Decades of research backs up what many married couples with children already know: The frequency and quality of sex tend to decline once couples are married and start having kids. If you and your partner are living this statistic — or you’re asking yourself why won’t my partner have sex with me? — you’re not alone. You’re likely not even alone in your friend group, but also note that the “DeadBedrooms” subreddit, in which members of all gender orientations discuss intimacy issues like feeling sexually shut out in their relationships, has more than 300,000 members.
Understanding that this is a common problem doesn’t make a lack of intimacy less painful, confusing, or frustrating, not to mention lonely. And those feelings might intensify if you bring up an issue to your partner and they refuse to work on it.
Not wanting to talk about problems related to sex and intimacy could be due to a variety of reasons. Someone might have grown up in a family that never talked about sex openly so they’re embarrassed, or they might say it’s too soon after you had a baby (more on that later). Your partner might say you’re both too busy right now and don’t have the time, or even the money, to get professional help. No matter what the granular reason for the refusal, it might signal cracks in the foundation of your relationship.
“If a partner doesn’t want to address intimacy issues, sometimes it’s not about sex itself, but probably about something else in the marriage,” says psychotherapist Matthew Traube, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Barbara, California.
People sometimes say they don’t have time or money to address a problem as a way of not dealing with something hard and uncomfortable, adds Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell School of Medicine and host of the podcast “How Can I Help?”
If your partner isn’t interested in getting professional help for intimacy problems, there are things you can try on your own, Saltz says: “Much of it includes really talking to your partner, really listening to your partner, backing up in terms of pressure to do sexual things, and refocusing on more low-pressure and sensual things — the goal being pleasure rather than sex.”
When the intimacy issues you’re experiencing are troubling enough to make you consider leaving your partner, Saltz recommends caution before venturing down this road.
“Ending a relationship has a lot of mental health and health consequences; sexual problems left unresolved often spill into the next relationship,” she says. “I’m not suggesting a person should resolve to stay forever in a sexless marriage, but I do think every effort should be made to work with your partner to improve the sexual part of the relationship before considering a split.”
If you’re committed to your relationship and working through your sex life troubles (on your own, for now), here are some things experts say can help bring back intimacy to a relationship.
Take a Hard Look at Yourself
If you feel as though your wife never initiates intimacy, and is not willing to work on your sex life, a good first step is to honestly answer the question: How are you showing up in your relationship? In general, women have a greater need than men do to feel closeness in order to want sex, Traube notes. A lack of interest in sex, or in even discussing problems with intimacy might mean that your partner’s other basic needs aren’t being met. Taking stock in the effort you’re putting in to be close to your partner is a great starting point, he says.
Ask yourself if you’re consistently being a good partner. Do you listen to her; does she feel heard? Bringing her flowers, for example, is awesome, but then what? Are you being attentive to her needs the rest of the time?
This is certainly not to say that it’s an easy thing to do, Traube says. It’s challenging to be a consistently good partner even with all the time in the world, let alone with a busy schedule. And in general, our expectations of what it means to be a good partner are unrealistic — people tend to expect them to be best friends, a means of financial and emotional support and even to make them better people.
“It’s an incredibly hard thing to pull off,” he says. “But instead of pushing for sexual contact, ask yourself how you can be more supportive of your wife and her needs outside the bedroom.”
Consider Their Needs
There are no clear-cut differences between the sexes, but in general, women need to feel good in order to want sex, and men often seek sex in order to feel good, says clinical psychologist and sex therapist Sandra Pertot, Ph.D., author of When Your Sex Drives Don’t Match: Discover Your Libido Types to Create a Mutually Satisfying Sex Life.
“When she’s feeling tired, she’ll probably find direct sexual touch annoying, which can be very difficult for the man to understand,” Pertot says.
Two things tend to happen when he makes a direct approach for sex, she says: He begins by sexually touching her breasts or genitals, which she might find irritating. Or, he begins with a cuddle and she pushes him away because she thinks this means he wants sex and she doesn’t want the sex he wants. From his point of view, of course he tries to initiate sex when she accepts a cuddle, because she seems to be in a good mood. So sadly, she begins to reject cuddles as well, deepening the chasm between them.
If there’s stress and tension in your relationship, which is common among couples making the transition into parenthood, men might want sex anyway, whereas women are more likely to feel like, “He doesn’t even like me, so why does he want to have sex with me?” Traube says. It might first be necessary to rebuild that closeness.
To alleviate some of your partner’s stress, do more household tasks without being asked, says certified sex and relationship therapist Indigo Stray Conger. Give her as much kid-free time to herself as you can.
“Studies have shown that women’s libidos increase when men do housework,” Conger says. “The dishes may seem unrelated to the bedroom, but they’re an important factor in your partner feeling she can count on you, which is about as sexy as it gets.”
Pay attention to and show an interest in what she would like to do to connect, even if it’s not leading immediately to sex.
“Cuddle, talk and go out on date nights,” Conger says. “Relate to each other as adults beyond co-parenting discussions.”
Understand that your relationship has shifted with this new phase of life. While that doesn’t have to mean surrendering to a sexless marriage, it may mean a significant drop in frequency and adventurousness, at least for now, Conger says.
Try gently approaching your partner when they aren’t busy and let them know you miss their closeness, Pertot suggests. You can say you understand their libido has dropped, but you’re missing being touched and would like guidance about the kind of closeness she would find pleasant right now.
Don’t Use It as an Excuse to Cheat
If you care about your partner, don’t cheat, or do anything behind their back that they’d be upset about.
Although it’s not unheard of for a couple with different sex drives to eschew monogamy and open their relationship to outside partners, doing this without the consent of your partner is never advisable, says Traube says.
“In some relationships it works for one partner to get some of their physical needs met somewhere else, but it can be much more complicated than that,” he says. “For a lot of people it works, but it can end up backfiring and make some couples drift further and further apart.”
In addition, it would be unusual for a previously monogamous couple to go poly after they have a baby, he says: “If they didn’t have that type of relationship before, it’s hard for me to believe that after she has a kid, a wife would be like, ‘Yeah, go for it, I’ll stay home with the baby while you go have sex with someone else.’”
Be Realistic and Patient
Most people don’t have a realistic understanding of what really happens after a couple has a baby. Women often need much longer to heal than men think, Traube says. Women are also biologically wired, after having a baby, to take care of the child, not to go find more partners. It’s part of the natural transition of parenthood, whereas men are more likely to want to shift back to whatever normal was once the magical six-week okay from the OB-GYN has arrived.
There are exceptions, of course — many times moms are ready to have sex before dads are. But it’s also common for many mothers to feel that their intimate attachment needs are being met by the bond with their child or children in the first four or even six years of their kids’ lives, Conger says.
“Breastfeeding, cuddling and other skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin in moms, supplementing what they would otherwise be seeking from in intimacy with their partner,” she says.
But in addition, early childhood is draining and requires a phenomenal amount of parent multitasking, emotional resources and middle-of-the-night energy, she says, and the physical and emotional burden kids bring typically falls disproportionately on moms.
Try to remember that early childhood doesn’t last forever, she says. Once kids are in school, your partner will likely have more energy for sex again. Pressure for her to return to pre-kid sex too soon is likely to push her away further and cause both of you to feel more alone, Conger says.
It also can be helpful to think about how much your wife has sacrificed to have your child, Traube says.
“She dedicated her body and mind to this child,” he says. “Yes, you have needs, but we also have to have gratitude and respect for that sacrifice. You don’t have to like it.”
Go It Alone
Go to therapy alone, that is. It’s not uncommon for one partner to express interest in therapy and for the other partner to refuse, Saltz says. But it’s worthwhile to get individualized support on how to best communicate with your partner as well as have space and support to process your own thoughts and feelings that are bound to surface in this situation, she says.
“Problems are most often a result of issues for both parties, so if you go on your own, and you start making real changes on your own, it’s not unusual for the resistant partner to decide to join you,” Saltz says.
If your partner doesn’t want to go with you at first, try to understand why without threatening or accusing. Explain that you’re going to therapy by yourself because you care about your relationship. You might say something like, “I know beginning therapy is a commitment that requires time, energy, and money. I know you’re very busy with work and the kids. I hear you, and I love you,” suggests licensed professional counselor Chelsea Fielder-Jenks.
“Emotional support during a challenging time is a good thing,” Traube says. “Therapy can help you become a better partner, and the better partner you are, the better the chances for intimacy in your relationship.”