, grief is inevitable. It is heavy and overwhelming and can feel like it will never end, and as humans, we will experience it. When we grieve we often feel sadness, depression, and the urge to isolate, and the natural urge might be to shut down and avoid conversations about intimacy or even ignore our partner(s) altogether while we are grieving.
It can feel counterproductive, but opening up the side of us needing intimacy can be helpful in facilitating the grieving process.
In her book Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski uses the metaphor of a car’s brakes and accelerator to describe sexual desire.
The accelerator “notices all the sexy things in an environment and sends a message to ‘turn on!’” while the brake “notices all the very good reasons not to be turned on right now, all the potential threats, and sends a signal that says, “Turn off!”
There is no right or wrong when it comes to your brakes or your accelerators, they just exist. For some, a night out with friends could be an accelerator, while for others that would drain their energy and turn into a brake. The same is true with grief—it can contribute to losing your sense of desire, or it can make you more interested in connecting with someone.
Grieving and connecting
When grief activates sadness and depression, it can absolutely tank any arousal. You may not have enough energy to make dinner, much less get naked and experience any form of pleasure.
Even looking at your partner might feel challenging. Sometimes this feeling is fleeting, like a few weeks or months. At other times the loss of desire can feel more permanent and go on for a year or more.
This can make having intimate relationships challenging as it can be hard to find a connection. This is even more true when not all parties are grieving at the same time, such as the loss of someone in the family of origin or the loss of physical ability.
The opposite is also true too! A desire for sex or physical intimacy can increase when grieving as a way to avoid feelings of depression or loss. Sex can create fondness and show care toward a loved one, and the neurochemicals released during sex are helpful for overcoming grieving struggles.
The goal might be more to escape mentally, and sometimes that is okay! Sharing in grief and trauma can also make partners feel more emotionally connected and supported than they may have felt previously, and that can also create a higher sense of sexual longing to reciprocate those feelings.
Communicating with our partner regularly about where we are at in our grief, as well as how we are feeling about creating space for intimacy, is necessary to preserve the relationship.
So, what do we do to get those conversations going?
It can be difficult enough to talk about sex on any given day, much less when we feel like we are falling apart!
It is important to stay focused on having an emotional connection and not just focus on your physical needs, or else you might run the risk of adding to your partner’s stress.
Check-in by asking emotional open-ended questions such as:
- What kind of needs are you having right now and is there a way I can help meet them?
- I’m feeling sad and raw and don’t think I have the capacity to think about sex right now
- It could be helpful to distract myself from this emotional intensity by focusing on a physical release if you don’t mind providing that.
You want your partner to, know and feel, that they have the option to say no if they are not in the moment with you. Also, you want them to know that you aren’t pretending that need does not exist for either of you. Whether you are the one grieving or offering support, remind your partner that you love them and how important they are.
Although it may be easier to hide from difficult conversations during a time of sadness and grief, embracing them can ultimately be an important part of the healing process. Allow for continued movement through the emotions being felt knowing your partner supports you emotionally.
During the grieving process, if you already feel isolated, give yourself the opportunity to keep the connection with your partner(s).