The power of an infant’s smile, coo, or laughter is unimaginable. Some people report feeling an overwhelming, primal urge to keep that tiny human safe and loved at all costs (and to make the ear-piercing wailing stop immediately!). Most parents go to great lengths to care for their children, even at the expense of their comforts and needs. So, it’s not surprising that many couples report that their romantic relationships take a backseat to the intoxicating vortex known as “the new baby.”
During this transition-to-parenthood phase of life, many couples report that they become more distant, strained and sexually disconnected. It is not uncommon for this feeling to last for up to 3 years post-birth. For those couples that grow apart during this transition, some are able to rebuild and reconnect with their partners; unfortunately, other couples are unable to find their way back to each other and some will terminate the relationship.
A key predictor of being able to successfully navigate this transitional period and have your relationship come out intact (and hopefully stronger) is to find ways to deepen intimacy with your partner. Creating structure around key behaviors that enable your intimate life to prosper is critical. In the beginning when you have a newborn, that may simply mean taking a few minutes several times a week to connect, thus letting your partner continue to experience that spark with you. Or, it may mean hiring a babysitter to take the baby out on a walk once a week so that you and your partner can have an hour to simply sit down on the couch and be together. During the first months of having a newborn, the goal is to set the stage for the pattern of connecting on an intimate level and to provide the room to grow as more time becomes available.
Here are a few guidelines that can help you stay connected with your partner during this exciting and challenging 3-year period.
Embrace Your New Reality
For many of us, we would not expect all the luxury comforts of home when we are camping in the wilderness (Glampers are the exception). Similarly, we shouldn’t expect that our lives and relationships will remain unchanged post-baby. But, just like camping, we might have a better time if we recognize the temporal nature of the experience (eventually the kids will leave home, right?!?) and if we embrace the excitement in exploring the new terrain.
Parts of your new reality may be scary or uncomfortable. If one of the parents physically gave birth to the baby, then her body is going through significant post-partum changes. Hormonal swings, hot flashes, hair loss, and physical discomfort are common for several months post-partum. Additionally, many biological mothers report challenges with “baby weight” and its impact on their self-esteem and body image. Breastfeeding mothers also have a reduction in some “sex drive” hormones due to an increase in hormones that promote lactation, which can impact their desire for sexual intimacy and reduce vaginal lubrication. Also, many breastfeeding mothers report feeling “touched-out” or being over-stimulated and have little desire to be touched at the end of the day. Add to this mix the torturous sleep deprivation and constant worry that every hiccup, red mark or crusty eye (let’s not forget the obsession with the color and consistency of baby fecal matter!) is an indication of a deadly illness. By six months post-partum, some of these issues can start to fade as the baby transitions out of the newborn stage, parents get more confident in their new roles, and hormones are more stabilized.
For those challenges that remain, they become part of your new reality and need new solutions. For example, breastfeeding women are encouraged to use a lubricant when engaging in vaginal penetration. Additionally, mothers who are breastfeeding or engage in a lot of baby wearing past 6 months may continue to struggle with feelings of being “touched out.” For them, they may need a set amount of time each night of no physical contact to regroup before engaging in physical intimacy (e.g., cuddling, hugging, sexual stimulation, etc.) with their partner. Some women may continue to struggle with their post-partum body. Fortunately, there are some quick and effective interventions they can employ to help them boost their body confidence. For women who are struggling with physical trauma related to the birth experience or extended nursing, they are encouraged to discuss these challenges with their doctors to ensure there aren’t any medical complications that need to be addressed and with their partners to ensure these areas of the body are handled with care.
Finally, your prior arrangement for household responsibilities will most likely need to be revisited as one person (often the birthing parent or mother) ends up assuming more domestic and childcare responsibilities, which can breed negative feelings and can compromise the desire for intimacy. Some families redistribute responsibilities internally, whereas other families outsource some of the domestic care (e.g., cleaning, grocery delivery, lawn maintenance) so they have more time to devote to each other and their children. Regardless of the particulars, most couples will need to adjust to their new realities and tailor solutions to their unique situations to maximize their opportunities for enjoyment and connection.
Clear Out the Festering Swamp
Some people become more motivated to engage in sexual activities when they are stressed or after fighting with their partner; however, for many people, unexpressed feelings and unresolved conflicts can be a mood killer. Life with small children can feel like living through a recurrent, natural disaster each day as you anxiously wait for the “all clear” broadcast to let you know the tornado has passed (or in this case, the kids have FINALLY gone to sleep). It is understandable that couples may experience more strain and conflict during the transition-to-parenthood period because there is often significantly more stress in the relationship due to childcare responsibilities and there are less resources available (e.g., time, energy) to develop the romantic relationship and to resolve conflicts.
Therefore, it’s important to find times to regularly talk about issues so they aren’t given the opportunities to breed contempt and angst. Some couples have a weekly meeting scheduled to discuss any challenges they are experiencing in the relationship. This time is set aside to discuss ways to feel more supported, appreciated and find solutions to conflicts that keep popping up. This isn’t a logistical planning meeting to go over schedules, meal planning or kid activities. Instead, focus on how you are managing your new reality, your expectations and your feelings. Other couples set aside a smaller amount of time each night to check in with each other and discuss any challenges and successes they experienced that day. Regardless of the format or frequency, the goal is to clear the air of any negative feelings, find constructive solutions to conflict and emotionally reconnect with your partner.
Engage in 24/7 Foreplay
This doesn’t mean nipple stimulation around the clock (unless you are into that sort of thing); it means do something every day to fan the flames of interest and desire with your partner. This could include: giving compliments both about their physique and behaviors (“Your eyes are so sexy. I still get butterflies looking into them after all these years.”; “I love watching how patient you are with our daughter.”); sharing emotional intimacy (“I get scared thinking I’m not a ‘good enough’ parent, but I feel more confident knowing I have you by my side.”); helping with household and childcare chores (believe it or not, doing the dishes, bathing the kids, and taking the trash out can be a BIG turn on for a lot of parents!); and small gestures of physical affection (holding hands, hugging, cuddling, or even walking by and giving your partner a pat on the bottom –though, again, it’s important to make sure the swamp has been cleared out because that that love tap can feel very different if you are ticked off at your partner!).
Flirting is another great way to increase emotional intimacy and sexual energy. For example, you could engage in cyberflirting by sending some suggestive texts or emails to your partner throughout the day. Be careful, many devices these days are connected to different accounts, including work ones that may have automatic “message display” turned on at the worst opportunity, such as a presentation to your new clients. If you are more “old school,” you could keep a running love journal that you both write in. Place it out in the open (or in each other’s nightstand) to alert the other person a new love message or poem has been entered. The steady flow of flirting can be particularly beneficial for those folks who take longer to transition between roles (e.g., caretaker to paramour) or who need frequent reminders that they are part of a team (it’s us against them).
Part of your new reality may include children sleeping in your bed (or cribs in your bedroom) or complicated shift schedules to manage 24/7 childcare responsibilities while ensuring everyone is getting a bare minimum amount of sleep. During this transitional period, many couples report that they feel like they have less time and energy to be intimate (emotionally and physically) with their partner. Part of the challenge is that their new reality requires new solutions that the couple hasn’t had a chance to address. Pre-baby life often afforded many opportunities for intimacy and the logistical challenges in the post-baby reality may be overwhelming. The solution: creativity.
If you don’t feel comfortable being intimate in your bedroom, explore other locations in your home (sometimes that can increase the excitement in the exchange). Just be prepared to adjust your expectations to include possible stall outs or plateaus, as hypervigilance to crying sounds can put the brakes on sexual activities for some people. As a result, some couples are more accepting of “quickies” or singular, focused sexual activities (e.g. oral sex, assisted masturbation) during this phase of their relationships. Other couples intentionally carve out “couple time” to focus on their relationship, such as date nights, playing hooky together or even going to work late (the latter two assumes the children are in childcare). The goal is to have uninterrupted time together to reconnect. For every possible challenge or logistical barrier a couple faces, there are at least 20 different creative solutions available to them if they invest the resources in unearthing them.
Time and energy are precious resources, especially when juggling childcare, work, home and relationship responsibilities. However, there are lifelong benefits to investing time each day into your romantic relationship. Not only does it enhance the strength of your partnership and increase the odds of a long-lasting, satisfying relationship, but it also benefits your children.
Pick up any parenting book and it will emphasize the spongey quality of these little learners. They pick up on EVERYTHING that is going on in their environment. Obviously, parental distress and conflict can negatively impact their sense of safety and development (but don’t go beating yourself up if you have the occasional argument in front of them). Conversely, witnessing positive, romantic overtures (we are talking at most PG-13 behaviors) and healthy conflict resolution can instill in them a sense of safety and optimism. Our relationships become the blueprint for their future relationship expectations. So, for your kids’ sake, make sure you are having lots of fun, “sexy time” and “soul connecting” with your partner.
If you are struggling with the transition-to-parenthood or other phase of life adjustments, you can make an appointment with one of our highly trained therapists. or call 215 922 5683 x 100 to find a therapist near me.