The statistics are not stacked in favor of parents being sexual. “More than 100 studies show that marital sexual satisfaction falls off after the birth of the first child and doesn’t get better until the last child leaves home,” says Diana Wiley, Ph.D., a marriage, family and sex therapist who has been practicing for 32 years.
There are both medical and practical reasons for this dip. “We know hormonal changes occur throughout parenting years. For example, men who are highly engaged parents have lower testosterone than men who are not actively engaged,” says Serena McKenzie, N.D., a sexual medicine expert and licensed sex counselor and medical director at the Northwest Institute of Healthy Sexuality. “The child-centered parenting we tend to practice now has a higher impact on marriages. Pair this with many more two-family working homes, along with parents not having a lot of time together, and intimacy significantly deteriorates.”
The rabbit hole of not having sex grows deeper if you add in issues such as untreated depression and prescribed antidepressants, which can lower sexual interest and make it difficult to feel pleasure while having intercourse. Why bother creating space for intimacy and sex when the cards are stacked so high against that lovin’ feeling actually happening on a regular basis?
“Being intimate is an investment in your family; your relationship is really a key part of family life,” says Amy Johnson, MSW, certified sexuality educator and a faculty member of Great Conversations. “Single parents also need to have their emotional-intimacy needs met with self-care and friendship and connection, too.”
Some parents jump back into their sexual life with gusto after a dry spell. Teresa* and her husband decided to have sex every day for a year after having three children within a span of five years. Don’t worry: They only achieved daily intercourse for a month and a half. “It was like eating steak for dinner every night. I mean, I like steak, but I don’t need it every day,” Teresa says.
Their experiment did lead to an increase in their sexual frequency, but Teresa believes it was their pre-sex expressions of appreciation that led to more intimacy in their relationship. Before their daily “task,” each person said thanks for one thing the other person did that day. “It’s still helpful to look for the good in what my husband is doing, and I am touched that he notices the things I do for our family. It’s hard to want to do anything with someone or have romance if you don’t feel appreciated,” she says.
Sexual therapists second the idea that couples need to appreciate each other to nurture their connection. But there are other strategies that can help parents who want to make intimacy and having sex a priority. McKenzie recommends having a medical and/or psychological evaluation so partners can make sure there are no biomechanical reasons they are not having sex. It can be hard to find a medical provider trained in the area of sexual function, so be sure to get a second opinion, if necessary.
Wiley suggests to her clients that they be more adventurous outside of the bedroom. “Try new things together: river rafting, hiking, skiing, dancing, going to a concert. This helps people boost their levels of adrenaline and testosterone, and you can see your partner with new eyes. Emotional arousal can lead to more romance and sex,” she says.
Add in more physical touching, too. “When you greet each other at the end of the day, do a 7-second kiss and a 15-second hug. That is enough time to get oxytocin released, which is nicknamed both the ‘cuddle chemical’ and the ‘love hormone.’ Releasing oxytocin starts a positive feedback loop: The more we are touched, the more we want to be touched,” says Wiley, who hosts a weekly Internet radio show called “Love, Lust and Laughter” on Progressive Radio Network.
Recommitting to a sexual relationship is also about re-creating your identity as a sexual person, McKenzie says. “Your self-identity outside of being a parent can be a really hard [thing to consider]. Sometimes you have to look for it: Read books (Sexy Mamas by Cathy Winks [and Anne Semans] and Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel), talk to people and spend time thinking about your sexual identity. Seeing a sex therapist can give someone an objective outside facilitator, too. So much happens in a lifetime partnership with someone, and asking how [to] maintain eroticism decade after decade takes space and time.” McKenzie says.
Creating new energy around intimacy and sex is also about communicating. “Couples need to get comfortable talking about sex. If you don’t communicate, it’s like going on a treasure hunt without any clues,” Wiley says.
In a long-term partnership, what people want during sex may change, which necessitates conversation. This is another reason people see sex therapists — to help them learn how to talk about sex. To get the conversation started with minimal help, Johnson recommends watching Al Vernacchio’s TED talk Sex Needs a New Metaphor. Vernacchio asks us to drop baseball and adopt pizza as a metaphor for sex.
“Getting pizza is an experience to share, and you talk about what you want even if you have been having pizza together for a long time. What’s our pleasure? There are a million kinds of pizza and a million ways to eat it, and different is good. It means you have an increased chance of a satisfying experience. There’s no winning, there are questions: Are we satisfied?” Vernacchio says in the video.
Pizza without kids. Now there’s an outing parents want to experience.
Editor's note: *Name changed to protect privacy.