5 Things Research Tells Us About Sex as Parents
Good relationship advice is hard to come by. When you’re a busy parent trying to keep a romantic relationship alive, the last thing you probably want to do is scroll through the hundreds of articles on keeping the passion alive.
That’s why we did the research for you! After investigating medical journals and collaborating with Gilly experts, we compiled a list of 5 things research tells us about sex as parents.
1. Like Wine, Passion Can Age Well Over Time With Care
PSA: You have a lot of sexually satisfying years to come! You can relax and stop reading now, right? 😉
There’s a common stereotype and joke that people become less and less sexual as they age — cue all the un-funny jokes about old people sex. And this can feel like the future you’re heading into if you’re smack in the midst sleep deprivation and parenting overwhelm.
But this belief that the sexual part of a relationship just slowly dies over time is a myth.
Like with anything, sexuality and desire vary from person to person, but overall, sexual satisfaction does not have to decrease with age. A study done on sexuality for women in their fifties found that women feel more control of their sexual pleasure as they age. Some women in this study even claimed to find that their desire for sex and their ability to engage in it both increased in their fifties. Also, this is not exclusive to women, long term couples of all kinds can show fulfilling, frequent sexual encounters decades into their relationship.
We know this might not feel the case at the moment — the current trajectory of your sex life after the kids arrived might be looking bleak.
So what did those older, sexually satisfied couples have in common? What lessons might we draw from researchers’ observations?
First, research shows over and over that one’s attitude towards sex matters.
What does this mean? It means that those with healthier sexual attitudes tend to weather the ebbs and flow of life’s sexual changes in a way that helps their sex life remain vibrant well into retirement. And a driving factor of a healthy sexual attitude is knowing that our bodies, sexual abilities, circumstances, are always changing and that change is inevitable.
It also includes an attitude not laden with shame or guilt. For many, this part is difficult because well — we never really got all the facts about how sex and intimacy changes. There’s so much to cover but we pulled a few starting points for you.
The other commonality, which is related to one’s sexual attitude, is that couples who practiced a wider range of sexual activities tend to have higher sexual satisfaction when they’re older.
And wider sexual activities didn’t mean super kinky acts — simply, they had a variety of sexual scripts. Sex didn’t always include penetration, for example. Some researchers conjecture that this may have been helpful as penile hardness tend to decline making penetrative sex more difficult later on in life. So if a couple had only one way of having sex, it may be discouraging or challenging to accept or explore other ways of being sexual later on.
2. Postpartum Sex Drive for Women (or lack thereof)
We could do a whole post just on this!
The main thing to remember here is: If your sexual desire, sex drive, almost everything that’s sexual feels off during postpartum, that is completely normal.
If you didn’t know this, it could be because most doctors don’t talk about sex drive after the baby is born, even though “83% of women identify as having a sexual dysfunction” at this time. (Don’t be mad at your doctor — research shows that education on sexual pleasure is absent or scarce amongst medical schools. Le sigh).
We, at Gilly, have mixed feelings about the term, “sexual dysfunction”. It carries the connotation that something is wrong, broken, abnormal. But really, you’re not broken. It is perfectly normal for a woman, post birth, to feel radically different when it comes to her sexuality — physically, physiologically, mentally, emotionally. It means that they are areas to explore, give more care to, release, relearn, adjust — but they don’t mean that something is now dysfunct. At least we don’t see it that way. Ok?
With the lack of sleep, the hormonal changes and one partner’s body recovering from the incredible feat of delivering a baby, it is no wonder that you may not be itching to jump into bed with your partner. If you are ready to have sex again, there are a few things that may be helpful to note.
Depending how the birthing experience went, it may not be safe to have vaginal sex right away, so make sure to check in with your doctor about when vaginal sex is safe. Usually, doctors recommend waiting 6 weeks.
However, this 6 weeks timeframe really only addresses general safety around penetrative sex. It does not take into account how a woman feels in her body, if penetration is painful, nor her emotional and sexual readiness.
Unfortunately, many couples take this “clearance” to mean that sex can resume as it was before (aka “normal”) and are then shocked when it doesn’t work out.
So remember, every woman is different and every birth is different, so there really isn’t one rigid timeline.
If you’re wanting intimacy, keep the following in mind:
- Postpartum sex might look completely different from sex before baby and that is completely ok and normal
- Women whose partners demonstrate frequent appreciation for their postpartum body are consistently more likely to reach a new closeness after pregnancy.
- While breastfeeding, a woman’s estrogen level is usually lower, which slows the body’s ability to self lubricate — this could make sex painful for both partners. So lube is your very best friend!
- Sex is not just penetrative sex. There are other ways to explore. This period could be a test on new ways to stay satisfied, especially for fathers who crave intimacy but moms may not be so available
3. Talking About Sex Makes a Difference
With all this change, being able to share with each other where you are along your individual journey and then work together will be an important skill.
To motivate you, here’s a fun fact: research shows that couples that talk about their sex life end up having more fulfilling sex lives. According to a study on sexual satisfaction in marriage, sexual satisfaction is directly related to sexual communication. In fact, only 9% of couples who don’t talk about sex with their partner report satisfaction in their sex lives. Even if it is clear that talking about sex is helpful, it sometimes can be hard to know how to start.
After all, for many, talking authentically, openly, vulnerably about sex and intimacy, isn’t something we’ve learned nor practiced — either as part of our education growing up or during adulthood.
It can feel very intimidating. There’s not wanting to hurt your partner’s feelings, fear of being judged, or just not knowing where to start. The secret to talking about sex?
Practice. Lol, we know. What?!
That’s right — the only way to get comfortable, to strengthen this important muscle… is to practice. Convinced but still not sure how to get started?
Here are 3 suggestions to keep in mind:
- Try sharing interesting articles (like this one!) to start a conversation
- Start with an easier topic, not one that has been an ongoing sore topic
- Try one of the prompts below if you’re not sure how to start talking to your partner about sex:
- Where did you learn about sex growing up and how did you feel about it?
- How do you think becoming a parent has changed your sexuality?
- What is something that you fantasize about?
- Who is your role model for intimacy?
This is where Gilly comes in. We provide you short prompts to strengthen this muscle. Some of our treats are designed precisely to help you start & deepen conversations about sex & intimacy.
4. Schedules Are Your Friend
We know, we know, the idea of schedules hardly feels very sexy (unless you have an intense love of stationery products and bullet journals, like yours truly).
BUT scheduling sex can be a great tool for parents to reignite their sex life. We are taught from movies, books, magazines, porn (most mainstream media!) that sex should be spontaneous and it starts with fireworks and getting caught up in the moment, but really… has it ever been like that?
Before you say — yes, when we first met! — have a look…
Most likely, when you and your partner were first together, you planned and scheduled dates ahead of time and some (or most?) probably led to something sexual / sensual, no? One likes to think that the part that was scheduled was the date.
Now looking back, one might say that you scheduled foreplay 😉
So why not schedule some intimate time with your partner now? Now, this is not meant to add more onto your place or pressure on your desire. We’re not suggesting that every Wednesday at 8:30 pm, you need to be on top of your partner (unless that feels more like excitement than pressure!). Nor are we suggesting elaborate date nights to get in the mood.
Instead, we suggest simply setting aside some time in the week for you and your partner to just be together, whether this is in the morning, during naptime, or after the kids are in bed — or whatever time works for your unique circumstance!
Make the time work for you, whether it is for 10 minutes, 20 minutes or even — gasp — an hour.
The point is to practice (there’s that word again) prioritizing time for you and your partner to be intimate; for your erotic selves to come out.
This could mean putting your phones away, having a glass of wine together, or giving each other a full body massage without a sexual agenda. You decide! If it leads to something erotic, great! If it doesn’t, great!
Your mood, your energy level, your sense of connectedness are always changing. By practicing intentionally scheduling this time, you are giving space for whatever arises in your intimate space to arise. Schedules can help prioritize connection with your partner, even during your busiest weeks.
Structure breeds freedom — we, as parents, know this better than anyone!
5. Keeping the Spark Alive Needs Growth
More than likely, the sex you have with your partner changes after you have kids. How could it not? Chances are, you have changed and your partner has changed. So why wouldn’t the sex that you have be different? Your body has changed to put new life in the world. Your responsibilities have quadrupled since you’ve had kids and the sleep you once had that made you feel fresh and sexy has drastically dwindled.
If you’re having feelings of guilt or failure for not having the same sex life as before, that’s totally normal. AND, this is a gentle reminder that whatever changes that are happening in your sex life are normal and not permanent.
Like anything else that is new, it may take some time and effort to figure your sexual relationship out. Having kids is just one of the many life factors that can influence the sex and intimacy in our relationship — so consider that you’re building and strengthening a crucial life skill as you both take your time to figure this out!
In a study of contented and sexually active longterm couples, we see that one way couples keep the spark alive is by viewing their sex with each other as a communal activity where each partner’s motivation to satisfy the other increases one’s desire for their own satisfaction.
By removing expectations that things are going to be the same as they were before, and focusing on connecting with your partner, whether it is through teamwork, quality time, conversation or sex, you’ll work towards getting to the next chapter in your relationship.
Still, it’s one thing to know all this stuff — it’s another to put it into reality, isn’t it?
This is why we’re creating Gilly.
We comb through the science and work with sexperts, to make intimacy and desire easy for couples to navigate, explore and expand together, in real life — through bite sized, interactive exercises (aka treats).
Sign up for early access and get a taste!