What Sex Therapists Want Parents to Know
When my mom friends and I begin chatting, it never takes long for the stories to start flowing: “I got the sexy nightie on, dimmed the lights, and then he had to use the bathroom. I was asleep by the time he came back.” Another remembers trying to get busy with her husband—only to have their 3-year-old barge in. Then, of course, there are the nursing moms who don’t want to be touched after a day of cluster feeding and the partners still irritated over a squabble who can’t fathom hitting the sheets with someone they’re peeved at.
As psychotherapist Esther Perel writes in her book Mating in Captivity, every couple with kids faces questions about why parenthood dampens one’s sex life, and whether or not familiarity erases sexual desire. She notes that “the caring, protective elements that nurture home life can go against the rebellious spirit of carnal love.” Most likely, when you were first drawn to your spouse, that attraction was rooted in charisma, chemistry, and your bodies speaking to each other in a wordless, mysterious way. Long-term relationships ask us to continue feeling that sexy charge—forever—even as we look to the same person for protection safety, financial security, child-rearing assistance, household co-management, and more. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one human being. And right now, all this together time we’re experiencing is only making that strain harder.
But it’s important to nurture the bond between you, even if your urge to put sex on the back burner—just until the kids are older and you’re less tired!—is strong. Someday, those kids will grow up, and you’ll be left with a partner you will again need to relate to as a person, not just as a parent. Losing your sense of intimacy can make that difficult or intolerable.
We asked four leading sex and couples therapists to share the most common issues they see parents struggle with and what can be done about them. While each of these experts has different advice, all agree that the biggest mistake a couple can make when it comes to communicating about sex is not to communicate at all. So if your sex life is flatlining, let their guidance get you talking.
“When one partner is always exhausted, it’s hard to get into a sexy frame of mind.”
Daphne de Marneffe, Ph.D., couples therapist, author of The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together, and a Parents contributing editor
For parents of babies and small children, making sex a priority is universally challenging. You’re worn out, and biologically, sleep is a need that trumps sex. Don’t feel guilty for wanting the former over the latter. But it’s not just about being tired; it’s also about struggling to switch gears. You’re multitasking, dealing with the kids, in parent mode—and that’s just not an erotic place to be. People often have difficulty shutting off their worries and anxiety enough to enjoy sex. The extent to which your partner listens, empathizes, and takes stuff off your plate makes a huge difference. If you feel your partner isn’t sharing the burden of running the life you share, it leads to resentment. Resentment pushes you apart. And when you don’t feel close, you probably don’t want to have sex. It’s a vicious cycle.
Ideally, you want to ask, “How are we going to keep everyone happy?” And that’s a cooperative, collaborative question. Nobody’s wrong or bad; you’re just different right now. Remember, you are resourceful: You had a child together, you figured out where to live! You can solve this too. One great way is to destigmatize scheduling. When you’re planning a vacation, the anticipation is half the fun. Why not approach sex the same way? Maybe you put on a movie for the kids and buy yourself some time. Knowing the appointment is set can get you in the mood. Making a plan to be alone is a smart investment in your relationship.
“Parenthood changes our bodies and how we see them.”
Wendy Talley, licensed couples psychotherapist and cofounder of KW Essential Services, in Los Angeles
It’s totally normal to feel less comfortable in your skin after you’ve had a baby. I once saw a couple in their late 30s who had been married less than a year when they had their first child. The wife felt that in the six months after the baby’s birth, their marriage had taken a downward turn. She worried that her husband didn’t desire her anymore; she was struggling to lose pregnancy weight and didn’t feel attractive. But when we talked, her husband said he had no idea where she got this notion. He said he hadn’t been initiating sex because he was often tired, but his wife read that as a signal that her body was a turnoff to him, and she didn’t initiate either. So they’d gotten stuck. What they needed was communication and fewer assumptions, which can be a killer in the bedroom.
Talking about your desires and fantasies as well as your fears is key. I tell couples to face each other and let each other discuss whatever sex-related topic they want or ask specific questions. And some of these discussions can be about how you see your body now and how your partner does. Chances are, you’ll learn—as this couple did—that your partner still sees you as he did before the baby. If these two had checked in more, they might have avoided hurt feelings. I also urge couples to be open to other ways of showing affection: touching, kissing, massaging. The more you connect, the less you’ll be worrying about (supposed) imperfections.
“You may think you know everything about your partner when it comes to sex, but don’t be too sure.”
Sari Cooper, founder and director of Center for Love and Sex, in New York City, and author of the blog Sex Esteem
When couples visit my practice, I take a detailed history of both partners’ lives—their childhood, their prior relationships. Why? Because we learn so much about love and marriage, even if just subconsciously, from our families and early relationships, and that context can affect the expectations each partner brings to marriage and sex. Couples can do something similar by discussing their histories frankly and adapting to what they learn about each other. Certainly, you know a fair amount about your partner’s sexual history, views on physical intimacy, and preferences. But it’s surprising how far you can get into a relationship before you really confront or understand the roots of those wants and needs. Early on, a couple’s enthusiasm around sex can mask a lot of what’s going on underneath.
And our attitudes about sex aren’t fixed. They can change, especially after we’ve had a child, when less frequent sex can reveal that it may be less of a priority for one partner than it is for the other. You might also start to see what role sex had been playing in your lives before you started having less of it. Maybe the husband has had a lifelong struggle with anxiety and has depended on sexual release to cope. As a single man he may have masturbated every day, and as the pressures of marriage and parenthood increase, he’s hoping more and more for sexual connection as a way of feeling loved, comforted, and anxiety-free. In other words, his wife may not realize how many needs sex is fulfilling for him. Meanwhile, maybe his wife grew up in a household where her parents weren’t romantically or physically demonstrative, so she expected her husband to be loyal and responsible but didn’t expect to have a super-passionate relationship. Once you really dig into these issues, you might find that sex means something very different to each of you, and you can start using that information to build a more mutually satisfying sex life.
“It’s virtually impossible for two people to want the same amount of sex at exactly the same time.”
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., author of Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life
A discrepancy in desire is one of the most common reasons people seek a sex therapist. If you’re struggling with that, here’s some advice you and your partner might want to try, even if it sounds crazy: Stop having sex. I usually suggest taking it off the table for three months.
When I suggested this to a couple recently, the husband, who was the one with higher desire, looked crestfallen. I said, “Imagine what your facial expression is doing to your partner. How is she feeling about the fact that to you, all other kinds of intimacy aren’t enough because you can’t put your genitals inside her genitals for three months? This is why she feels pressure to do things regardless of how she feels.”
Feeling pressured only makes things worse because it’s much more difficult to want sex when you feel as if you’re obligated to have sex. The mechanism that governs the sexual response in our brain has two components: a sexual accelerator, which responds to all the sexy information in the environment and sends the turn-on signal, and a brake, which notices all the reasons not to be turned on, like a sink full of dishes or a pile of laundry, and sends a turn-off signal. It doesn’t matter how much the turn-on signal is happening if that off signal is also happening—it’s like trying to drive a car by stepping on the brake. If the lower-desire partner feels guilty, that’s just more pressure on the brake. When you take sex off the table, you’re taking all that pressure and guilt and shame off the person who has lower desire. It creates space for you to move toward your partner in a gradual, gentle way that never activates that sense of feeling pressured. And that’s just the beginning. Once you’ve reset things in this way, you start to see that being delicate about initiating sex goes a long way, and that helps shift how you approach the issue.
The most common mistake couples make is believing that whichever partner has the higher desire is the one who is right, as if there is a correct amount of sex to want and more is always the right answer. But it’s okay for partners to be different. It’s not about how much you crave sex, or what you do, or how often, or where, or even how many orgasms you have—it’s about how much you like the sex that you have together.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine’s June 2020 issue as “What Sex Therapists Want You to Know.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here