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Sex Drive and Stress: Up or Down?

Does stress kill sex, or does sex cure stress?

These are stressful times, not just for each of our individual reasons, but for everyone for a lot of the same reasons. Making matters worse is that we can’t do some of the things that help with stress, whether it’s going to the gym or the bar. This leaves us with at-home stress relief options.

For some people, sex is a great way to relieve stress or at least to escape it temporarily. For others, stress tanks their sex drive. This can create a challenge when romantic partners’ sex drives run in opposite directions in reaction to stress.

From Bad to Worse

Some people use sex or masturbation as a way to deal with stress. Or boredom. Or loneliness. Or any other negative emotion. They may find their sex drive actually increases when the pressure mounts. For the vast majority of people, this can be a safe and healthy way of feeling better. They have their fun, feel a bit better, and then get back to business.

Meanwhile, there are others where stress flatlines their libido and makes sex the last thing that they are interested in. They need to be relaxed to feel that desire. Once the stress lifts, their sex drive shows back up like it never left. Being pressured to be sexual before they’re ready can actually increase their stress and submerge their interest even more, making for a self-reinforcing cycle with a partner who wants more sex, but ends up getting less.

This process can occur in any couple where the two partners have different enough levels of desire but can be heightened when stress pushes the partners even further apart. Which probably also heightens both partners’ stress.

It’s All Normal—and to Be Negotiated

If your sex drive increases when you’re stressed, but your partner isn’t interested, it can feel like your partner is leaving you hanging, as if they don’t care about your suffering and don’t want to be helpful. If your sex drive decreases when you’re stressed, but your partner still wants to get something going, it can feel like they are adding yet another demand to your plate, that they are insensitive to your unhappiness.

Source: Antonioguillem/123RF

In this way, as in so many others, partners can want different things at different times, yet they need to find a way to negotiate a solution that they can both feel good about. This might mean that they come to the simple solution of splitting the difference, and sometimes that works, but relationships often need more nuanced solutions. After all, if it’s simply a matter of meeting in the middle, you would probably just do that and be done with it. Where couples get stuck is when the easy and obvious solutions don’t work—and sexual desire differences are often one of those more complex problems.

As in any negotiation, some respect and understanding set a good foundation. The person whose sex drive dries up with stress isn’t frigid, and the person whose sex drives soars isn’t a sex addict. They are both normal, even if it’s hard to understand—by analogy, I will never understand why my wife loves her coffee black, but I don’t judge her for it, nor take the moral high ground on adding milk.

Sometimes we can empathize and understand why something works for our partner, even if it doesn’t work for us, so it’s worth talking about how stress affects each of you and why your preferred coping mechanisms work for each of you. But sometimes we just need to be OK with something, even if we totally don’t get it—this ability to give the benefit of the doubt is a really important relationship skill. This doesn’t mean selling out your integrity and ignoring something that your gut tells you is problematic, but rather letting something not be a problem if it isn’t a problem.

Assuming you have some sort of general understanding of each other, then the question becomes: What do you do about it? To what extent should the higher-desire partner expect some shared sexual activity as a way to reduce their stress? To what extent should the less interested partner expect to have their coping style honored? As in so much else in relationships, it depends.

Some people who find their sex drive slipping away in the face of stress may actually enjoy and benefit from that good time if they are given a little more time to warm up to the idea. More precisely, it’s not that stress removes their sex drive, it just makes it harder to access, so perhaps both partners need to work a little harder to wake it up. So maybe some more time talking, a massage, a glass of wine, or a cleaned-up bedroom. If they can allow themselves to go with those first small, positive feelings, without feeling pressured or like they are committed to seeing this through to the end, they may find that they are enjoying it more and more. If so, then the words of wisdom to their partner are to be patient and willing to invest that extra time to fan the spark into a flame.

Sometimes, though, the less interested partner may ultimately not be convincible—they may love the back rub, but be more than happy to leave it at that, thank you very much. What is the higher-desire partner to do? Should they just be left hanging? Hopefully not.

If your partner isn’t interested in the full production, complete with soundtrack and stage show, maybe they would be up for helping out in some other way. Perhaps they could lend a hand. Or maybe just keep you company while you take care of business. Or maybe they give you a kiss, a rain check, and a free pass to do your thing in the other room.

Ultimately, It’s About Teamwork

Regardless of whether stress fires up or cools down your sex drive, the hope is that disagreements about sex don’t make a bad situation worse. In fact, if you and your partner can work well together on this, then pressured times will bring you closer together, rather than push you further apart. That’s no easy feat and requires a careful balance of being able to be direct and honest about what you want while also being able to respectfully tolerate your partner wanting something different. This is really easy to say and so much harder to do, but is the fundamental set of relationship skills.

In these times of high stress, put in the effort to make your relationship and sex life a positive, especially when sheltering at home means much more time together. We can’t change when life returns to normal, but we can influence how we enjoy it in the meantime.