Many unhappy marriages have one thing in common: children. According to marital researchers at the Gottman Institute, in a study of 130 newlywed couples, two-thirds of new parents self-reported that they were very unhappy after their first child was born.
What differentiates the couples who thrive after having children and those who struggle to survive?
One thing’s for sure: how a couple adjusts their sex life will have dramatic implications on how happy they are post-baby and beyond. After childbirth, a drop in female libido is completely normal and has to do with a variety of factors. A woman’s estrogen levels (a key hormone in desire and arousal) plummet rapidly in the postpartum period. In addition to estrogen changes, prolactin, a hormone secreted in the brain that causes milk letdown, increases while a woman is breastfeeding. This can cause low libido and vaginal dryness. These hormonal changes, in addition to exhaustion, birth trauma, depression, C-sections, tearing, stitches, and/or episiotomy, create a difficult transition from pregnancy to resuming a happy and healthy sex life.
According to the researchers at the Gottman Institute, even a full three years after childbirth, women report feeling “not very sexual” and wanting sex only every week or every other week. Men, on the other hand, reported wanting sex every day and reported feeling extremely sexual.
Once married with children, couples often fall into post-childbirth patterns that may involve irregular or unfulfilling sex. So how can you avoid this rut? Here are some things to consider:
- Happy couples make happy children. You may have found that since having kids, you hardly spend time together. You used to enjoy going to the movies or going camping, but it seems like you never do that anymore. You’re stuck in the grind of diapers, permission slips, packing lunches, and trying to convince your children to go to sleep. Many couples forget to focus on each other and get very caught up in their children. Some parents feel guilty or selfish when they think about spending time alone together. In fact, research consistently supports the notion that a strong marital relationship positively impacts the children and the family as a whole. What this means is simple: don’t feel guilty about a periodic date night or outing.
- Schedule weekly intimacy. Set aside one or two nights a week for intimacy and head to bed a little earlier than usual. If you’re too tired at night, maybe set the alarm for before the kids wake up in the morning. If you create this time, you can train your mind to look forward to the night and to be thinking about intimacy. Just because you are not in the mood does not mean you cannot get in the mood. Don’t wait for desire to strike you. Remember: desire does not always come before intimacy. Intimacy can generate desire.
- Keep sleeping boundaries with your children. There are many wonderful benefits of co-sleeping for both parents and children. It certainly promotes healthy attachments and provides for a lot of great cuddling time. While of course there are couples who make it work, in general it takes a toll on the sex life. By establishing clearer bedroom boundaries, a couple has the space and time to be a twosome instead of always part of a family unit. They have privacy with a closed or locked door, and they can be themselves. Women, who often have a greater need for cuddling than men, can seek it from their partners, which in turn promotes a healthy marital bond. Put simply, couples have more opportunity for regular sex when children are not in the same room—or same bed, for that matter. And regular sex is a key to a strong and happy marriage.
- Schedule family time, couples time, and individual time. Everyone needs a balance between family time and individual time. Try to make quality time with the kids and then create quality time for yourself. Having good quality time with the children, such as playing games, taking hikes, or going on bike rides, will reinforce a family bond. Be sure to schedule quality time as a couple as well. You will have a stronger marriage when you have both individuation and space to desire one another. Keeping a strong marital bond while children are in the home requires setting boundaries so that there is family time, couples time, and “me time.” All three are essential to keeping the marriage the foundation of a strong family.
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