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How Couples Dealing with Depression Can Still Find Sexual Fulfillment

A recent study tackles the issue of depression and sexual intimacy.

Key points

  • Sexual dysfunction can result from depression and/or the antidepressants taken for depression.
  • Scholarship has examined relational uncertainty and interference as factors contributing to sexual issues in couples with diagnosed depression.
  • A Delaney study contributes sexual communication to the dynamics of sexual issues with depression.
  • Open sexual communication between partners is essential for effective problem-solving in couples with depression.

There is little I expound on more than the merits of open sexual communication. The ability to communicate with your partner transparently in matters of sexuality is an essential step in obtaining greater sexual pleasure and dealing with issues that negatively impact one’s sexuality or relationship.

A recent study brings communication to the forefront with issues of low sexual response for couples where one or both members of the dyad have depression.

Sex and Depression

Chronic depression affects an individual’s daily functioning and goal attainment in a myriad of ways. When it comes to issues of sexuality, depression can contribute to sexual dysfunction in the form of low sex drive or diminished satisfaction. Depression can reduce interest in things once enjoyed, like sex, resulting in a lack of pleasure for or in sexual encounters. Sexual dysfunction may not be directly a result of the depression itself. Low sex drive or diminished sexual satisfaction can also be attributed to medications being taken for depression.

Side effects of antidepressants or depression disrupt chemicals in the brain that may make sexual functioning more difficult. Symptoms of depression, such as anxiety and stress, can directly result in low libido. Whether it’s the condition itself or side effects from medication, a doctor should be notified about sexual issues. But, that’s not the only part of the solution. Communication between partners also has a beneficial role in these matters.

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Sexual Communication and Depression

Delaney (2020) studied 106 couples wherein one or both individuals were diagnosed with depression. Delaney noted that past scholarship has focused on two aspects affecting sexual functioning in relationships where, at least, one partner is diagnosed with depression — uncertainty and interference. With uncertainly, depression can bring about insecurity about the relationship. In the case of interference, depression can interfere with the individual’s daily functioning, goals, and routines. For example, the anxiety produced by their depression may cause an individual not to want to deal with personal finances, which may derail the larger goal of having monthly bills paid on time, the ultimate result being financial difficulties.

Together or separate, uncertainty and interference can cause a disconnect in a relationship, resulting in disrupting sexual functioning. Delaney suggested that there is a mediating variable to be considered — communication.

Communication around sexual issues is not always easy with every couple. However, unique communication challenges occur in couples where one or both individuals have been diagnosed with depression. According to Delaney, “The dynamics of sexual communication in couples living with depression are meaningful for partners’ outcomes” (2020).

Among Delaney’s findings was that uncertainty and interference did not always directly negatively impact the sex life of the couple, but what they did do was prevent the couple from talking about sexual issues they were experiencing. “When facing disruptions to day-to-day routines and goals as a result of interdependence with their partner,” Delaney claimed, “people might feel embarrassed, frustrated, or hesitant to engage in a conversation about sex” (ibid).

In couples with depression, relationship uncertainty itself can contribute to an increased perception of interference, resulting in less sexual communication. And sexual communication between partners is essential. So couples are not discussing what they like or dislike, how they feel sexually, sexual issues that are bothering them, or how they perceive their sex lives in general. Even discussion about when is the right time to talk to a medical professional about problems with sexual functioning is held in silence. Delaney suggested:

Couples who can minimize perceptions of relational uncertainty and interference from a partner may be stronger communicators. Feeling secure and certain in the relationship might make sexual communication easier and more effective, and when couples are able to coordinate routines and collaborate to meet goals, they might be better equipped to navigate a tricky conversation about sex (ibid).

Communication Is Essential

In cases where one or both partners are diagnosed with depression, issues such as low sexual response is already a relationship challenge. Still, those challenges are compounded when couples are not discussing sexual issues. For instance, relationship perceptions may be distorted as one partner may feel personally rejected by the low sexual response of the other. In contrast, this lack of response may result from depression and not a rejection of the partner.

In silence, these misperceptions are not clarified. Continuing in silence exacerbates low self-esteem, poor relationship perceptions, and a host of interrelated sexual problems. Of course, talking about sexual problems does not automatically solve all sexual problems. Still, it does open the door to potential solutions to improve sexual satisfaction or avenues to those who may be of assistance, such as health care professionals.

When sexual communication between partners is open and healthy, effective problem-solving strategies emerge.

Facebook image: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock


Delaney, Amy L. (2020). A relational turbulence model of sexual communication in couples with depression. Communication Research.

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