BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband and I have been married for three years. It was like a whirlwind of romance when we first met, and we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. We moved in together after just six months and were engaged after one year of being together. We got married two years later and I got pregnant soon after.

Our sex was always good before I got pregnant. When our baby was born, my husband had postnatal depression and I had to keep everything together. I was finding it hard inside, but just had to act strong for the both of us. That really put a strain on our marriage.

Our beautiful baby boy is now 15 months old and we never have sex. Our son has just started to sleep through the night, and I think we have gotten so used to taking care of our son at night and not having sex that now it feels so awkward. This is so upsetting, and I don’t know if we are attracted to each other anymore. We have date nights and nights off, but we still never want to have sex. He said it’s like having sex with his mate.

We never really argue, we are a great team, brilliant parents; I don’t want to end the marriage. Should we stay together and accept that sex just isn’t for us? I think we will start to miss that side of things. I do really miss the closeness we had. I wish I could bring it back.

I want to do everything I can to keep this marriage together, but I don't want to be in the same position in 10 years’ time and be unhappy. Please help.

Kate
Leicestershire, England


Dear Kate,

You ask whether you can stay together and “accept” that sex just won’t be part of your marriage. But as you know, sex is never just about sex; it’s also about, as you put it, the “closeness” you share as a couple. Sex tends to be less frequent for new parents, but for most couples, connecting through physical intimacy is an important facet of a healthy marriage. That’s because not having sex is usually a sign of a larger problem: When couples aren’t having sex, they often aren’t talking about the fact that they’re not having sex, which leads to further disconnection in the relationship.

In your case, the disconnect seems to be coming from your different reactions to this new stage of life that you’re now in. Becoming a parent is a significant, life-changing adjustment, and yet so many couples don’t talk about this transition with each other at all. Instead, because it’s such a busy time, the baby tends to become the couple’s focus. But what gets lost, especially when each person is occupied with their own experience of the transition, is the understanding of how each person is changed by these new roles—and how those changes affect the relationship.

I can imagine how hard it was on you when your husband was suffering from postnatal depression. You may have felt worried about his condition, resentful that he wasn’t able to be present in the ways you’d hoped, and terribly alone at the very time you needed him to be there for you the most. This likely wasn’t the image of new parenthood you’d pictured.

At the same time, I don’t know how much you understood about what your husband was going through—or how willing he was to share that with you. In his depression, he may have withdrawn from you, or been constantly irritable, and there may even have been some shame on his part because many people don’t know that it’s not just women who can fall into a postnatal depression. Depression also tends to dampen a person’s sex drive, which may have felt frustrating to him and added to any feelings he may have been having of shame or inadequacy.

If talking about what was going on between you two was hard back then, now would be a good time to do so, starting with the pregnancy. You say that you got pregnant soon after your whirlwind romance and wedding. For some people, a quick pregnancy can be thrilling—perhaps they’ve wanted children for years, or perhaps they are excited about their new and growing family. And maybe that’s how you felt. But if, for example, your husband wasn’t on the same page as you about the timing of the pregnancy, that could have affected his reaction to becoming a parent.

Similarly, you may want to have a deeper conversation about your respective experiences of the birth itself. So many men feel that something is wrong with them if they found the birth overwhelming or off-putting or even disturbing, because they believe that they were supposed to be able to appreciate the beauty of their child being born, or of the female body doing something natural. They worry that they’ll be criticized by their partner for whatever they felt, or that their partner will feel insulted and get angry. Many men keep quiet about these feelings, which only contributes to their sense of isolation.

In one couple’s session in my therapy office, a woman became offended when her husband, talking about the difficulties with desire he had been having since his wife gave birth, used the word traumatized to describe what he was feeling. It wasn’t until he asked her to imagine his experience—in the reverse—that she understood.

“What if my penis suddenly expanded to 10 times its size,” he said to his wife. “And then I defecated on the sheets while a human being with a full head of hair emerged from my privates—and it was tethered to me by a cord. And then after that, a tsunami of blood came flooding out? And then milk came out of my nipples day and night. Maybe it wouldn’t affect you at all when it was time to have sex using these same parts of my body—but maybe it would.”

Of course, your husband may have had a very positive experience at your son’s birth, but whatever his experience, knowing more about it will help, and he should know about yours, too. What was joyful or funny or bonding about it? What was hard or unexpected or surprising or anxiety-provoking?

The same conversation can be had about your roles as new parents. In addition to the exhaustion, stress, and lack of free time (none of which is conducive to sexual desire), there can also be fear (of not being up for the job) or a sense of loss (of one’s pre-parenthood identity). And it’s also possible that there’s desire (for instance, masturbation, porn, being aroused by others out in the world) more generally but not in the relationship, because certain associations might be triggered by these new roles. For some people, seeing their romantic partner as “Mommy” or “Daddy” can bring up all kinds of feelings around desire. It may help to understand more about what your husband’s parents (and yours) were like when it came to affection and physicality, and what lessons you each took away from observing them.

The purpose of talking about all of this is to bring you two closer together, because I have a feeling that you’ve been hiding your emotional lives from each other, and it’s hard to feel desire for, or want to be intimate with, somebody who feels 1 million miles away. You say that after the birth you put on a strong front but kept your feelings inside, and I imagine that your husband selected what he shared with you, too, perhaps to protect you from the full depth of his depression. Now the two of you seem to get along swimmingly, but you both probably have a trove of undiscussed feelings about the fact that an important dimension of your relationship has gone missing.

Starting to talk about such sensitive topics may feel scary, but that’s the way to reconnect as a couple. And you can always enlist the help of a therapist to guide you. Date nights aren’t the answer here, especially because expectations for sex can put undue pressure on the evening. And focusing on sex, as opposed to all the underlying feelings you’re both holding so close to the vest, prevents you from looking at your connection more holistically. Remember, too, that there’s a lot to a physical relationship that exists between sex and no sex—holding hands, kissing, touching, cuddling, massage. To go from nothing to sex might feel uncomfortable or overwhelming, but as you organically move closer to each other, you both might feel more comfortable rediscovering your desire in the context of this new phase of your life. Intimacy and desire go through many phases in the course of a life together. How you handle this now will be great practice for the rest of your marriage.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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