Perhaps this sounds familiar: You’re lying in bed, your partner stretched out next to you in post-coital relaxation mode, and … you want to cry. There’s no reason you can think of: The sex was good, fun, respectful of everyone’s boundaries. You like, or maybe even love, the person you just had it with. But still, you can’t shake the sudden feeling that you’re deeply and confusingly sad. It’s a little unnerving.
And — this might make you feel better — it’s also pretty common. Sex researchers use the term “postcoital dysphoria,” or PCD, to encompass all kinds of negative feelings that can pop up immediately after an otherwise enjoyable sexual encounter: sadness, anger, frustration, depression. In a 2015 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, nearly half of women said they’d experienced PCD at some point in their lives, and around 5 percent said they’d felt it multiple times within the past month.
A new study recently published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, the first to examine the phenomenon in men, found similar rates: Around 40 percent of men said they’d experienced PCD, and 4 percent said it was a regular occurrence. A sampling of the descriptions the study participants provided: “a lot of shame,” “a sense of self-loathing,” and “quite a bit empty, and not satisfied with myself and where I am.”
Still, just because PCD is common doesn’t mean it’s well-understood. For something that happens to so many people, it’s still pretty mysterious, especially because it can happen within otherwise loving and healthy relationships. “We know very little about the reasons” why PCD happens, says Robert Schweitzer, the lead author on both studies and a psychology professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Some twin research suggests genetics may play a role, and while there is a link between PCD and past sexual abuse or trauma, it’s not the main cause — plenty of people with that history don’t experience PCD, and plenty of people without it do. And importantly, PCD isn’t necessarily a sign that something is off between you and your partner; in the most recent study, the majority of participants said they were sexually satisfied by their current relationships.
Most likely, Schweitzer says, there are multiple factors working together to create postcoital dysphoria — both physical ones, like the rush of hormones that accompanies orgasm, and psychological — the Sex and Marital Therapy paper established a correlation between frequency of PCD and “high psychological distress.” But there’s a long way to go before the research on PCD is detailed enough for scientists and therapists to have a clear sense of where it comes from and how to help people move past it. It’s particularly difficult to study in men, Schweitzer adds, because of “an element of cultural bravado … it is not cool for men to complain that sex results in irritability, or sadness.” In the meantime, at least, researchers have already answered the most anxiety-inducing questions: Yes, your tears are perfectly fine and normal, and no, your relationship isn’t doomed.