Sex and Parenthood

by Bruce Linton, Ph.D.

Having a baby and making the transition to parenthood is a very complicated process. I say this from both my professional perspective as a family counselor, and my own experience as a father of a 10 and 14 year old. With all the various pressures on young families, often there is not enough time or energy for parents to have the sexual contact one or both partners desire. As I look back on my marriage (and it's still true today), both my wife and I have had to discuss and accommodate our personal needs and desires, as well as the logistics of work schedules and kids schedules to find the time and "timing" to be together sexually.

Before we had kids, which seems like another lifetime now, our sexual relationship was fairly spontaneous. We had time together most evenings and we were young and had less complicated professional and emotional commitments. Over the years together, just being parents has changed us and our emotional dispositions, our bodies, and our desires for sex. After 18 years together, we are truly different people than we were when we first met. Our sexual relationship has in its frequency and intensity been rather unpredictable. I have tried to keep an open dialogue about how I feel about our sexual relationship, but at times it has been difficult to discuss. I think each of us has been concerned about hurting the other in discussing our sexual need. My wife and I continue today to struggle with our sexual desires, and our needs for intimacy while we try to understand our individual differences and what we need in terms of sex, and how to feel close and connected in our marriage.

How important is sex to a marriage? Sex seems to be the emotional barometer for most marriages. Not in the sense that the more sex the better the marriage, but in the way couples can discuss openly and with concern for each other their feelings about the intimacy in their relationship. In this way, sexuality is a symbolic way each partner becomes emotionally vulnerable. As a psychotherapist, I am acutely aware how each individual's ability to be emotionally vulnerable is often more a reflection of the influences of the family they grew up in than of their feelings about their current relationship or spouse.

I find in my work that in the couple's relationship, the individuals are working out the intimacy (or lack of it) that they experienced in their own family of origin. Although couples will focus the tension in their relationship on the sexuality, it is often a reflection of feelings of being appreciated and understood. What psychotherapists call "being seen" by one's partner; a sense that the other person understands or empathizes with your experience, separate from their own, is what appears to be a significant building block to emotional intimacy. As my clients report to me, there is a high correlation between this type of "being seen" and sexual intimacy and desire.

In working with fathers I have noticed a few particular themes in regard to sexuality. Some men have difficulty adjusting to the change in their wife's body shape after the birth of their baby. With all the advertising and media hype about how women's bodies should look, the whole "playboy" image can create problems for men (and women). Fathers often need to free themselves from the fantasies of the commercialism of women's sexuality to appreciate the reality of their wife's sexuality. During pregnancy, some men begin to resent the attention their wives get. They can develop an underlying anger that can become a powerful inhibitor to feelings of sexuality. After the baby is born the two-person bond is shifted.