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Depression has sapped my libido: will it ruin my relationship?

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Emma asks:

My boyfriend and I have been together for over two and a half years. We used to have sex a lot (meaning a couple times a week and seeing as we could only see each other on the weekends, that wasn't too shabby). However, I've been dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety problems that have been making it hard for me to feel like having sex. This has been going on for a couple months and in that time we've had sex twice. I miss being with him and I know he misses it too. I don't want this to tear us apart. He's been there for me through all of these mental health problems and is definitely there for me during this rough sexual patch but I want that old spark back. What should I do?

Heather Corinna replies:

Really, truly, the longer we're in relationships, the more we're going to go through times when for one partner or the other -- sometimes both -- libidos are low or sex just isn't a high priority. That's okay.

To expect our sex lives as time goes on to resemble how they were when we were brand new to each other isn't very realistic. A lot of that sexual frequency is because it's all new, because a new sexual relationship tends to be very heady and intense. That's not to say sex can't still be fantastic and intense as time passes, but it does usually tend to take on a different flavor than it has in the infancy of a sexual relationship.

What's more realistic is to know that we're often going to have the highest frequency of sex when we first become sexually active together, and then, as time goes on, that we'll have high and low tides at different times. There will be times when we have lower frequency, and then times again when it's higher. For some couples, it'll get lower over time and mostly stay lower, too. People change over time, the whole of our lives change over time, so expecting our sexuality or sex drive to somehow be the lone consistent when everything else changes and shifts constantly doesn't make a lot of sense.

When we sign on to a long-term sexual partnership with someone, this is something we sign up for: that there will be times when our sexual frequency or urgency changes, our sexual desires alter, or when sex just isn't a big part of our relationship. Those changes may happen due to illness -- like depression -- or things like new jobs, a move, raising a family, the effects of some birth control methods, a death or loss, relationship conflicts, any number of common life events. But since a solid relationship is generally made up of more components than just the sexual, it can tend to weather times when one partner has less interest in sex just fine, so long as you keep in touch in other ways. We might even wind up better developing other aspects of our relationship during those times because of taking a break from sex for a while.

So, what can you do? Right now, your mental health issues seem like what need your attention and energy most. Deal with those first. One very common effect of depression is a depressed libido, so while a person is struggling with depression, it's common to experience decreased sex drive. I don't know how you're treating your anxiety and depression, but if you're not doing it already, you'll want to consider options like talk therapy, medication, dietary or nutritional changes, upping your exercise (those endorphins help elevate your moods and also help boost libido), or alternative therapies. If what you've been trying hasn't been working, be sure to be honest with your healthcare provider, and if they're not being flexible in their approach when it comes to trying different things, consider a second opinion.

Take any pressure off of yourself when it comes to sex. Sex drives don't tend to respond well to pressure: sexual desire tends to flow best when it's allowed to come and go as it pleases, without pushing yourself to feel something you just aren't, or to do something you just aren't in the mood to do. It might help to take baby steps back into your sex life through masturbation, rather than partnered sex, or things like sharing a massage or bath. Remember, too, that if you feel like engaging in a given sexual activity but not others, if he also wants to do that thing with you, you can do that without being or feeling obligated to do things you don't want to again just yet. Or, you may find that it feels best for you to just commit to a certain period of time to be celibate and have sex totally off the table while you take care of yourself: sometimes coming to an agreement like that can help take the pressure off and leave more room for sexual desire to return.

In the meantime, keep communicating with your partner, and express your affection in the ways that do feel right for you right now: by snuggling, with your words, with special gestures. Don't forget things you can do with your partner which can serve double-duty, both to help you with your mental health and to help to keep you close: a little weekend getaway, a day playing hooky on a small road trip, a walk, time with friends or family, sharing cooking a meal together, love letters, sleeping in together, talking out your feelings about all of this and being the support you can for him, as well. Express your gratitude for his support during this time, and let him know that you look forward to the light at the end of the tunnel. Understand, too, that him supporting you through this is fantastic, but that it's not like you probably won't need to help see him through difficult parts of his life at some point, too. In other words, there's no need to feel guilty about any of this or like you're putting him out.

Above all else, be at least as patient with yourself as your partner is being with you. Have faith in the fact that because one aspect of a relationship takes a back seat for a while doesn't mean it's gone forever, nor that that means the whole rest of the relationship will go kablooie. Good relationships tend to only grow stronger with challenges and when they weather change, not get weaker or fade. Plus? When you work your way through this, and your libido starts blooming again, the two of you may likely get to enjoy a renewed sexual relationship with a similar spark to the one you felt at the start.

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