Postpartum Low Desire: Improving Intimacy and Strengthening Relationships

My last two posts were about dealing with the effects of birth on your body and your mind. This week, it’s all about teamwork. It’s about finding that connection that brought you and your partner together in the first place–and rebuilding it stronger than ever.

When you or your partner are experiencing low desire postpartum, how can you increase intimacy and closeness, reduce frustration, and get the teamwork feeling back in your relationship?

In order to encourage arousal, you need to be able to relax and let go of your worries and calm the “mama lion” protective instinct for a short time. Can you leave your baby with a deeply trusted friend or relative? Is there a hotel near your home? Could you and your partner connect during nap time? Planning intimacy may not feel romantic, but think of it as planning a mini-vacation–a time to escape your anxiety and really connect.

Performance pressure will not help, so don’t put too many expectations on your mini-vacations. Focus on enjoying one another, on pleasurable touch and emotional connection, rather than on meeting specific expectations.

Couples I see often report that they can’t connect because their lives are too busy. I have news for you: no matter how busy you are, the remedy for “not enough time” is not something you need to pay a therapist for. If you can’t find time to listen, talk, connect, and enjoy one another, your marriage will suffer until you do. Eventually it will suffer beyond repair. You absolutely must find at least a little time to give one another undivided attention. Why not commit to do that starting with 10 minutes today?

If one or both of you are emotionally exhausted, you may need to reconnect with a sense of self before intimacy can bloom. Make it a priority to nurture yourself and your interests, even if only by listening to an audiobook that ignites your imagination while driving or rocking the baby. Although this may seem an indirect route to closeness with one another, it will nurture your loving connection and create an environment where desire can emerge.

One of the most important (and most difficult) ways to nurture yourself is by trying to love and appreciate your body the way it is right now. Self-consciousness about your body is a common experience postpartum. Try thinking about it like this: if there is one moment in your life to feel PROUD of your body, it’s now! Your body created a miracle, without conscious effort on your part! And if there’s one time in your life when your body deserves all the love and support you can give it, it’s now. If you catch yourself in negative self-talk about how your body looks, take a moment to appreciate all the amazing things your body can do. No matter what, it’s a miracle. Your body is perfect exactly as it is, and if there is one time in your life you should be certain about that, it is postpartum.

A big key to staying intimately connected during times of great change is flexibility. This looks a little different for every couple. For instance, it can look like:

  • Adjusting your expectations of how interested you have to be in order to begin intimate touching, and maybe taking willingness as your starting place.
  • Scheduling intimacy so you can connect during naptime.
  • Agreeing not to pressure one another, so that you both can initiate physical affection without either of you feeling obligated to follow through in any particular way. This also gives you both the experience of feeling wanted rather than pushed away.
  • Adding self-pleasure to your couple intimacy repertoire.
  • Expressing your love and attraction in non-physical, non-pressuring ways, in order to remind one another that you look forward to returning to increased feelings of desire in the future.
  • Whatever activities you engage in, can you make connection the primary goal and help one another stay curious, engaged, and loving even if some intimate interactions don’t go as planned? I don’t know what flexibility will look like for you, but I know it’s an extremely powerful tool for maintaining desire with changing health, hormones, and bodies. Over a lifetime, you will have many chances to use the flexibility skills you develop now.

If you think frequent disagreements are part of the desire problem, things may improve if you feel like your partner hears and cares about your feelings and the challenges you are facing, even if they can’t entirely relate. Here’s the hitch: this goes both ways. You also need to validate your partner’s experience, express empathy even if you can’t entirely relate, and accept that you have different and equally valid challenges right now. This can feel like a big hurdle; nonetheless, it is a necessary step towards emotional closeness. Accepting your differences and loving one another despite (and for) them is one of the building blocks for keeping things spicy in a long term relationship.

All of these skills will serve you, your long term relationship, and your intimate life in multiple circumstances, not just now. The time you spend building these skills will really pay off. You are building a strong, intimate relationship where you each feel loved and valued for your whole self.

Postpartum Low Desire: Emotional Causes

Last week, I talked about the physical causes of postpartum low desire. Today, I want to explore some of the emotional causes. These experiences, although not primarily physical in nature, are just as valid, and just as worthy of treatment and concern as medical issues. In fact, physical and emotional issues can’t always be easily separated. For instance, postpartum depression is partly physical and partly emotional; refer to last week’s post for more on that. And be sure to check in next week, when I’ll discuss rediscovering your sexuality as a new parent.

The first step in taking care of your relationship is taking care of yourself. Let’s take a look at some of the emotional struggles that new parents might face, and how they can be addressed.

Unresolved feelings about the pregnancy, birth or postpartum experience can contribute to low desire. These feelings, whether they result from a surprise change in birth plan, a traumatic delivery, breastfeeding problems, or any other unexpected difficulty, can lead to depression and disconnection between partners. As a midwife, I encountered this frequently. Women need a way to process their feelings about any disillusionment that occurred as part of the process of pregnancy and birth; otherwise, this distress can go on for decades. Although partners have a different experience of birth than mothers do, they also often need support. Remember: having very different experiences, feelings, and responses from one another doesn’t need to create a disconnect between you. You can empathize with one another’s experience without losing sight of your own. If you get stuck, a skilled couple therapist can help.

Sensory overload from holding a baby and/or nursing a baby much of the time can inhibit desire. Many new mothers tell me the last thing they want is to meet yet another person’s needs. This can understandably leave a partner feeling left out, and create loneliness, jealousy, and resentment.

Inability to relax can block desire. Listening for the baby, thinking about the baby, worrying about the baby–all the opposite of relaxing. Because a high level of vigilance is hard-wired into mothers, you will first need to feel certain your baby or toddler is in good hands. Perhaps you need to take yourself off-site in order to begin to work around this one. Incidentally, fathers may have a different kind of protective instinct, so misunderstandings around this difference can be a source of conflict. You don’t have to allow it to create a divide between you. Your experiences and feelings are both valid.

Not feeling beautiful is a common struggle for new mothers. Some women feel amazing after childbirth; others much less so, particularly if there were difficulties. For some women, breastfeeding evokes a visceral feeling of womanliness; others feel drippy and untidy. For some women, bottle feeding feels connecting and freeing; for others, it feels like a failure of womanliness or mothering. For some women, the weight gain associated with a healthy pregnancy can exacerbate lifelong body image issues, and those feelings can persist for quite some time after the birth. Perhaps you can start rediscovering your own eroticism by connecting with your partner–more on that in next week’s post. Others may find that a conversation with a skilled therapist is the best first step towards becoming comfortable in their body.

Loss of Self is a very common aspect of parenting a small child. For many, spending lots of time alone with an infant or toddler feels both delightful and mind-numbingly boring. If this describes you, the lost aspects of your self may need to re-emerge before desire can find its way back.

Worries about the future, going back to work, not going back to work, family relationships, parenting differences, finances (and so on and so on) can keep you from feeling sexual. These worries are only natural. Having a baby is one of the most stressful life changes for a family system; every family relationship has changed, and your responsibilities have multiplied geometrically. The stakes for everything are higher. Partners may be even more affected than mothers, particularly if they have a strong protective instinct.

Differences in style between family members are likely to emerge front and center. Flexibility is key, as is letting go of the small stuff. These skills may be more difficult to access now than ever, and if this was never your strong suit as a couple, this might be particularly challenging now.

Lack of time is a very real challenge as you build new habits and coping strategies for your new roles. Don’t forget that one of your roles is partner, and don’t let low desire prevent you from making time to connect in other important ways. If you let your couple connection slide now, you will pay for it in the future. Sooner or later you will need to make a decision to make time for one another; I recommend you make that commitment now.

Whether you are a mother struggling with low desire, or a partner struggling with feelings of frustration or rejection, your experience is perfectly normal and perfectly valid. This is a time to be patient and kind to yourself and one another. Remember that you are not alone. Know that help is available. Now is the perfect time to reach out to a physician or therapist; getting help early will pay off in many ways later.

Check in next week for my post Postpartum Low Desire: Improving Intimacy Amidst Multiple Challenges, in which I’ll lay out practical suggestions for rebuilding your connection and rekindling your spark. Meanwhile, if you missed it, check out last week’s post on Physical Causes of Postpartum Low Desire, and my post When Sex Doesn’t Go as Planned, in which I show how to transform disappointing intimate encounters into positive, relationship-building experiences.

Postpartum Low Desire: Physical Causes

Before I was a therapist, I was a midwife, so when a therapist friend recently asked me about postpartum low desire in women, I couldn’t resist digging in and blogging about it.

Low desire after the birth is a VERY common experience. You’re not alone. And your partner is not alone in their experience of this either, in part because there are few written resources and little social support for partners. With this short series of blog posts, I hope to start a conversation that can help therapists, mothers, and partners.

In this first post, I will address some of the causes, and give some idea of how you might begin to address them. My next will go more deeply into how to work with postpartum desire issues specifically in intimate interactions.

There are MANY reasons a woman might experience low desire postpartum; physical, emotional, and relational factors may entangle and overlap. Treating low postpartum desire often requires confronting the emotional and relational along with the physical.

This series will discuss each of these factors in turn, and give some insight into how to begin the process of reconnecting with your body, your self, and your relationship. First, let’s delve into some of the physical factors behind low postpartum desire, and start talking about how to address them.

Hormone fluctuations are a major cause of postpartum low desire. For as long as 18 months after the birth of the baby, estrogen, progesterone, prolactin, and oxytocin (among others) are all undergoing a major shift. Usually this sorts itself out on its own, and desire gradually returns, although there certainly are non-hormonal causes that may still affect desire levels long after. If you are experiencing significantly reduced desire 12 months after the birth of the baby, you might benefit from a visit with your MD, who can help determine if there is a residual hormone imbalance or identify and treat other related issues.

Anemia can be another culprit. Again, a visit to the doctor is in order.

Depression or anxiety postpartum are common, have many causes and can go on for quite a long time. Both contribute to low desire. If you lack motivation and energy, have difficulty feeling connected to your baby, are excessively worried, have racing thoughts, a sense that something is wrong, or just feel sad for no reason, this is a reason for a trip to your MD. A therapist may be able to help too. Postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, whether mild or severe, are likely to have both emotional and physical causes, so a double-team approach might be most helpful.

Sleep deprivation can go on for years. Although nobody feels sexy when they desperately need a good night’s sleep, you and your partner might have vastly different responses to sleep deprivation. Some people are completely undone by sleep deprivation, while others are still able to function. Keeping this in mind can help you avoid unnecessary recriminations if you and your partner respond differently to this unavoidable stressor.

Physical changes can have a profound effect on desire. You might have changes in sensation, including pain or discomfort, you didn’t used to experience. One very common postpartum symptom is vaginal dryness. This is a temporary result of hormone fluctuations and is not necessarily a sign of “not being into it”. It can usually be remedied by use of a high-quality intimate lubricant. If that doesn’t do it, or if you experience other kinds of pain, PLEASE talk to your physician right away and also discuss it with your partner. Too often, people hide their sex-related pain from their partners, hoping to save their feelings, but such a choice can ultimately do much worse damage, physical and emotional. In this case, a sex therapist can be a great resource, both for helping you resolve the issue and helping you have those difficult but necessary conversations with your partner.

All these factors can interact and overlap, reinforcing one another; they can also interact with and reinforce emotional and relational factors. Next week, I’ll delve into some of those emotional and psychological stressors that lead to postpartum low desire. In the meantime, check out my post When Sex Doesn’t Go As Planned for tips on adjusting to changes in your sex life with grace and openness.