It’s the end of another exhausting day, and Sharon is waiting impatiently for Sam to get home. After eight solid hours of diapers, dishes, errands and Bert & Ernie, Sharon needs adult contact — and Sam is by far her favorite adult.
Finally, like a breath of fresh air, Sam blows through the door, and their brief, somewhat sticky reunion hug carries the promise of later pleasures. “You look beautiful,” Sam tells her. “Thank God you’re home,” Sharon responds. That night, after the kids are asleep, they share a loving, intimate evening, full of good conversation and even better sex.
If this sounds like your marriage, congratulations! You’re a rare bird — some would say practically extinct! — in the go-go-go, stressed-out, maxed-out reality that is the United States in 2009.
Experts tell us (and you probably know it’s true): Stress ruins sex. And ruined sex ruins marriages. Last fall’s much-lamented economic debacle has caused exquisite pain for many, including (and perhaps especially) middle-class, two-income parents. Many couples are working longer hours to make ends meet. “I call it the ‘DINS’ syndrome,” says Dr. Diana Wiley, a sex therapist at the Seattle Institute for Sex Therapy Education and a licensed marriage and family therapist, “double income, no sex!”
But income and working status aside, what may be causing even more marital pain in local families these days is what Wiley calls the “TTFS” syndrome: too tired for sex. If this is happening to your marriage, buckle up: You’re about to get an earful from three local marriage experts who say that putting sex on the back burner — no matter what the reason! — is almost certain to burn your marriage.
Is sleep the new sex?
“If I had to choose between eight hours of sleep or seven hours of sleep plus sex, I’d take the eight hours,” says Julie*, a mother of a girl and a boy under the age of 8, who lives in Tacoma with her husband of 10 years. “It’s pathetic!”
Julie’s husband works full-time; she freelances part-time from home and handles the kids. Finances have been tighter lately; her husband just took a 10 percent pay cut. “Given the state of the economy, we feel lucky,” Julie says, but for her, the stress of finances and her seemingly endless workload are exhausting.
“For moms who are juggling work and kids — working moms — there’s just nothing left,” she says. “It’s not a matter of not wanting to have sex or not loving their husbands; there’s literally nothing left at the end of the day, so you’d truly trade sex for sleep any day.”
Regular “date nights” are a thing of the past for this couple; time and money just don’t permit, and Julie has other priorities: “I’ve forgone a date night to have alone time!” she says. “Working moms, in particular, need time where they’re just not around people.”
Still, the couple manages sex about twice a week on average, because they make connection a priority. “We’re just constantly working on our relationship. We’re big-picture oriented,” Julie says.
“What’s helping us right now is just realizing that we’re not unique. All couples struggle with their relationship and sex, and in a weird way, that’s inspiring.”
In fact, it’s too early for studies on whether the recent economic reality is affecting local parents’ sex lives, but there’s a good chance that it is, according to sex expert Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author or co-author of a dozen books about sex. “If you get stress levels really high, it interferes with erotic feelings,” Schwartz says. Ongoing stress causes higher levels of cortisol — known as the stress hormone — which can interfere with those hormones responsible for sexual response. The result? Lowered libido.
And Wiley points out that testosterone plays a role here, too — for both men and women. “When there is chronic stress in a relationship or in life, it pushes down levels of testosterone, which govern our libido and energy and sense of well-being,” she says.
Is the problem worse than before? Yes, says Schwartz, but the reasons may be more sociological than economic. “I think because more women work outside the home, that puts more stress on things, but also the fact that women have more power in their relationships,” she says. Women are more tired — and so they’re saying “no” to sex more often. “There would have been a time in relationships when women wouldn’t have dared to do this, and I’m glad that era is gone, in one sense.
“Now women are equal partners — strong, independent, all kinds of good things — but they often don’t understand that that doesn’t entitle them to unilaterally dictate this part of their relationship. It has to be a negotiation, coming from a place of respect.
“I get pretty intense when I talk to moms about this,” Schwartz says. “It’s a power trip to unilaterally decide how much sex is going to be in your relationship. I don’t think a woman would want a husband to unilaterally decide how much money they could spend. How dare they make the decision for their husband in this important area? It’s not fair. First, he loses some of his wife’s attention to the child, and then he loses sex as well.”
‘Nothing left to give’
But for some exhausted moms, the decision to cut back on sex isn’t a conscious one; it’s a matter of survival of the fittest — or at least, the littlest. “Ever since the kids came into the picture and I started breastfeeding, I just haven’t felt like sharing my body,” says Laurie, a Seattle mother of an infant and a preschooler. “That part of my life is just turned off for the time being. I haven’t had the energy or the motivation to turn it back on.”
In fact, Laurie and her husband of four years haven’t had sex since before their 6-month-old daughter was born, something Laurie says her husband has learned to live with.
“He’s accepted the situation as it is,” she says. “I think he understands that hopefully, it will be a temporary situation.”
But Laurie is under no illusions that this long dry spell won’t be without consequences. “Honestly, I think it is damaging to our marriage, and I think it would be nice if each of us had the energy and motivation to make it happen more than it does.
“The kids just consume our life and our world, and we’re very attached to them.” New worries about money — both Laurie and her husband own their own home-based businesses — have added to the stress. “We don’t go out and spend money on things anymore,” she says. “We cancelled our vacations this year. We’re staying closer to home. It does have a big psychological effect.”
A spiral effect
If you, too, are on Team Exhausted Mom, sexperts warn that you should think twice before cutting off sex entirely. Carolyn Pirak, a relationship and parenting expert with Talaris Institute (and a regular ParentMap contributor), says that can turn into a vicious cycle for couples by creating an atmosphere of negativity.
“It’s a spiral effect,” says Pirak. “The environment is negative in the relationship, so you don’t have sex, which creates a more negative energy in the relationship. When you’re having less sex, you’re less likely to be communicative in other ways.
“We know that couples are happier when intimacy levels are higher.”
And Pirak points out that sex is important to marital identity. “Moms sometimes need to be reminded that intimacy with their partner is the one thing that differentiates that relationship from every other relationship that woman has. The couple can say, ‘We do two things together that no one else can do: We both love and parent our children, and we’re intimate with each other.’
“It’s really important for moms to come up with a way to resume sexual activity,” Pirak says, and for some women, this means coming to terms with a newly changed body. “Body image is a huge issue for women when it comes to sex,” says Pirak. “That’s what a lot of breastfeeding women are really talking about: ‘I don’t have control over my body anymore, or I want to wait until I heal, or deal with weight issues,’” Pirak says. “Women need to understand that most men really are able to look beyond that.”
When women are tired and stressed, often the first thing they give up is sex, says Pirak. “They’re happy to give it up, because it’s like another chore.
“It’s different for men. Men will give up communication or hobbies before they’ll give up sex, because for so many men, sex is easy, whereas for women, it’s typically not. It takes them longer to achieve an orgasm. For men, it’s a form of relaxation and relief.”
Make sex a priority
So how to get back to sex? Wiley, who has been a sex therapist for 28 years, says there are no two ways about it: Sex needs to be a priority. “I say put sex on the calendar,” Wiley says. “In our busy lives, it just can’t be spontaneous.”
And Wiley, Schwartz and Pirak all stand by the tried-and-true “date night” as crucial for closeness — once a week, if you can swing it. Wiley recommends that couples get away alone together about once every three months for an “intimacy island vacation” — which can be nothing more than farming the kids out to grandma and spending time connecting at home.
“Couples need to remind themselves that they’re not just mom and dad, they’re husband and wife,” says Wiley. “You’re doing it for the sake of your marriage and your own self-esteem, and also for the children.
“Kids like to see their parents being affectionate with each other; it makes them feel more secure.”
Besides creating closeness between couples, having sex releases feel-good chemicals, such as endorphins and oxytocin. And there’s more. Studies have shown that sex reduces blood pressure, boosts immunity, improves self-esteem and even helps you lose weight. A study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that having sex twice or more a week reduced the risk of fatal heart attack by half for men, compared with those who had sex less than once a month.
And tired moms, take note: The oxytocin released during orgasm has been shown to help with sleep, which can lead to a different kind of spiral — a positive one. Just ask Allison, a 37-year-old DuPont mom.
Though the tough economy means less work for Allison, who’s a freelancer, she’s fortunate: Her husband of seven years makes enough to support her and their 4-year-old son. The loss of work has actually translated into less stress for Allison, with happy results. “I feel like I’m more rested these days,” she says. “I’m less stressed overall, and that, for me, means a little more interest in the bedroom.” The couple has sex about twice a week, like about 16 percent of other local couples, according to a recent ParentMap survey. About the same number has sex once a week, and slightly more moms (21 percent) report they aren’t having sex at all.
Skipping sex was never an option for Allison and her husband, who make a conscious effort to connect — sexually and emotionally. “When things aren’t great, we just look at each other and say, ‘We need to talk,’ and then we just go for a walk or something,” she says. “We definitely have our ebbs and flows, just like every couple. Right now, it’s good. Who knows why?”
Fake it 'til you make it
For some women, getting back to sex is a matter of motivation. “The dirty little secret is that women want to want sex; they really do,” says Wiley. “It’s the glue of a relationship.” A recent survey in Working Mother magazine found a whopping 63 percent of working moms want to have more sex on a regular basis. Another 44 percent say they’re usually not in the mood — but then, when they do have sex, they totally enjoy it. Whether they work outside the home or not, Wiley says, moms often tell her the same thing in her practice. “I sometimes give couples a homework assignment: Just do it!” Wiley says. “And the woman comes back to me and says, ‘I didn’t feel at all like doing it, but that was our homework — and I had an orgasm! It was great!’”
And Wiley finds that the more sex couples have, the more they want. “It’s a positive feedback loop,” she says. “The more we’re touched, the more we want to be touched, and it really makes us better lovers and better parents.”
Seattle mom (and newly remarried wife) Cathy agrees. “I think sex is very important — more important than women will acknowledge. Having sex regularly is a sign of a healthy relationship, and I think if you’re not doing it, someone is going to be unhappy.
“I hear ‘I’m tired, the kids are hanging on me,’ and I don’t really understand that, because I look at it as an equal partnership. I expect my needs to be met and I expect to meet his needs.
“I don’t know why sex doesn’t have a better rap with moms, because I think sex brings connectedness to the relationship.”
Cathy’s full-time, pressure-cooker job in finance is stressful; her husband just took a 10 percent pay cut at work. Still, Cathy is philosophical: “The money stress is going to be there whether you have sex or not,” she says. “Why not make your life better where you can?”
*Some names in this article have been changed upon request.
Dr. Diana Wiley’s tips for improving your sex life:
- Just do it! You probably will not regret it.
- Find and develop a child-care support system.
- Take an “intimacy island vacation” about three times a year.
- Put a lock on your bedroom door.
- Court your partner by flirting, texting or emailing sexy notes and paying each other compliments.
- Be playful. Consider getting a toy or a video to spice things up.
Source: Dr. Diana Wiley; sextx.com
Dr. Pepper Schwartz’s tips for improving your sex life:
- Get some rest. Your level of fatigue is more controllable than you think it is.
- If you’re still tired, see a doctor. You may have something more serious going on.
- Start date nights. Give your relationship time. And end your date early enough to get home and have sex.
- Build anticipation. Make a date for Friday night and send a love note in the mail. Do something playful. Your mate may respond in a way that will excite you.
- If you have trouble relaxing, have a glass of wine, if you drink. Share some kind of little celebratory turning point in the day.
- Take things slowly. Don’t get efficient with sex; that’s what happens with longtime married couples. Take time for foreplay. If you’re not doing foreplay anymore, get a book like Joy of Sex and try something new.
- Women: Buy yourself some pretty lingerie. Sometimes the hardest person to seduce is yourself.
Source: Dr. Pepper Schwartz, author of Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years and Everything You Know About Love and Sex Is Wrong