Parenthood can be an erotic sinkhole. While having children is one of the most rewarding experiences of a lifetime, the impact on the intimacy of marriage is undisputed: there are over 100 studies to date that reveal marital satisfaction significantly plummets after the birth of a first child. Couples with children have been found to treat one another with more contempt, belligerence and with less affection, humor, and empathy than couples without children but married for the same amount of time based on studies completed by Gottman Institute in Seattle. Furthermore, up to 60% of women experience problematic urinary leakage that interferes with intimacy, and new parents overall experience high rates of sexual concerns with as many as 89% of mothers and 82% of fathers reporting problems with sex after a child, including pain during intercourse, body image concerns, and discrepancies in sexual desire between the couple. Essentially, babies take the sexy-boom right out of most couple’s bedroom.
Sexual satisfaction is one of the most important predictors of general relationship happiness, and the effect of child-rearing has tremendous impact on increasing negative aspects of a romantic relationship. Raising children deteriorates intimacy in various ways, ranging from hormonal changes in both men and women, pelvic floor damage after childbirth in women, sleep deprivation, depression, to restriction of personal freedom and time. Furthermore, while many couples may hope deterioration in the relationship is transient, in fact research has shown many difficulties persist long term. The challenges of parenthood on sexual satisfaction in a marriage do not relent once children grow older. Lack of privacy, time restrictions with busy household schedules, and stresses of everyday life with children clearly impact most couples capacity to remain connected over years and even decades.
So what is there to do for parents to get their groove back on? The two most important strategies to improve the romantic and sexual connection in a relationship after children is to attend to medical problems that are intimate deterrents, and prioritize sex. And this often requires parents to readjust their child-centered focus to recognize that happy, fulfilled adults in fact contribute to improved parenting, and this means both parents need time to attend to their personal well-being and their relationship outside of children. Boundaries need to be developed and be withheld over time to protect the space required to foster intimacy between parenting partners. A sex therapist is a psychotherapist who is specially trained to offer detailed and personalized suggestions to make changes work that foster enhanced intimacy.
Seeing a physician to address medical issues including pelvic floor problems such as painful intercourse and urinary leakage in women, insomnia, fatigue, hormone imbalances and mood complaints in both parents that can accompany child stressed living is also a necessity to improve sexual function. Antidepressant medications are commonly prescribed to men and women who struggle with sadness, anxiety, and irritability that can occur when parenting produces stress on a marriage. Unfortunately many of these medications have clear sexual side effects and may reduce interest in sex, ability to orgasm, or disrupt erectile function further. Talking with a physician who understands the complex factors involved in mood medication options in the face of sexual and intimacy difficulties is important.
Furthermore parents need to remember that play and adventure is just as important for them as it is for their children to keep the spark alive. Many parents who are struggling in their marriage cannot recall the last thing they did that was fun together. Partner resentment is one of the strongest correlates to low libido in both men and women. Regular ‘date nights’ and overnight trips taken together without children outside the household can drastically improve communication, intimacy, and connection in a relationship feeling weighed down by childrearing responsibilities.
There is no need to suffer. While having children has been found to cause staggering high prevalence of sexual and relationship problems, early intervention with appropriate health care can lead to decades of benefits for both parents, their relationship, and consequently improve the health of the family at large. As stated by John Gottman PhD, the greatest gift you can give your child is a strong relationship between you and your partner. Bringing sexy back to the bedroom after children does not often occur on it’s own, but more so requires an active effort and team care approach to revitalize physical wellness, emotional intimacy, and a dynamic eroticism between a couple.