As an avid researcher and mom of two kids younger than 6, I read a lot about the impact of children on relationships, including this tidbit I found: “A baby’s birth reduces couple time by two-thirds. The remaining third dwindles further, as we now devote precious moments to discussing kids.”
Is it any wonder that, in the first year or two after children arrive, finding time for sex feels like searching for the Holy Grail? Want it. Can’t get it.
Despite the challenges parents face, connecting with our spouses — sexually and otherwise — sustains us. For some, sex begets sex; for others, closeness inspires passion. Either way, unless sexual satisfaction is the price we agree to pay for parenthood, nurturing intimacy — even when exhausted or disconnected — contributes abundantly to personal and relationship fulfillment.
Here are 10 ways to ignite love between, and beyond, the sheets:
1. Invite passion through compassion. Some new parents compare sex to a battlefield. Contrasting desires spark conflict and trigger shame. For example, moms feel overwhelmed and judge dads for sexual urges, while dads feel rejected and shame moms for their decreased desires. When this battle rages, intimacy dissolves.
What to do? Turn on compassion. Ask your spouse to share his sexual feelings, or lack thereof, and listen empathically. Understand your differing — no better, no worse — desires, and acknowledge the pain and frustration those differences generate.
Then, do your best to:
2. Nurture twosomes. In the transition from couplehood to parenthood, babies often trump romance. Yet celebrating your relationship remains important. In a 2000 study, the National Survey of Marital Strengths discovered that parents in happy — versus unhappy — relationships are much likelier to declare: “My partner focuses as much on our marriage as our children.”
To support your twosome, consider these questions: What’s important to us, individually and as a couple, about feeling close? In addition to sex, what other shared experiences encourage connection? If intimacy depends on teamwork, how do we cultivate it together?
3. Role-play in a new way. We all assume roles and responsibilities based on skill, personality, social expectation, comfort zone and whether, for instance, we’re the introvert or extrovert, or sexual initiator or responder. Reversing our sexual roles supports innovation and prevents role resentment, as in “I’m sick of always asking for sex!”
Trying new things together — sexual or otherwise — inspires closeness. In addition to shifting sexual roles, what other new experiences beckon you as a couple?
4. Make small gestures. When sex evades us, we presume we need a big remedy: hours together, weekend getaways. Yet small gestures deliver results. Kiss each other as each day starts and ends. Send your spouse an email about what turns you on about her. Slip a note into his pocket detailing a steamy memory before kids entered the picture.
What small gestures get you hot and bothered? Jot down five and share them with each other.
5. Cultivate time alone. If you’re a mom acclimating to your post-birth body or navigating sleep deprivation, take time to revisit your sensuality. Get a manicure or massage, take a candlelit bath, do something that reconnects you to your body, including self-love. Too often we try to unite sexually with spouses while disconnected from ourselves. Nurturing your sensuality is foreplay to intimacy with your beloved.
What grounds you in your body? What sensual delights will you try in the next few days?
6. Kick up dust. Despite changing gender roles, moms still perform at least twice the amount of housework and child care as dads. The 2008 National Survey of Marital Strengths reports that the number-one factor differentiating happy from unhappy couples with kids is their satisfaction with how child rearing is shared. A 2009 study in the Journal of Family Issues finds that couples that labor together, even on household tasks, enjoy more sex.
Approaching housework and child care with teamwork in mind, and building consensus about our respective roles, not only brings us closer, it inspires intimacy.
Dissatisfied with the division of labor at home? Share this research with your spouse and, together, explore how a new approach to teamwork offers more intimate rewards.
7. Get naked. Portland-based parents Sue and Mike decided months ago to wear their birthday suits to bed twice a week. They took sex off the table on those nights. Without sexual “pressure,” skin-on-skin cuddling reconnected them. Within a few weeks, they stripped down more frequently and ditched the “no sex” rule.
When considering intimacy strategies, one size doesn’t fit all. What sparks intimacy for you and your beloved? What weekly or nightly agreement do you want to make?
8. Cultivate gifts. Sally, mom of a 20-month-old in Phoenix, admits that, while she misses sexual spontaneity, she enjoys sex with her husband more now. For her, motherhood inspires greater sexual freedom, and sex feels more precious. Liz and Mike, parents of a 15-month-old in San Diego, consider reduced time together a challenge. They one-up each other with creative ways to get intimate. In other words, parenthood offers sexual opportunities if we look for them.
How can you rise to the challenge and devise fun, sexy things to do or say in 10 (or five) minutes to spark connection? Set your timer and go!
9. Schedule intimacy. One of the biggest losses of parenthood is spontaneity, sexual and otherwise. Yet with so few moments together, unless we schedule connection, we defer sex and expand distance between us. Karen and David, parents of a 2-year-old in San Francisco, responded to this dilemma with “intimacy time,” evenings when they unplug from media and focus on each other.
In her experience with new parents, Mari Oxenberg, M.S., C.N.M., a birth and postpartum doula and certified nurse midwife based in Los Angeles, suggests, “Schedule time for intimacy, even if it doesn’t involve having sex; just time to be together and have grown-up conversation.”
What kind of intimacy time works for you and your spouse?
10. Go for it. Never underrate the power of kissing deeply and touching suggestively, or the value of a quickie to reignite your sex life or, at the very least, remind you of what you miss about each other and yourself.
No matter what strategy or technique you try, be sure to honor yourself, your relationship and your family and reconnect with your spouse. After all, children learn about relationships from us, so unless we model the importance of romance and relationship fulfillment, our kids will grow up devaluing them. It brings a whole new meaning to “doing it for your kids,” doesn’t it?
Rhona Berens, Ph.D., C.P.C.C., is a Los Angeles-based individual and relationship coach who helps parents across North America stay sane and stay together. Find her at Parent Alliance.