Wellbeing columnist Erica Chidi is here to answer our most pressing questions about sex, health and overall wellbeing. Today, she’s tackling the topic of finding your libido during hard times…
Q. I’ve been going through a really rough patch the past year: I lost my job, it took forever to find a new one, and then my dad was diagnosed with a serious illness. Among other things, all this has taken a huge toll on my sex life. I’ve been with my husband for many years now, and sure, we’ve had our ups and downs sexually. I know this doesn’t seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But right now, it feels like one. Even if I could get a little bit of my libido back, I would feel more normal. Any advice? — Neha
A. I want to start by saying I’m sorry you’re going through such a rough time. Everything you’re describing is really challenging stuff. It’s commendable — and impressive — that you’re even taking the time to notice this shift within yourself. But I do want to encourage you to stop worrying about it.
There are two major factors at play here: First, stress. You’ve been dealing with a great deal of it lately, and stress affects all sorts of important things, like sleep cycles, eating habits, self-care — all of which have a huge effect on your sex life. What you’re experiencing right now is a very normal, natural reaction. So do give yourself a break.
All this acute stress is compounded by another very normal, natural thing: Desire in a long-term relationship. In her excellent book, Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski, PhD (which is a great read, if you’re up for it) she outlines two forms of desire we typically experience: Spontaneous desire and responsive desire. Pretty much everyone experiences spontaneous desire at the beginning of a relationship, when thoughts of sex and the urge to have it pop up readily, without prompting. And for most men, spontaneous desire continues as the relationship progresses. But for most women (not all, but most) spontaneous desire wanes as time goes on, and they begin to experience responsive desire.
This is the kind of desire that’s ignited by external factors: Loving touch, connection, nice smells, a good meal, someone stroking your hair, a hand on your lower back. It’s all the intimate, non-sexual things a partner does that turn you on. We live in a culture that says desire is always spontaneous and constant — that if you love someone, you should always be ready to jump into bed, and if you’re not, there’s a problem. But the fact is, the majority of women need a stimulus to respond to.
And it goes without saying (or it should) that that stimulus needs to happen in a stress-free environment. Right now, that’s just not where you’re at. So, while I want you to remember the importance of emphasizing responsive desire — and talking about it with your husband — I also want to remind you that you that there’s no rush. There can’t be. When you’re dealing with major emotional and mental strain, the first task is to focus on your overall well-being. Prioritize nonsexual pleasure and self-care: Taking baths, going for walks, being with friends, watching fun stuff on TV, listening to podcasts. It might seem antithetical to boost your sex drive by watching a goofy comedy, but really, it’s nourishing you. It’s loving and supporting yourself in a holistic way. And that’s what will — eventually — lead you back to the place where you’re truly ready to enjoy sex.
Once you get back to that place, you can start to think about the specific things that ignite your desire. What makes you feel comfortable and safe? Aside from directly sexual or penetrative touch, what can your husband do that’ll help get you in the mood? Is it stroking your knee? Is it holding you close while you watch that goofy comedy? Or maybe it’s turning to a book or a movie to provide some inspiration. As a Cup of Jo reader recently commented, “I recently started reading romance novels as a form of escapism and it reminded me how fun and, well, sexy sex can be.” Whatever it is that makes you feel good, share those things with your husband.
But first things first: Just focus on feeling better. Remember, there’s no hurry.
Erica Chidi is the CEO of LOOM, a wellbeing brand closing the reproductive and sexual health knowledge gap for womxn. Through her book, Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth and Early Motherhood and her work as both a doula and health educator, she has guided thousands of people in their transition from pregnancy to parenthood. Erica also educates people on pleasure, relationships and self-care by providing an inclusive and shame-free perspective. She began her practice in San Francisco, volunteering as a doula within the prison system. She continues to work with organizations that serve marginalized communities.
Thank you so much, Erica! Do you have a sex, health or wellness question you’d like Erica’s help with? Please let us know in the comments.