Experts tell us (and you probably know it’s true): Stress ruins sex. And ruined sex ruins marriages.
The recent, 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.
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.”
‘Nothing left to give’
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. And Wiley finds that the more sex couples have, the more they want. “It’s a positive feedback loop,” she says.
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,” she says. “The money stress is going to be there whether you have sex or not. Why not make your life better where you can?”
Kristen Russell, former ParentMap managing editor, is a Seattle-area writer and editor.
*Some names in this article have been changed upon request.