This posting concludes a four-part series on improving your relationship to improve your children's well-being. Go here for Part I: Your love life, your child's happiness; here for Part II: How To Fight; and here for Part III: 5 Hours to a Better Relationship.
I remember expecting that after I had kids I might be too busy or too tired or too saggy for a robust sex life, but I didn't think in my wildest dreams that I might be too bitchy. Research shows that two-thirds of us married folks feel our marriages have suffered significantly in the aftermath of the birth of our babies, and this includes experiencing less frequent and less satisfying sex. Anyone who has ever had a watermelon-sized miracle come out of her vagina—or through her abdominal wall!—knows that childbirth, and the stress of childrearing that follows, can test even the most vigorous of sex lives. But getting or keeping our sex life on track has – you guessed it – important implications for our children's happiness. Read on to learn how to put a little va-voom back in your bedroom.
Research does show that the quality of our sex lives gets steadily worse over the course of our marriages, so if it isn't as hot as it used to be, you aren't alone. Sex is both less satisfying AND less frequent when we're married with children: about 50% of parents in one study described their sex life as "poor" or "not very good" when their first baby was 8 months old.
How often we do it tends to decline the longer we stay married. Most couples have a lot of sex in the first year that they are married—the "honeymoon effect"—but all that rabbit-like activity drops off precipitously around the end of the first year. Once we have children, biology starts to grind on us:
Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the brain circuitry of romantic love, says millions of years of evolutionary adaptation account for a couple's divergent sexual interests after kids are born. For instance, when a woman is nursing and holding her child, levels of the hormone oxytocin surge, leading to intense feelings of attachment. Testosterone levels, which are related to sex drive, plummet. "Mom's not just overly tired and making excuses—she's drugged," Dr. Fisher says. "From a Darwinian, evolutionary perspective, if mom's not there to take care of the baby, it will get eaten by a lion…Both parents are fighting a basic evolutionary mechanism that evolved to strengthen the mother/infant and parental bond, not the sexual bond" (from the WSJ, April 24, 2007).
One of the most important predictors of how often a couple does the no-pants dance is how happy they are with the marriage, which to a certain extent puts our paltry sex lives back into our control, at least more so than the instinct to save our babies from wild lions (see "Five Hours to a Better Relationship"). There are some other important gender differences at work which often leave their mark in the bedroom. Men, on average, want to have sex four times each week, while women would be happy with—I hate to break it to you boys—just once. Attention dads: If you want a more boisterous sex life, here are some insights that might help you stimulate your sweetie's libido.
1. Women often resent men for not helping out more around the house and with the children, and that anger usually does not fire a parallel passion in the loins. If you want more sex from a yummy mummy, rethink your ideas about foreplay. Pre-kid romance: bringing her flowers, commenting on her hot tush, nuzzling her neck. Post-kid romance: folding the laundry without her asking AND putting it away, then noticing that she seems exhausted and running her a bath while you take on whatever tedious household task she was trying to finish. She'll be panting in the bedroom by the time you're done, I promise.
2. Another gross generalization supported by scientific research: sex tends to mean different things for men than it does for women. Women see sex as an expression of pre-existing emotional intimacy, while men see sex as the path to that intimacy. Women tend to be more satisfied with both sex and marriage when their partners behave lovingly and affectionately towards them, and commonly cite things that indicate verbal intimacy—like having a heartfelt conversation—as something that leads to sexual activity. In contrast, men are less interested in verbal affection and intimacy, and more often report that physical desire for their partner leads them to initiate sex. HERE'S THE TAKE-AWAY: Verbal intimacy—those deep discussions where you really connect in a positive way—really stokes the fire. If you aren't having sex as often as you'd like, start by connecting with your partner through conversation.
Despite these dismal gender differences, here's some better news: sexual famine is not necessarily a given after we have kids. The majority of couples get back to having sex about twice a week, and research supports what many of my friends and I have experienced: women hit their sexual peak in their 30s. Studies show that women describe themselves as "more lustful, seductive, and sexually active" in their thirties than at any other time in their lives. Personally, I think that a woman's sexual peak during her thirties also probably has to coincide with her youngest child going off to Kindergarten—or at least with the end of pregnancies and breast-feeding.
But until biology starts working for you again, researchers recommend finding a way to resist those forces that throw water on the flames—social, interpersonal, and biological—the best you can. A good number of well-known therapists recommend scheduling sex with your partner if you can't seem to make it happen any other way. I personally hate this suggestion because it seems so cold and unromantic. Sure, we need to block off time to connect with each other—it's called date-night. And I'm certainly not opposed to plotting your moves several days in advance to get yourself juiced up before a big date with your honey. But scheduling time to do the deed itself? Anyway, research shows that time is not necessarily the biggest obstacle to a healthy sex life—on average, busy couples with kids and two full-time jobs don't do it less than couples with a stay-at-home-parent. The factors discussed above are what get in the way, so I believe you are better off focusing on those things than blocking out 15 minutes for a quickie.
On the other hand, any kind of sexual interaction triggers a wash of feel-good chemicals in our brains. This is evidence enough for me that once we are happily married, we'll do best to think of sex like exercise—we might be loathe to get off of the couch at first, but once we get going we'll be glad we did. (The first push-up is always the hardest.) Because intimacy in your relationship is so strongly related to marital satisfaction, it is important to keep those hearth fires alive if we want our marriages to survive until our children leave the nest (when many marriages experience a renaissance).
May your relationship's renaissance happen this week!
Become a fan of Raising Happiness on Facebook.
Follow Christine Carter on Twitter
Subscribe to the Happiness Matters Podcast on iTunes.