Marriage & Love
Intimacy: Developing Sexual Intimacy
Beth had called to make the appointment for marriage counseling. When Beth and her husband came in for the first session Beth began, "The birth of our first child was such a major answer to prayer." As she finished the sentence Brad jumped in, "It took us several years to get pregnant and finally when we got the good news we decided we were going to do it right." After a brief pause and with a smile on his face Brad concluded, "We were going to prepare ourselves to be the best parents ever." They took classes, they read books and they talked with friends who already had children.
After a brief pause Beth continued, "The one thing we didn't prepare for, the one thing that caught us totally off guard was the impact being parents would have on our sexual relationship"
They were encouraged to learn that they weren't alone. Today more and more couples prepare themselves for parenthood but few are prepared for the resulting effects on their time, energy and priorities. Few are prepared to deal with the redefinition of roles and the reduction of time together that often results in the decreased frequency and intensity of intimate sexual experiences.
What was once a honeymoon delight that could take as much time as desired becomes reduced to little more than a quick hop in the sack. The word "quickie" becomes redefined. As the increased demands and decreased time and energy take their toll some of the normal differences in how men and women view and do sexuality that you were previously able to work around now become stumbling blocks that can lead to increased misunderstanding. Toss all of these things together and it is a wonder anybody gets pregnant for the second time!
So what is the answer? Are there any solutions? Can there be a love-life after children? By God's grace and a little bit of work the answer to these questions is "Yes!" In fact, our own experience and those of hundreds of couples we've worked with is that working through the redefinition and refinement of becoming parents can lead to a new depth of understanding, trust and security that can actually deepen the marriage and increase the levels of trust and sexual intimacy.
The first step is to understand some of the challenges and opportunities of intimacy after the birth of a child. One of the first challenges is that there is less time to spend together. Children are demanding and often their needs are immediate. The couple time that was so easy to find before having children is something that now has to be carved out.
In addition to the decrease in time is the decrease in energy. Hey, it doesn't matter how healthy you are or how often you work out parenting young children can be very draining. We've had so many husbands and wives talk about how they can barely crawl into bed at night.
Lack of time and lack of energy often leads to a lack of sexual desire. This is especially true for women. In the twilight zone of raising young children many women find that sex is the last thing on their mind. When it does cross their mind they may perceive that sex is one more need they must fulfill for someone else. Whether you are an at home mom or a woman that works outside of the home your days consist of demands.
One of the important male/female differences is the frequency and intensity at which sexual desire is experienced. Recent research stated that almost l in 3 women expressed difficulty in feeling sexual desire even though they expressed that they were happily married. For women, sexual desire seems to ebb and flow while men rarely experience much ebb! What are some of the contributors to lowered sexual desire? One study found that women stated lack of energy as the main reason why their desire for sex was low. The more tired a woman becomes the less she is apt to think about sex, want sex or have sex. Smart husbands have learned that helping their wife enjoy a good uninterrupted nap may be a magnificent foreplay.
Another contributor to a woman's lowered sexual desire can be decreased emotional connection in the relationship. Couples may enjoy parenting their children and meeting their children's needs but may take the relationship for granted. It's easy for couples to forget to cultivate closeness and friendship. Women often need to feel close before feeling sexual and men often need to be sexual to feel close. We can be tired, preoccupied and busy but if we are making time to connect the relationship will continue to grow.
Although they are less likely to admit it many men experience lowered sexual desire in the marriage relationship. Feeling tired, weary and overwhelmed for long periods of time takes its toll on a man's sexual drive. Medical studies tell us that excess stress can lead to lowered levels of testosterone in men. In our culture many men are performance-based individuals and those tendencies carry over into their sex life. Men face the stereotype as being testosterone driven muscle bound studs that, if they are normal, are always desirous of more sex. When men perceive that their performance level is not quite what it used to be their sexual desire may decrease.
During the childbearing years many women struggle with a negative body image. I (Carrie) discovered that becoming pregnant and dealing with the "reshaping" of my body required good self-esteem and a great sense of humor. I recently met with a group of women in their 40's and we discussed life during our child bearing years. We talked about how we felt, how we looked, what it was like. I don't recall any one of the women saying, "I sure felt sexy".
Both men and women can struggle with unrealistic body image expectations. Women's bodies are used to promote just about everything from toothpaste to automobiles. Even ads featuring new moms make them look like nothing happened. It can be very tempting to fall into the trap of feeling like the body that God gave us doesn't measure up. Or worse yet, that we don't measure up. We've worked with many women who, in spite of what their husbands told them, convinced themselves that they were unattractive and thus undesirable.
One final barrier to sexual intimacy is the tendency of some parents to allow their children to sleep with them. The problem is more common than either of us were trained to expect. When our children were young they would sneak into our room after a bad dream or sometimes we celebrated a special night where they would get a sleeping bag and sleep in our room but we didn't "cultivate" that sleeping arrangement as routine. Carrie recently dealt with two couples that were not having a sexual relationship and it both cases it "came out" that they were having children sleeping with them. In one case the child was only six months old and in the other case the child was 4 years old. Having children sleep with parents in any consistent way is unwise, inappropriate and unhealthy for the children and for the marriage relationships. Children need to learn that their beds and rooms are safe places to be and parents need to have the bed be the place where they bond and are intimate.
Overcoming the Barriers to Sexual Intimacy
As in any stage or season of a marriage relationship a couple must realize that their relationship takes first place to the children. Children will be most secure when they sense that their parents are passionate about each other. Deep levels of intimacy and a healthy sexual life require a marriage relationship in which a couple is making time for developing and growing a friendship. What does that look like?
Our first two boys arrived 19 months apart and we experienced the "Twilight Zone" of have having more than one pre-schooler. One of several activities that helped us redefine our relationship and rediscover each other was to go back to some of the activities we already had in common and make time to do them. Notice we said, "make" time. Once you become a parent you will never "find" time to do anything. You will have to determine in advance what is important and than "make" time to pursue it.
What were some of those activities? Make time to "chat" with one another. My (Gary) experience is that for most of us men "chatting" doesn't come naturally. Especially if it is about small stuff and relationships. However, I've learned that chatting is a very intimate experience for women and when men choose to learn how to chat with their wives they truly are building trust and closeness that will help their wives to feel more sexual towards them.
On the other hand, women can learn that sitting with her husband and "not" chatting can at times is very intimate for him! Many of the friendship needs of men look different than the friendship needs of women. Men enjoy doing activities. I (Carrie) encourage women to open yourself up to joining your husband in some of these activities. We aren't the only ones who want someone who trusts, respects and understands them. Discover laughing together again. Friendship grows through simple, consistent activities with your spouse. An increased sense of comfort and safety leads to increased trust and will often result in more intense and intimate sexual activity.
We live in a fast-paced culture. All of us are busy. Every day we deal with external demands and internal expectations. When you add children it's easy for the marriage bed to become a place we fall into at night and crawl out of in the morning. In our marriage we found it invaluable for us to stay aware of our schedule including church activities, work demands, children's activities and work at carving out a well-balanced level of activity.
Taken with permission from Carrie Oliver, L.P.C
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