A Tale of Three Brains and Libido

by | Jun 8, 2022 | gsr, Libido | 11 comments

3 Brains of Women's Libido

Let’s talk about what influences your felt libido–what triggers you to want sex, and what triggers you to not want sex.

We’re starting our “What’s Killing Women’s Libido”? series, and on Monday we launched it looking at 15 things that can kill a woman’s libido. Those were all individual factors that can make libido tank.

I want to switch gears a bit today and talk about the three big elements of your body that influence libido, and see how they all interact. Think of it as the “three brains” of libido–three different parts of you that have different goals, different influences, and different ways of saying, “I want sex” or “i don’t want sex.”

Now, a caveat: I’m going to hugely oversimplify in this post, and anyone who has done any endocrine work and understands hormones will likely be rolling their eyes. I fully acknowledge that! But I just want to show trends and generalities to help people understand this stuff. So forgive me if I’m making it more straightforward than it actually is.

Before we jump in, remember the two elements of desire: physical and mental.

Libido is when our minds and bodies meet up and say, “let’s get the sex going!” Our thoughts and emotions want to have sex (that’s the mental desire part) and physically we’re responsive and able to get turned on more easily.

Some people have more of a responsive desire, and some more of a spontaneous desire. Some people are raring to go with sex before they really start making out and cuddling and touching and kissing, and some people more need the touching and kissing to signal, “hey, it’s sexy time!”, and then their bodies respond.

Having a responsive libido does not mean that you aren’t sexual, or that you are less sexual. In our survey of 20,000 women, we found that both responsive and spontaneous desire women felt equally blissful after sex if they started sex confident that they would get aroused–and they did.

All right, with that laying the foundation, let’s look at the three brains.

​The Three Brains of Libido: Mental, Emotional, and Hormonal

Mental: Our brains and what we think about sex and our relationship

Emotional: Our feelings and how we view our circumstances

Hormonal: Our physical response to sex.

The Goals of Each of the Three Brains

Mental: For flourishing relationships, personal well-being, and a meaningful life

The part of you that thinks, that holds your will, that decides what is best for you likely wants you to flourish in every area of your life.

Assuming you’re in a healthy relationship, you want sex to be awesome. You want your marriage to be awesome. You want to feel loved and to love your spouse in return. You want to make your marriage, and your sex life, the best that it can be.

This is the “libido brain” that you can most influence. This is where you exert your will, where you decide what you actually want, no matter what the circumstances are.

Emotional: Keep you safe from outside threats

Unlike the mental part of your brain, the emotional part isn’t deliberate. Yes, what you think can definitely influence your emotions. But your emotions are meant to tell you about the outside world and how you should react to it.

When there’s chaos in your outside world, you will feel stressed and overwhelmed. When there’s distance in your marriage, you will feel lonely and alone and rejected. When the future is unclear, especially about important things like health or job security or relationship security, you will feel worried and anxious. When conditions are relatively good in your relationships and circumstances, you will feel happy and peaceful.

Now, what triggers emotions can be influenced by our attachment styles. And sometimes we aren’t in touch with our emotions, and so we channel them in unhealthy ways, into addictions or other things.

So our emotional brain very rarely works perfectly! But in general, emotions tell us, “is your world all good?” or “are there things in your world that are unstable, threatening, or problematic?” Our emotions tell us if things are all good, or if we should be doing something to fix something.

Hormonal: Have babies that will thrive

Then there’s the most “physical” brain, our endocrine system, that determines our hormonal levels and hormonal mixes which makes it easier or harder to get aroused and enjoy sex. This has a genetic component, where some women will have naturally high libidos and hormone levels, and some will have lower.

Remember that at heart we are physical beings, and physically, one of our big roles is to reproduce. So our hormonal systems are heavily geared in that direction. Our bodies prioritize getting pregnant and then raising a healthy child who will thrive.

Let’s sit with this one for a moment, because it’s key to how we experience the ups and downs of libido.

Before menopause, a woman’s “libido” will ebb and flow with her monthly cycle. She’ll feel a libido boost in the days leading up to ovulation, when libido will be at its height. And then, right after ovulation, libido will fall. Your body was saying, “Okay!!!! Now’s the time to have sex!!!! Let’s go!!!!”

And that after that egg is released, your body was like, “Okay, we’re done now. May as well wait until next time.” And over the next few weeks there will be a little bit of a lull (with a pick up right before your period, but we can go into more detail on that in another post perhaps).

When you don’t have a cycle, you won’t get this libido burst.

After menopause when ovulation stops, your hormones are no longer working to try to get you pregnant. So libido can drop drastically for many women (combine that with hot flashes and insomnia, as well as a reduction in blood flow to the genitals, and libido can drop even more).

Hormonal birth control, which prevents ovulation, also evens out the libido ups and downs over the month and can prevent that libido burst. I have many women who started marriage on the Pill, took it for five or six years, and then went off it to get pregnant write to me and say, “I always thought I was the low libido spouse! But HOLY COW! I never realized what I was supposed to be feeling.”

Your body also wants to nurture the babies you will/do have

Not only does your body want to get pregnant; it also wants to make sure the babies that you have thrive. When you’re pregnant, then, often libido drops initially because your body is putting all of its energy into making that little baby grow well (in the second trimester libido often bursts for various hormonal reasons that I won’t go into right now).

Once you do have a baby, though, remember that the priority is now feeding that baby. Your body is putting its energy into producing milk. The hormones that go into milk production also prevent ovulation, or at least make it less likely. Your body wants to be able to make sure that this baby can thrive, and it’s much harder to do good milk production if you’re pregnant again. So your body doesn’t want to ovulate too early (when the baby is still feeding frequently), AND your body doesn’t want you to have sex and get pregnant.

So breastfeeding can largely crater a woman’s libido as well.

Your general physical well-being also signals whether babies will thrive. 

If you’re eating well, get lots of exercise, and are generally a healthy person, then babies are more likely to do well if you get pregnant. But if you’re really tired, don’t have good nutrition, and aren’t getting a lot of exercise, then those babies may not thrive as well and your body may want to preserve your energy to get pregnant later. So our physical well-being signals to our body whether this is a good time to get pregnant as well, and all of that can influence our hormone levels! (Plus better nutrition simply helps our hormones balance better all on their own).

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How do the different “brains” interact with each other when it comes to libido?

We have different levels of control over each of the different brains:

Mental: Most control

Emotional: Some control

Hormonal: No control (though we do have some control over our general physical well-being)

And yet what’s the influence on libido?

Mental: Some/minimal influence

Emotional: Some influence

Hormonal: Lots of influence

See the problem? The areas we have the most control over have the least influence on felt libido.

Here’s the thing, though: these areas have a lot of influence over other areas. 

Let’s see how this plays out to lower libido.

Emotionally you’re not in a good place. You’re overwhelmed by mental load. You haven’t been getting along with your husband. You feel lonely and taken for granted.

Your kids aren’t sleeping well and so you’re not getting a lot of sleep, and so you’re feeling frazzled. Your body is feeling really worn down.

You know that you have to work on your marriage and fix things, because the distance is growing, and you’re not sure what to do now.

So mentally you’re not focused on celebrating your marriage and experiencing passion; you know that something needs to be fixed. This is affecting your emotional state as well. Your emotions are telling you that this isn’t a safe relationship or a good time to have a baby.

And so now your emotions tell your libido, loudly and clearly: BACK OFF. 

It’s not that you deliberately are doing this. In fact, you may actually be wanting to boost your libido, thinking that more sex will help your marriage! But the bigger picture of your emotional state and your worn out physical state is telling your hormones: “now’s not the time!”

And since your hormones are largely (not entirely) focused on having healthy, thriving babies, your libido may tank.

How can this play out to boost your libido?

Your mind says, “I want to enjoy sex more with my husband. I want to want sex, and I want to experience real passion!”

You start to look around and see some of the roadblocks to your libido, like not getting consistent sleep, being too busy at night to spend any real time together, doing things at night that don’t foster libido.

So you decide to stop streaming crime shows at night and start having a bubble bath and listening to relaxing music. You say no to some of the extra activities in your calendar. You decide to spend a night a week to do a new hobby with your husband. (Maybe you’re like Keith and me and you do ballroom dancing classes online!).

You and your husband sit down and figure out ways to improve the kids’ bedtime routine so it’s not so chaotic. You talk about some of the stress you’re feeling with your relationship with your mom and how to build better boundaries.

Now your emotional state is more calm. You feel closer to your husband and more blissful and safe with him. Your physical body isn’t as tired. You’re giving your mind and emotions more mental cues that “sex is on the table!” with the bubble bath.

And desire suddenly comes more easily, because your hormonal system is saying, “hey, this is a safe relationship! We’re firing on all cylinders!”

Remember that, barring breastfeeding or menopause, libido is like an early warning system that there’s something not right in your world.

When getting turned on is difficult; when responding sexually is difficult; it could be that there’s something wrong somewhere. You’re too stressed. Your relationship isn’t safe or secure (and your body is trying to prevent you from getting pregnant if you’re not safe or secure). You’re not physically feeling well. You have too much on your plate.

And, of course, it could just be that the messages you’ve heard about sex make sex feel unsafe in the first place! (thanks Every Man’s Battle).

In our Boost Your Libido course, which we’re updating right as we speak (hope to launch at the end of the month!), we talk about what goes into the mental and emotional and physical aspects of libido, and how you can address each one of them to see what’s holding you back.

Because sometimes you want to want sex, but your body just won’t cooperate. I hope this month we can help you get to the bottom of why, and help you understand how your body works better!

Today, though, the big takeaway is this:

There’s actually logic behind libido.

It may be frustrating. You may wish it all were easier. But there is usually a reason (or many reasons!) that your body works the way it does, and understanding those reasons can help unlock more flourishing in your marriage and your sex life.

3 Things that Determine Women's Libido

Is there an element that’s working overtime for you? Have you found that breastfeeding kills libido? Let’s talk in the comments!

What’s Killing Women’s Libido? Series

Plus don’t miss our revamped Boost Your Libido course, launching soon!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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11 Comments

  1. Stefanie

    Hmm…that’s interesting. The first 5 years of my marriage I was on hormonal birth control, and then for the last 6 years I’ve either been pregnant or breastfeeding. Add to that the obligation sex message that never told me we were supposed to be focused on my pleasure.

    We’ve been trying to fix our sex life for the last year with no success (no orgasm), and all of these wounds and triggers are coming to the surface. There was a post on Instagram that said “You can’t force your healing. You support your healing.” That message was really helpful to me. Because I want this all to be better RIGHT NOW, and the road is long and hard.

    BTW, I saw your FB post about beauty, and it spoke to me. I’m sorry I’m one of the discouraging ones. Hopefully sometime soon I’ll be able to share our success story. But regardless, I’m still grateful that we found you. I feel like you set us up for healing even if we’re not there yet.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, don’t be sorry! It’s an honor to carry all of your stories. You all motivate me to keep doing this, because you show me the need is there!

      Reply
  2. Jane Eyre

    To the mental part, add in: sex is frequently good such that your husband hasn’t trained you to avoid it. Every bout of bad, soul crushing sex diminished my libido until there was nothing left.

    Reply
  3. Karena

    This was really helpful. I never thought about the “three brains of libido” before. I had a high libido when I was in my 20s but didn’t get married (for the first time) until I was 33. It had dropped significantly by then, thanks to a lot of purity culture brainwashing and constantly being the gatekeeper.

    I prayed that God would finally “reward” me with a satisfying sex life and the ability to orgasm because my husband and I waited until we were married to have sex, but that didn’t happen (of course…it was silly, magical thinking now that I know better!). He was toxic, entitled and an abusive spiritual impostor, and that marriage thankfully ended.

    I am remarried now to a wonderful, actually Christian man whom I love dearly! He treasures me and I feel the same, but sex has never been very good. I just never, ever want it. I WANT to want it (primarily for his sake), but between being peri-menopausal (I’m 53) and still trying to detox from all the bad purity culture teaching from my 20s, I feel like the roadblocks are just too large. I would be perfectly happy (and even prefer) never having sex again in my life, if my husband were equally happy about that (he’s not).

    At least being introduced to those three “brains” helps me understand myself better, and hopefully he can get some better understanding of how I work too. I’ve purchased the Orgasm Course and am slowly working through it (low motivation to work on that too, unfortunately…as I just never physically respond to my husband’s touch and efforts). Looking forward to the new Boost Your Libido course. Maybe that will help!

    Thank you for your excellent work, Sheila! I love your ministry!!!

    Reply
  4. Jo R

    So, women spend lots of time reading marriage and sex books trying to raise their libido, and all they do is drive themselves crazy, because the real issues with and causes of their low libido tend to lie elsewhere.

    That explains quite a lot.

    Reply
  5. Emily

    This is such a helpful framework for talking about and thinking about women’s libidos, thank you for sharing Sheila.

    I also want to share my experience that many women, like myself, experience a plummet in libido during, and often throughout pregnancy, and then it can feel like it switches back on again after the birth of your child. So many women also experience their normal, or even a heightened, libido during breastfeeding as well. And I feel this is totally logical too – like your brain is saying “hey I’m pregnant and my body is working very hard growing a human and the sexy stuff doesn’t need to happen just now” and then “oh my baby is born and I have lots of oxytocin and my husband is taking care of me and our baby and being supportive and he’s my absolute favourite person and I am safe and loved”.
    Of course this is not everyone’s experience, but neither is the low libido during breastfeeding everyone’s experience.

    Reply
  6. Angharad

    Any suggestions for how we can get those pesky hormones to behave themselves during perimenopause and beyond?

    Reply
  7. Laura

    This post explains why I had low libido during my former marriage. The stress and toxicity of that marriage made it hard for me to want to have sex. It also didn’t help that my ex constantly pressured me to give him more sex which really was obligation sex. No wonder I didn’t like sex that much.
    Strangely, after I left him and have remained celibate for 20 years, I discovered that I have a sex drive. Also, I was on hormonal birth control throughout my marriage and have not been on any since, except for a short period of time a few years ago. I’m almost 46 and still have a drive, but it’s waning and I’m at the point in my life where I’m okay if I never remarry. But, in my 30s, my sex drive was high and I desperately wanted to have a baby. Unfortunately, there weren’t any age-appropriate men I was interested in so I never dated during my 30s. That was frustrating so I experienced a LOT of sexual frustration.
    One thing I’ve heard in church was this: When you’re single, the devil will do all he can to tempt you into sex. But when you are married, the devil will try to get you to not want sex with your spouse. Has anyone here ever heard this line of thinking?

    Reply
  8. Laura

    I’m the high-drive one in our marriage, and I’m currently nursing. I’m DEFINITELY experiencing low libido right now, which I hate. I don’t feel like myself (makes me scared for menopause!), and coupled with my husband’s low drive, we’re only having sex like every other week! (I previously would be happy with every other day.) He had a vasectomy in Feb (this baby is our 4th), and is supposed to get tested after 20 ejaculations to see if it worked. Well, we’re only halfway to that number and he said he’d be too embarrassed to wait til 20 to go in with how much time would have elapsed. Maybe sperm die with time too, ha!

    Reply
    • Nessie

      Yes, they do “die.” My husband was told it is 20 and/OR a certain amount of time. He should be able to check on that with a simple call in to the urologist’s office though. He really should get tested. I know a gal who had another kid after her husband’s vasectomy. I don’t think they bothered to get it checked so didn’t know they needed a back up method.

      Reply
      • Laura

        Good to know, thank you!!

        Reply

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