October 26, 2021

October 22, 2021

Body or Brain?: An Intimate Look at Relationships & Mental Health

Our sexual health plays a large role in the state of our mental health and in turn, impacts our intimate relationships. The growing promise of research in the field of sexual desire, with a specific lens focusing on women, can reap great benefits for individuals’ overall mental wellness.

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Of the millions of reasons that bring relationships together, desire is among the most obvious. But what happens when that desire disappears? Whether your own sexual desire or your partner’s, a decrease can cause a lot of confusion and tension (of course!). It can both cause and be caused by a litany of issues. And the confusion goes on. 

While desire is an issue in itself, it can also feed into a number of mental health issues and relationship issues, all mingling and intertangling — and at the same time, making sure you aren’t doing those things to the point of exhaustion. What happens to one’s confidence, quality of life, and feelings of trust and security in their relationship once desire shies away?

Growing research into Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) aims to identify solutions for the ways in which intimacy suffers. Here, we’ll talk about how desire, relationships, and mental health are all connected.

The Cyclical Nature of Sex & Mental Health

All relationships have the ability to impact your mental and sexual health (and vice versa). Things like your relationship with your friends, your family, even your work life can impact how you are able to respond and react to day-to-day happenings, and, more importantly, how you respond in those (ahem) intimate settings.

Unfortunately, sex and female desire are still very much taboo subjects. This gap in communication, along with the societal notion that it's normal or acceptable for women to not want sex, stifles a necessary discussion about the real sexual problems women are facing.

Moreover, some argue that female sexual disorders, specifically HSDD, are simply a conspiracy perpetrated by the pharmaceutical industry to mislead women to feel that their sexual function is inadequate and that their problems are easy to treat with drugs. While cause hopping does exist, this argument is based on a misunderstanding of the basis of HSDD. While desire varies between women, age groups, and several factors, HSDD focuses on a decrease in sexual desire that causes notable distress.

We want to open the doors to that conversation in order to validate the experiences of women who are having long-ignored and detrimental sexual problems so that we may improve the lives of them and their partners. Part of that conversation involves the question, “How does lack of desire affect relationships? How does mental health fit in?” Because yes, sex is health.

Importantly, our aim is to shift the dialogue as to how we treat and respond to female Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (fHSDD) by focusing on the root rather than the symptoms. 

The Benefits of Sex

Having sex regularly in a trusting relationship reaps a heap ton of benefits for both your body and mind.

Psychological benefits include:

  • Better self-image
  • Higher rates of happiness
  • Stronger bonding
  • Notable stress relief
  • Better sleep

Biological benefits include:

  • Improved physical fitness
  • Enhanced brain and immune function
  • Lower pain levels
  • Promotion of weight loss
  • Positive cardiac benefits

When your sex life starts to become impacted by what is known as low sexual desire, it might be time to look a little harder at what is happening both internally and externally.

It’s also crucial to remember that when we are discussing sex, there is no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to the “ideal” frequency. And there's no one-stop solution for all women. While sex is often a perceived as a physical activity, its basis is very much rooted in the mind. For this reason, the goal of solutions, such as The Desire Project, is to provide women with a much needed variety in treatment options.

What is Decreased Desire?

Sexual desire is the result of a complex interplay of social, psychological, and biological components, with issues regarding sexual desire among the most commonly reported complaints for couples. Yet, according to the researchers who authored this article, “We still lack theoretical and empirical knowledge on how sexual desire functions and interacts in a relationship.” Facebook definition: it's complicated.

Of course, desire can be different for everyone.

Sexual desire discrepancy (SDD) was first defined by Zilbergeld and Ellison in 1980 to describe when two partners in an intimate relationship desire different levels or a different frequency of sexual activity.

This is often the case when dealing with two people — there will be differences in needs, desires, and wants. It's something couples psychologist, Dr. Orna Guralnik, calls their “otherness”.

If you or your partner is distressed by SDD, here are some suggestions on ways to treat it as a couple:

  • normalize and depathologize variation in sexual desire
  • get educated on the natural course of sexual desire
  • emphasize the dyadic, age-related, and relative nature of SDD
  • challenge the myth of spontaneous sexual desire
  • promote open sexual communication
  • assist in developing joint sexual scripts that are mutually satisfying
  • search for personal sexual needs
  • deal with relationship issues and unmet relationship needs
  • stimulate self-differentiation

While desire discrepancy shares similar traits to HSDD, there is a slight difference. Desire discrepancy denotes there is a chance for differences in the levels of desire between partners. 

HSDD focuses on decreased desire that is marked by the persistent or recurrent absence of sexual thoughts or fantasies that is associated with marked personal distress and/or interpersonal difficulties. 

How Can Decreased Desire Affect Your Relationship?

Both relationships and desire affect mental health and, in turn, mental health affects relationships. In working with absence of desire or interest, it's possible to uncover a long latent trauma, a highly charged secret, a distorted body image (e.g., dysmorphia, body-focused malingering, etc.), or any one of a multitude of complex, potentially intersecting issues. Some of these issues in question include:

  • a major life change, such as a new baby or a recently diagnosed illness,
  • a stressful work situation or physical injury
  • an indirect physiological component, such as a change in medication regimen or diet

These questions are just the start but can help an individual look into where their low sexual desire may be stemming from — addressing the root and not just the symptoms.

Low sexual desire can impact more than just sex. It can often lead to significant distress that includes feelings of shame and/or guilt, impacting how a person feels about their body image, confidence, and worth. 

The Four Horsemen metaphor developed by Gottman is another glimpse into how low sexual desire can create relationship dissatisfaction. These horsemen are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, and can be the first signs of when a relationship may be ending. 

Sexual health, intimacy in relationships and mental health are all key components to living well.

If you’d like to learn more, check out The Desire Project and see how psychedelics like MDMA could improve the lives of those living with fHSDD.

Written by

Hayley Kirsh