How to Maintain Intimacy With Your Partner After Having Kids
Kids change your relationship with your partner — they just do. They change it in some beautiful ways, to be sure. Seeing the person you fell in love with become a parent is a unique and incredible experience, after all. But kids can also change the dynamics of your relationship in some challenging ways. After all, you go from a cozy family of two with only each other to worry about to the children becoming your top priority. Add in some new parent fatigue, and whoosh: intimacy feels impossible, like a thing of the past.
But it doesn't have to be that way. There are ways to recovery as a couple and rebuild intimacy, without having to wait until your kids have grown up and moved out. We asked relationship experts for their advice, and they offered up some useful tips.
Why Intimacy Falls Off After Having Kids
Often, when we talk about post-kid intimacy, we're talking about sex. And there are some straight-forward, logistical explanations for why parents might have less sex after having kids. For example, Jodie Rinde, licensed professional counselor based in Connecticut, says an often-overlooked reason is because they're afraid a child will walk in on them. Rinde says she also often hears parents say they're too tired or touched out from having the kids all over them all day to even think about having sex. Physical changes that occur after pregnancy may cause partners to withdraw too.
But having kids can affect emotional intimacy, as well, which can be just as jarring and has direct impacts on physical or sexual intimacy. Case in point: couples with greater emotional intimacy report having higher sexual desire (and likely have more sex), according to a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
One habit that causes couples' emotional connection to weaken is when parents begin to only talk to their partners about kid logistics, and never check in on each other as people and partners.
Another common roadblock to emotional intimacy is resentment, typically from one partner feeling as though they're doing more of the parenting or housework than the other, which Rinde calls an underfunctioner/overfunctioner pattern. "The most common example of this is the mom who takes on more of the parenting and becomes the expert, " she explains. "She still wants and expects help, but she's the expert and so the dad can't seem to do anything right even if he tries. This pattern leads to resentment and again, resentment kills all sexual attraction."
How To Build Intimacy After Having Kids
Rather than setting a goal to have more sex, which can feel stressful and, frankly, impossible when you have young children, consider working on building emotional intimacy first. When you feel emotionally connected to your partner, sex is often a natural result.
For couples to maintain emotional intimacy, they need to make at least some time to connect away from their kids — both physically and figuratively. That can seem like a tall order, but it's also essential. "When you have kids, it can be difficult to set aside time for just the two of you, but it's important to make sure that you do," emphasizes Jessica Alderson, relationship expert and co-founder of So Synced. "Whether it's an evening out together or just snuggling up on the couch with no distractions, dedicating quality time to your relationship is essential to keeping the intimacy alive."
While it's understandable that your instinct is to prioritize caring for your children above all else, one mental flip that might help motivate you to make space for your relationship too is to remember how important it is to model the healthy relationship behavior is for your kids. They'll learn by watching you, after all.
So first, commit to setting aside time for your relationship. Then, know how to use that time. Rinde suggests the following strategies.
- Set aside 10 minutes each day to check in. Create a check-in ritual that works for you and your partner. Whether it's in the morning, midday, or before bed, go into a private space, put away distractions, and take turns asking if there's anything your partner needs from you. Listen, make sure you understand any asks, and let them know if, when, and how you can fulfill their need. And also make sure you're asking for what you need — our partners aren't mind readers.
- Create a "culture of appreciation". Compliment your partner. Notice when they do something thoughtful, and thank them. Create space for physical affection — hugs, kisses, cuddles — without the expectation that this will always lead to sex. In other words, act like you did when you were dating. Picture these acts as adding a marble to a jar, and disagreements or disappointments as removing a marble. You want there to be enough marbles in the jar at all times to withstand an occasional withdrawal, without ever hitting empty.
- Try to have regular dates, if you have access to childcare. A simple dinner works, but also try thinking outside the box sometimes too. Studies show that couples actually feel more connected when they're engaged in a new activity together, so adventurous dates could give you more bang for the buck in terms of building intimacy. Try something new like a cooking or bouldering class. If childcare is an issue, try an at-home date when your kids are in bed. Again, try something a little out of the norm, like creating vision boards together or doing a spa night.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you have access to affordable couples therapy, there's no need to wait to seek professional help. Remember: we're not born knowing how to have a healthy, intimate relationship while juggling the responsibilities of parenting. So it's not surprising or shameful if you need or want third-party help in figuring it out. And while research shows that most couples wait two to three years before seeking help, it's much easier to change behavior and unhealthy interaction patterns that haven't been entrenched too long.
If therapy is out of reach for any reason, there are many books and resources that are designed to help couples as well. The key to getting the most out of resources is for both partners to read them, and commit to growing together. In that mindset, intimacy is always within reach.