While his admission totally resonated and made me feel so much less alone, it also left me wondering: Where do our libidos actually go after a breakup when it feels like they disappear? Below, sexual health experts explain why this can happen and then provide tips for reclaiming a lowered sex drive after a breakup.
Why it can feel like you lost your sex drive after a breakup
"It's not unusual or uncommon to lose a libido after a breakup,” says Caitlin V., MPH, resident sexologist for sexual-health company Royal. “Anytime that we experience loss, grief, emotional stress, or even trauma, our body responds by pooling its resources to the things that really help us to survive and heal, and that doesn’t typically include sex.” In other words, while healing from a breakup, your body is temporarily redirecting sexual energy toward that healing.
"After a bad breakup, it’s not uncommon for people to temporarily feel unattractive or disinterested in sex or connecting with others romantically.” —Chris Donaghue, PhD
“Relationships are never psychologically neutral and always have both positive and negative impacts on us,” says Chris Donaghue, PhD, sex and relationship therapist and SKYN’s resident sex and intimacy expert. “A relationship can leave us feeling more desirable and dateable, or [they can] leave us feeling detached and disconnected from ourselves, including our eroticism. Therefore, after a bad breakup, it’s not uncommon for people to temporarily feel unattractive or disinterested in sex or connecting with others romantically.”
These changes aren’t just psychological; they can be physical, too, says Sarah Melancon, PhD, a sociologist, clinical sexologist, and sexuality and relationships expert for SexToyCollective.com. Stress can affect hormone levels that help to regulate your sex drive. And “depression takes a toll on the autonomic nervous system, reducing the tone of the vagus nerve,” Dr. Melancon says. This nerve helps regulate many bodily functions, and plays a role in sexual arousal. “Breakup grief can lead to a reduction in vagal tone, so it isn’t surprising if one’s sex drive takes a nosedive along with it,” she adds.
How long could it take for your sex drive to come back?
“As long as you process and recover from the breakup emotionally, you will reclaim your libido eventually,” says V. How long that takes, though, will depend on various factors that are unique to each person and situation. “It really depends on the individual, their relationship and breakup dynamics, pre-breakup mental health status, pre-breakup sexual function, and levels of social support,” says Dr. Melancon.
V adds that “if you were in a monogamous, long-term relationship, you may have come to associate sex with your ex, so it can take some time to bring sex and sexuality back home to yourself, where it truly lives, no matter what your relationship status.”
But knowing that you eventually will overcome a temporary libido loss doesn’t mean you have to simply sit back and wait for that to happen. That is, there are steps you can take to get your sex drive back sooner rather than later.
5 tips to help you bring back your lost sex drive after a breakup
1. Prioritize non-sexual pleasure
“The most important thing is that you prioritize pleasure, which doesn’t need to be sexual in nature,” says V. “Fill your life—and the gaps left by your ex—with pleasure.” For example, get outside and enjoy nature, stimulate your senses with yummy food and scents, dance in your living room, snuggle a pet, or trade back massages with your friends.
And there’s no reason to wait until you have a partner to indulge in activities that might turn you on, like listening to your favorite sexy playlist. Get to it!
2. Start dating (or flirting) again
Another way to reclaim your sense of desirability (and, eventually, your sex drive) is to return to the dating world. “This is the most powerful way to have your worth positively reflected back to you, which is how all self-esteem works, including sexual self-esteem,” Dr. Donaghue says. “Breakups leave most people questioning their worth, and dating again is a robust way to remind yourself that you’re desirable. Flirting is also a great way to revitalize one’s sexual psychology.”
3. Slowly reintroduce sexual pleasure
“Often, we look to our partner as a primary source of pleasure and forget that we're not just capable of but well-suited for giving pleasure to ourselves,” says V.
When you’re ready, Dr. Donaghue suggests starting slowly by reawakening your arousal by wearing outfits that turn you on, watching ethical porn, or giving yourself a massage. The goal is simply to find delight in yourself and your body again.
4. Improve your vagal tone
Boosting the activity of the vagus nerve can also help your healing, says Dr. Melancon. She recommends spending time with friends and family, talking with a therapist, singing, humming, chanting, gargling, buzzing your lips, hugging, cuddling, laughing, and practicing deep, slow breathing. “All these behaviors stimulate the ventral branch of the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system,” she says. “You should feel at least some relief with any of these practicesl” But, just as physical exercise improves muscle tone slowly, these activities aren’t quick fixes. “The more you ‘exercise,’ the stronger your vagal tone will become,” she adds.
5. Take care of your mind, body, and heart
“Just because this person is gone doesn’t mean your needs are, and when you take care of yourself, your sex drive responds,” says Dr. Melancon. “Whatever emotional needs were previously being met by your ex, try to find another source.”
She adds that exercising and eating healthfully will help to stimulate blood flow and levels of nitric oxide, which is key for the physiological process of arousal. The sooner you take care of yourself—physically and mentally—the more quickly your lost sex drive after a breakup will make its grand return.
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