Sex and Intimacy
The sexual side of our relationship has changed
People who are grieving frequently experience a change in sexual feelings and responsiveness which can last for weeks, months and even years. For some, sexual feelings disappear altogether while for others they intensify. Intimacy offers some couples much needed comfort while the sexual needs of others are out of sync or mismatched. Rest assured, although there can be a period of instability, distress and communication problems, most relationships do recover the same level of intimacy that they had before the death.
“Resuming intimacy was part of George’s need but for me it took a while to be emotionally ready. I never worried about it but I was aware of my own emotional disconnection for a while.” (Leanne)
The risk of misreading your partner’s needs
Many factors work together to generate misunderstanding. For example, fluctuations in a woman’s hormone levels often mean that while she craves affection, tenderness and reassurance, there is little desire for sexual intercourse. Should the man be emotionally withdrawn and seem only interested in intercourse, withholding and feelings of rejection sometimes come into play.
Given the circumstances of your child’s death, making love could feel wrong and for your partner to want to do so might seem disrespectful of your need to grieve. On the other hand, should you be the one to want more contact, resistance to sexual intimacy can equate with a lack of concern for your feelings or even feel like rejection of you as a person.
One or both of you could feel too exhausted physically and emotionally to make love. However, time in bed together can be one of holding, sharing, mutual reassurance and spiritual reflection. Sex can be a comfort and reassuring, an intense way to ease pain of any sort, to forget about it for a little while. It can also function as an affirmation of life.
“The more ‘needy’ he became, the more I moved away. This was not a conscious decision. I needed space but he needed to be loved more, needed sex early on. I had no capacity to show it so it was hard for me to resume intimacy. This took a few weeks but my heart wasn’t in it; it took a year for me to be in the right space for sex.” (Ally)
“I wanted intimacy all the time – it wasn’t for the sex but for the closeness. For me, sex means intimacy. If I could have crawled inside him I would have.” (Deanne)
“As soon as I had Eliza I knew I wanted another baby. I wasn’t interested in having sex; I just wanted a baby. However, I was scared of another pregnancy and losing another baby with an abnormality. I would always find excuses – ‘I’m too tired to have sex’. Kurt was very patient and understanding.” (Kerri)
‘Wayne didn’t want sex for a long time. ‘I am just too sad,’ he said. Sex and pregnancy aren’t linked for us as we went through IVF.” (Deanne)
“I steered away from intimacy with Jo. I think for a good twelve months, I didn’t want to know about our sex life. I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to know about sex. Yet I still craved it. I didn’t want to have sex with Jo because I couldn’t deal with what had happened to us. I didn’t want to bring it all up. I didn’t want to think about the emotions or about having more children.” (Mark)
Seeking comfort, affection and/or sex outside the relationship
Sometimes a grieving parent, unable to cope with the intensity of their partner’s grief, emotional withdrawal or lack of interest in sex, seeks solace in another person. The trauma or the death can make a person behave in an uncharacteristic way. What would normally be seen as an act of desperation, denial or a flight from responsibility can symbolise a yearning for control and normality connected with a need to heal.
“We grieved well together initially but the subsequent baby brought up so much fear. My husband could not cope with my incredible anxiety and could not meet my needs. He was also angry that no one acknowledged his grief. He withdrew and just drifted away from me and I felt very lonely. He met someone else who could listen to him and he left the marriage.” (Eva)
“Loneliness may mean being drawn to someone else who will listen.” (Tony, Jane)
“I know many other blokes who, when their grief has kicked in, have wandered from their wives because they haven’t been able to deal with getting intimate again. They have been too scared. They have been afraid of what they might have to confront. Instead of facing their problems, they have tried to escape. There was a time when, if the opportunity had come up, I might have done that too because I was finding it really hard to go home every day and face what we had lost.” (Mark)
While another relationship could cause considerable distress and a sense of betrayal, it need not necessarily become a long-term problem. Understanding and talking honestly, possibly forgiveness (hard as that would be), are essential for a relationship to survive. Couple counselling can also be invaluable.
Resuming your sexual relationship
This can be a way of feeling loved and supported, symbolising a return to some form of normality, albeit a different one. The combination of physical and emotional intimacy, shedding tears and sharing memories of your child makes for a very intense personal experience, at least for a time. Grief, during or immediately after intercourse, could be a sign that your sexuality has achieved a down-to-the-core emotional connection that is only fond in the strongest of relationships.
“Within hours of Molly Rose dying, Ian and I knew that we had to have another child to love and watch grow. We couldn’t live in the darkness that surrounded us. We had to hold on to some form of hope. Although we remained bound by our sorrow and cuddled together in our pain, I found it hard to make love. How could I enjoy sex when we had been making love the same night that Molly Rose died? Did she die alone in her bed whilst we happily enjoyed each other? It became a slow road of understanding, finding each other – of touching and learning to give one’s self again. If we had not wanted another baby so desperately, maybe physically our love might have been scalded. We worked together, and are moving forward together. I thank my husband for his love and patience.” (Jill, in the Red Nose Grief and Loss booklet Always Your Child)
Each of you must work hard at identifying your own feelings and the meaning that you give to sexuality. Sharing these perspectives sensitively and being open to change can help to make the grief more bearable and draw you closer together. Even if there is a break in sexual intercourse, don’t stop hugging, holding and touching. In fact, you could find yourselves doing this more often, deriving comfort, increased meaning, support and understanding from it. A relationship without intercourse can still be rewarding and you are less likely to feel isolated and afraid of the relationship breaking down if you still maintain some physical ‘connection’. It is important to understand that resuming sexual intimacy can take time. It may require patience and understanding and need not become a major issue.
“Intimacy was affected for only six to eight weeks. At first I found it difficult but I made a conscious decision to not let it affect our relationship and made a point of putting thoughts of Romi aside when we made love. I found touch very nurturing; I needed nurturing and intimacy was good for me.” (Jo)
“After Maya’s death, physical intimacy was an expression of grief and not about having another baby. This made it easier for us.” (Jessica)
This article was prepared using extracts from When Relationships Hurt, Too.1 The full text is available online or contact Red Nose Grief and Loss Services on 1300 308 307 for a printed version.
Last reviewed: 25/9/21
1. den Hartog, P.N., Bereaved Parents & SIDS and Kids NSW and Victoria (2014). When Relationships Hurt, Too: The Impact of Grief on Parents’ Relationships after the Sudden Death of their Child. , Malvern, Vic.: SIDS and Kids NSW and Victoria.