In this week’s Ask Sally Column, Charlotte from St. Albans says she loves her boyfriend asks, ‘Why do I cry after sex?’ – can she fix this or will it ruin her relationship?
I’ve been with my boyfriend for around a year now and everything’s going great, apart from one thing. After we have sex I feel depressed and tearful. While we’re having sex I feel great but the moment it’s over, I feel overcome with sadness that can last for hours. My boyfriend has begun to notice and has been asking me if I’m not happy with our sex life. When we first met it used to happen occasionally but now it’s every time we make love. The odd thing is that I’m happier than ever in our relationship and feel very close to my boyfriend. He’s my best friend and we do everything together. But when we’re supposed to be all happy and loved-up after sex I just want to curl up in a ball and cry. It’s got to the point that it can put me off – I avoid it on Saturday and Sunday mornings because I don’t want to spend half of the weekend feeling depressed. I’ve only ever experienced it once before, with my first serious boyfriend who I met when I was 19 and split up with at 27. I had it for the first two years that we were together but then it wore off. Can you give me any idea why this happens to me and what I can do?
Charlotte, 32, St Albans
Part of the work we do in therapy is to look at what’s going on under the surface. The theory is that many of our emotions and actions are driven by subconscious feelings and beliefs that we can be completely unaware of. So when I first read your letter this is where my mind went. I wondered what is really going on for you, and how happy you are in this relationship and with the sex you’re having. Are you completely in control? Are you faking your enjoyment because you want to be in a relationship? Is the sex really ‘great’?
Nearly half – 46 per cent – said they had experienced sadness after sex at least once in their lifetime, with one in 20 saying it had happened in the previous month.
But then I came across some recent research that reminded me that sometimes, problems and challenges are caused by influences outside of our control. The study looked 230 sexually active women aged between 18 and 55. Nearly half – 46 per cent – said they had experienced sadness after sex at least once in their lifetime, with one in 20 saying it had happened in the previous month. An earlier study of 200 women found that one in three (33 per cent) regularly felt sad, anxious or irritable after sex.
So Charlotte, it’s not just you. Post-sex blues is common enough to be officially identified as a ‘condition’ – post-coital dysphoria (PCD). And although these two studies focussed on women, it also affects men.
It would be great if there was also a simple explanation for PCD, but right now there are only theories. One is that there may be a genetic component. I’m not sure what you could do with this information other than ask your close female relatives if it’s something that affects them. Only you will know if that’s something you feel comfortable doing.
Another theory is that some people may experience a kind of neurochemical come-down after the intensity of orgasm
Another theory is that some people may experience a kind of neurochemical come-down after the intensity of orgasm. A New York-based neuroscientist has experimented with treating patients with severe PCD with SSRIs – antidepressants such as Prozac – to dampen down the intensity of the experience. So your orgasms are less intense, but you avoid the post-coital comedown. For those with severe PCD, it’s a small price to pay for a depression-free sex life. You don’t mention this in your letter but one question that springs to mind is whether or not you experience sadness after masturbation? If so, perhaps this theory applies to you, and SSRIs may be an option.
During the intensity of sex, the separation experienced post-sex feels brutal
But there is another theory – the researchers also found that PCD was more likely to happen to women who felt ‘emotionally fused’ to their partners. During the intensity of sex, this fusion is reinforced, so that the separation experienced post-sex feels brutal. You say that the more intimate you’ve got with your boyfriend, the more often you experience PCD. It’s also interesting that the only other time you have experienced it was in a relationship at the height of its emotional intensity.
Obviously, the whole point of a relationship is to feel emotionally connected. But there is a difference between being emotionally connected and emotionally fused. When you’re emotionally fused, you find it difficult to maintain your identity. You abandon any opinions or interests that conflict with your partner’s and feel like you ‘disappear’ when you’re not together. During the first 18 months to two years of a relationship, we all lose ourselves a bit, as we put the spotlight on everything we have in common. But this gets unhealthy when you become so enmeshed you lose all sense of your identity as an individual.
A healthier dynamic is one that relationship experts call ‘differentiation,’ a balance of our two most fundamental drives – our desire for connection to others, with our desire for autonomy or being true to yourself.
A healthier dynamic is one that relationship experts call ‘differentiation,’ a balance of our two most fundamental drives – our desire for connection to others, with our desire for autonomy or being true to yourself. So you enjoy intimacy, but so you still hold onto your identity as an individual. That can mean having separate interests and friendships rather than doing everything together, and relying on our partner to also be our best friend.
Another important part of differentiation is learning to ‘self-soothe’ and manage your own emotions, rather than relying on your partner to make you feel happy. Mindfulness is a great place to start as it teaches you to connect with and tolerate your feelings. There are plenty of courses available, or read Prof Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman’s excellent beginner’s book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World.
In the meantime, you could carry on managing it by timing sex so that PCD doesn’t interfere with your daily life.
You may find that, just as you experienced in your previous relationship, your PCD gradually dissipates over time. In the meantime, you could carry on managing it by timing sex so that PCD doesn’t interfere with your daily life (perhaps sex last thing at night could work as long as your PCD doesn’t stop you sleeping). But if you find that it’s beginning to undermine your relationship, please seek help from a counselor qualified in sex or relationships therapy (find one at counselling-directory.org.uk).
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Sally Brown, is Healthista’s resident therapist and agony aunt. She loves finding out what makes people tick and will winkle out your life story if you sit next to her at a dinner party. She feels lucky to make a living from hearing those stories, and helping people make sense of their lives and reach their true potential. Registered with the British Association of Counselors and Psychotherapists, which means she has the qualifications and experience to work safely and effectively, she also writes about emotional and psychological health for the national press. Find out more attherapythatworks.co.uk.