Intimacy and sex: Rekindling the love after having a baby
Intimacy, sexual satisfaction and comfort between partners can change during major life transitions. After having a baby, research shows that partners tend to have different concerns with regards to resuming sexual activity. For woman, concerns include physically recovering from labor and delivery, pelvic floor pain, fatigue, low sexual desire or libido, breastfeeding, their levels of physical and emotional comfort, and the impact of raising a child on timing of sexual activities. However, male partner concerns often differ drastically and revolve around navigating the presence of maternal emotional difficulties and the use of birth control. How do you build sexual intimacy when perceptions and concerns differ?
For women, pregnancy and postpartum-related body changes often triggers a shift in their definition of their own sexual identity because their experiences intertwine with having a body that can differ significantly from what is believed to be an ideal body. Not only that, but society’s perception of a “good” mother and partner can also affect postpartum women’s sexual functioning. New mothers have to contend with the culturally constructed view of a mother who “has it all together”, including a great body, a loving relationship with her partner, and a devoted relationship with her children in addition to an active and successful social and professional life. The circumstances surrounding being a new mother (e.g., tiredness, loss of spontaneity and freedom, decreased time as a couple and by oneself, resentment over division of household responsibilities, the emotional connection with their child taking precedence over the intimate partner relationship, and loss of libido) are often highlighted in women’s stories as factors that hinder the engagement in sexual activities with their partners. Also, body image concerns, feeling unattractive, self-conscious, and feelings of guilt and failure also impacts sexual functioning. A culprit of these feelings of guilt and failure experienced by women includes the contrast between their current levels of sexual interest and their stated “obligation,” “duty” and expectations of themselves as sexual partners. One woman described it as such:
I almost felt like it was - for lack of a better word - my duty. That I could
live without it, but I felt that, it had been such a big part, a significant
part of our relationship… This is my role, and my duty but I really felt
like I had failed. And maybe it was because I put a lot of expectations
on myself and I didn’t live up to that, so, you know, that was a failure.
How do you increase closeness and intimacy with your partner given all these barriers? Research shows it starts outside of the bedroom. In fact, for women, facilitators to sexual intimacy can be as simple as having a different approach to taking care of their child and household decisions and tasks as a team with shared responsibilities in addition to increased time as a couple. Creating a partnership and time together can allow women to feel physically and emotionally closer to their partner. Partners might also find it helpful to discuss their priorities (e.g., sex, sleep, or caring for their infant). At times, partners can agree that sexual intimacy is a lower priority (e.g., Look, it’s not where our sex life was, but, I kind of think that suits us at the moment. We’ve got a lot of stuff going on…It works for us…It’s definitely not a priority at the moment.) whereas others may decide to engage in sexual activities despite feeling tired (I always enjoy [sex]… You might not necessarily feel like it right that instant, but if you always say no you kind of regret not having a sex life… I think, maybe the thing is to prioritise it more).
What’s important? Build (or Re-Build) intimacy before sex! True intimacy involves energy transfers between two people that create a bonding emotional experience. Intimacy can be created along a range of experiences, including within the following four types of intimacy:
- Cognitive or intellectual intimacy: This involves exchanging thoughts, ideas and
enjoying the similarities and differences between opinions with your partner in an
open and comfortable way about mutual topics of interest, whether it be a book,
music, religion, politics or anything social.
- Experiential intimacy: Being involved in a mutual activity, which may not involve talking
but simply being in the presence of one another. Working together on common goals.
- Emotional intimacy: Comfortably and respectfully sharing feelings of joys, fears,
frustrations, sorrows, anger, trust, and vulnerability in order to increase emotional
understanding. Letting your guard down to be emotionally close.
- Sexual intimacy: Engaging in activities, including and beyond sexual intercourse, that
involve sexual expressions with each other.
How do I rebuild intimacy? The rebuilding process can take time. There are countless ways to be intimate without being sexual. When you feel that your relationship intimacy has been off course, rebuilding can feel challenging. Start by recognizing the presence of barriers to developing and maintaining an intimate relationship, such as difficulties communicating, unwillingness to allow the time necessary, lack of self-awareness about your innermost feelings and needs, shyness, difficulties trusting, or engaging in “game playing” that prevents your true self from shinning. Developing intimate relationship requires awareness of yourself with regards to the type of intimacy you are willing to welcome first and how you want to progress. Small acts of intimacy can be very powerful in building and creating a greater sense of love and partnership in the journey of discovery yourself and your partner. Find where it feels the most comfortable to start. Here are some examples:
1. Do an activity together.
2. Make and maintain eye contact.
3. Looks at pictures together and discuss happy memories.
4. Exercise or do an art project together.
5. Cook a meal together or go out to a restaurant.
6. Ask personal questions about current experiences.
7. Have a conversation about a topic of interest.
8. Place your hand on their lap while watching television.
9. Holding hands while walking.
10. Praise your love to him or in front of others.
11. Hug or kiss eachother before each departure and after each arrival.
12. Have your partner reach around your waist while you’re working away in the kitchen.
13. Cuddle each other in bed for five minutes before getting into your comfortable sleep
14. Have your partner do something endearing, such as opening the door for you or
bringing you a thoughtful gift.
In her Ted Talk entitled The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship, Esther Perel addresses intimacy and sex among other interesting questions, such as 1) Why does good sex so often fade even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? 2) Why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex? and 3) Why does sex make babies and babies spell erotic disaster in couples?