Children are incredible. But their arrival means parents are unable to do so many once-beloved activities. Enjoying a casual dinner. Watching an entire movie in one sitting. Preventing their hands from being sticky. Having sex. Frequency and desire for intimacy tend to decrease when kids enter the picture because, well, kids enter the picture.
But becoming parents also makes couples acutely aware that their desires might not match up. One needs to get down on the reg; the other has neither the time or energy for such things. That difference may have always existed, even during the courtship phase. Now, consumed by the stress of parenthood, it’s just more pronounced.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Sex After Kids
The issue of misaligned sex drives is common amongst new parents and can be navigated. It simply requires some creativity and flexibility,
First, it helps to understand what’s going on. Dr. Diana Wiley, a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified sex therapist, says that, barring something physical or traumatic, two common syndromes are at play.
- DINS. Double Income No Sex. Long hours and unending pressure kill sex drive and no sex ultimately ruins relationships, but ironically, one of the best stress relievers? Yeah, sex.
- TTFS. Too Tired for Sex. Requests are endless, and you’re constantly being pawed. For a woman, there can be post-baby body issues. It all adds up to little desire to share oneself. Given the choice of what to do with an hour, often, “Sex is the new sleep,” Wiley says.
The brain chemistry has also changed. In the early days of dating, the brain is pumping out dopamine, which plays a role in arousal and seeking out rewards. Someone is focused on their partner and it builds the infatuation, says Dr. Ian Kerner, a licensed psychotherapist and certified sex therapist. Over time, oxytocin takes over, which promotes bonding and feelings of comfort.
More than that, the target of bonding now is the baby, who’s pink, adorable, and smells good, and isn’t hairy and snoring on the other side of the bed, says Sheri Winston, the author of Women’s Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure. It’s a normal switch of affection, and lasts for a long period of time — three years isn’t uncommon. This rearranging of preferences makes the difference in sexual urges more pronounced.
But this doesn’t mean the partner whose desire for sex has to stoically wait it out in sweatpants. What’s needed is a shot of dopamine to upend the routine. Anything that’s new or dangerous can work. It can be as simple as taking a class together or going on a rollercoaster. The main component is that it gives couples fresh stuff to talk about, and gets you treating each other like adults and not merely as parents, Winston says.
Before this big-picture stuff, you should try, per Kerner, to eliminate obstacles. A popular move: Put a lock on the bedroom door, and with that, orders that unless something is on fire or someone is bleeding, parents are not to be bothered. When they’re at the appropriate age, kids can understand boundaries and it’s far from the worst thing to see that their parents take personal time.
Another popular recommendation: Go to a hotel. It hits a lot of the stimuli checklist – new, different, a little danger/taboo if there’s a semi-private balcony. But, at its most basic, it’s away from home. No one’s going to walk in. There’s not a pile of laundry or dishes that can hijack a partner’s mind. Good sex, and, fundamentally, intimacy, requires a person to be present; removing distractions, per Wiley, gives that a chance.
After that, there are habits to build. Signal the end of the workday with a 7-second kiss and 15-second hug. They become tossed off, but extended contact unavoidably leads to affection, and the side benefit is children see parents being close. The alternative isn’t as fulfilling, since, per Wiley, “depressed parents make for depressed kids.”
There’s also the need for a keen eye and ear. Life has changed, and what’s considered a turn-on has as well. Go back to the benefits of the hotel room, with its absence of clutter. The unending to-do list causes static, so take care of whatever your partner has been asking or complaining about.“Being responsive to a spouse’s needs is foreplay,” Wiley says.
But first and foremost, intimacy has to be a regular priority, and in a parent’s life, that means putting it on the calendar. That doesn’t sound either wild or abandoned. So what? “Most of our lives aren’t spontaneous,” Winston says. But in exchange for the impromptu, you get to plan, and send notes and sexts – building anticipation is its own aphrodisiac, Wiley says.
Two more things. The focus of date night is on intimacy, not intercourse. You can lie together, talk, touch, kiss, and sex might eventually happen, but making it an every-time requirement adds another stress to someone’s life, Winston says.
It’s also important to understand that you both don’t have to have sex every time. That’s the bigger issue around having different drives. Stop worrying about it.
“Not everything syncs up,” Winston says. “We’re never going to have the same amount of sex ever.” But it’s also not an absolute proposition. Couples can offer to do something, be it touching, talking suggestively, or letting your partner freely masturbate. Shame, rejection, and resentment no longer need to bubble up. “You’re finding something to say ‘yes’ to,” Winston says. “It’s a positive loving dynamic. It just opens up all these possibilities.”