Nuances of Consent: The Therapist’s Side

Recently, I wrote a blog post about consent, and discussed how the most common kinds of consent violations are much more subtle and insidious than those we see discussed in the media.

Today I want to discuss a related question: as a therapist, how might you see this showing up in your therapy room, and how can you help?

First, we have to acknowledge that subtle forms of internal and external pressure around sex are so common as to be completely expectable, and as such, nearly invisible in intimate relationships. Yet this seemingly benign dynamic can wreak havoc in a couple’s sex life.

One example is with the development of an aversion to sex, touch, or physical intimacy. This can range from quite mild to a full on “Ewww” response, complete with a visceral shudder. This is understandably distressing to all involved, and it may not be at all obvious how it developed. Whenever I encounter this in therapy, I look for a very subtle consent violation.

When one partner initiates sexual or intimate touch, are they both willing? And if one is not entirely willing, are they able to say that to their partner? What happens next for the partner, and the interaction between them?

Very often there are hurt feelings and painful meaning-making on one or both sides.  Maybe one hides their lack of willingness to avoid hurting the other. Maybe one partner broadcasts hurt feelings and frustration, thereby reinforcing the less-willing partner’s decision to “ just do it anyway”. Sex shifts from being a pleasurable, connecting experience to being an emotionally painful one. And very often, a slight aversion develops in one partner or the other.

Let me be clear; neither of these partners is an abuser, or a victim, except insofar as ALL of us are abusers and victims. This dynamic is so understandable from both perspectives; who would want to experience their spouse shuddering at their touch? Who would want to feel pressured to have sex or to feel like they are failing as a partner? This couple needs your help to become better able to look inside themselves and figure out what they think, feel, believe, and prefer and then to express that to their partner. They need to get good at holding steady when their partner is expressing something important but stressful.

Start by normalizing communication about sex. While you’re at it, normalize saying (and hearing!)  “yes”, “no”, and “maybe” without making a lot of problematic meaning about yourself, your partner, and your relationship.

Every lover wants to feel like a good lover. Getting and giving guidance sexually should be greeted as a roadmap to a positive, connecting interaction, rather than a threat to one’s self worth.

If you haven’t heard about “Will Lily”, my brief assessment tool, check it out! It is designed to help you identify subtle issues like this early on, so you can be an effective helper right from the start.  

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.