When they say that everything changes after you have kids, they’re right, but it doesn’t have to mean that things have to get worse! Your relationship after children is different, and there are some things to do and think to not only safeguard your relationship, but to even make it better! Today is a master class in rebuilding intimacy with your partner after having kids. I’ve got tons of valuable information and amazing tips, so stay tuned!
NOTE: I know I have many people listening who are in same-sex relationships, so I need to apologize up front for only discussing this from a heterosexual viewpoint. It’s always challenging for me when I’m writing to find a way to be more inclusive, so please bear with me. Also, much of what I’m going to discuss today has a lot to do with male and female roles and how they relate to one another. I ask that if you don’t identify as heterosexual, male, or female, that you listen for what does fit and throw away the rest.
Why this Topic?
I’ve got a free communication tool kit for couples (if you haven’t gotten it yet – what are you waiting for?), which is basically five emails of tips. In the last email, I ask people to respond with their biggest relationship struggles so I can learn about what’s troubling you and what would be great topics to have on the podcast. One of the things that get asked about a lot has to do with the changes couples go through after they have kids.
Here’s one from someone we’ll call Jack (for anonymity). He says,
“My biggest relationship struggle is a lack of intimacy with my wife. We just had our second child (our oldest is almost 3). It seems since having kids, intimacy has gone the window. I love touching and will always touch her when I walk by and attempt to cuddle her in bed, at the least put a hand on her if my cuddles get denied. Even in the process of having our second, which took a while, sex felt transactional. I want my wife to want to touch me. I want her to be intimate with me, especially if we’re not having sex. I also want her to want to have more sex with me.”
And now here’s one from someone we’ll call Jill:
“Oh, Abby, I’m struggling with not wanting to have sex with my partner. We have three kids (6, 3, and 18 months), and I’m so tired from dealing with them (and I also work part-time from home to help pay the bills) that I’ve got nothing left over for him. I feel like whenever he touches me, it’s just to have sex. He’s a great dad but not a great partner when it comes to chores around the house and with our kids. He keeps saying, ‘well, tell me what to do, but I’m sick of telling him. Can’t he see what needs to be done? I feel like I’ve got a fourth kid half the time, and that doesn’t make me want to have sex with him. I know we need to have sex, but I just can’t find the motivation. Help!”
Two very different points of view, and you can start to see what the issues are already.
Here’s what I see every day:
You’re a woman, you’ve made dinner, and now you’re in the kitchen doing the dishes. Your partner has dutifully cleared the table and is now standing in the kitchen chatting with you. While it’s very nice that they’re bonding with you, you’re biting your tongue because you don’t understand why they’re not sweeping the floor, wiping off the counter, or drying some dishes while they chat.
You’re a man, you’ve just dutifully cleared the table, and you’re now in the kitchen chatting with your wife and having a great conversation. You’re thinking, hey, we’re bonding! I’m being awesome and keeping her company, and we’re having those talks she loves. But you notice that she’s getting short with you and that the energy has become chilly. You’re thinking, “What the heck did I do wrong now?!”
The viewpoints and approaches to relationships vary hugely when it comes to identifying as male or female, and this has to do with a lot of factors.
Careers and Marital Happiness
Let’s start with the most obvious factor: work. I’m going to share statistics from a few major countries (I can’t do every one, but I think you’ll get the picture).
- Currently, both parents work full time in just over 60% of households in the US, with women married to men spending more time on housework than single moms. In fact, married women end up with seven more hours of housework per week, while married men end up with one less hour of housework per week! Caring for children and spending time with children is also disproportionately higher for women.
- Women make up 47.4% of the workforce in Australia, with over 60% of women spending at least five hours on unpaid indoor housework.
- According to statistics released in 2020, women in Canada still do the majority of the laundry (61%) and meal preparation (56%), with men doing the majority (78%) of the outdoor work and repairs.
- Research in the UK from 2021 shows 75% of women with kids work and 92% of men. Since 2020 it’s most common for both parents to work full time. Employed women with kids spent more time on unpaid childcare and household work than men.
- The pandemic was especially hard on women. Globally, women took on 173 additional hours of unpaid child care in 2020, compared to 59 additional hours for men.
Why is it still like this? Factor #2
According to sociologists at the University of Maryland, University of Texas, and University of Southern California, gender norms remain the big issue:
“Marriage remains a gendered institution that ratchets up the demand for housework and childcare through essentialist beliefs that women are naturally focused on home and hearth… Married women are prioritizing housework over leisure time or sleep as they conform to societal expectations around gender.” And the research shows that men aren’t contributing in ways that bring about equality in the home.
And here’s something really crazy! When women earn more than their husbands, they do more work at home, not less! In the research, this is known as gender deviance neutralization. It basically means that when the woman is the primary breadwinner, the couple responds to this “non-traditional” setup by becoming even more traditional about who does what in terms of housework and child-rearing.
But this isn’t what either person in the couple thinks will happen. Women assume that the man will step forward and take over more domestic duties, but psychologically, that’s not what’s happening on either side!
You know I’ve got tips, but I’m going to do something different today. I’m going to divide the tips into three categories: tips for men, tips for women, and tips for the couple. Read all the tips because understanding our partners is key in all this. And be forewarned, most of these tips are for the men because the research shows that this is where the most work needs to happen (I say with love).
Tips for Men
Tip #1: Understand emotional labor.
When we talk about men taking on more emotional labor in the home, we’re not just talking about doing the dishes more often. It really means tending to (and hopefully supporting and enhancing) the emotional lives of everyone in the household.
Tip #2: Pay attention and take ownership.
“Just tell me what to do” isn’t something we want to hear. The best thing you can do if you want more intimacy with your partner is to pay attention. Is the milk low? Do you know what kind/brand of milk you use in your home? Her telling you to go to the store isn’t making her feel sexy – it’s making her feel like your mother.
Pay attention: what time do the kids go to bed? When do they have sports practices? When do they have baths? This stuff happens EVERY DAY; you shouldn’t have to be told what to do to interact with your own children! Again, she ends up feeling like your mother and then doesn’t want you to touch her.
Tip #3: Respect her body.
Depending on how old your kids are, moms are being touched ALL THE TIME! Kids follow us into the bathroom, they’re hanging on us constantly, and then you want to touch us, and it feels like everyone wants to take from us.
Try this: tell your partner that you will not be instigating sex. Not because you always get shot down, and you’re sick of it (that’s fear-based crap and will not make her want to have sex with you), but because you love her and want to respect her. Understand that her relationship to her body has changed. In fact, the entire meaning of her body has changed! Be patient and supportive as she sorts this out.
Let her know you will be touching her and loving on her, but you will not make a move for sex so she can relax. If she wants to have sex, it’s completely in her hands. You won’t joke about not having sex, either. Let her know you’d like to have conversations about sex and the kind of touching she wants, but there is absolutely no pressure (more about this in the couples’ tips later).
Tip #4: Watch out for weaponized incompetence
Weaponized incompetence is a pattern of behaviors where men pretend to be bad at simple tasks to get out of shared responsibilities. I really believe that most of the time, this behavior is unconscious for two main reasons:
- You’re tired yourself and don’t want to do something. You feel like your plate is full and just don’t want to take more on, so somehow you talk yourself into a denial of sorts about the fact that you’re putting more on your partner to save yourself.
- You believe (consciously or not) that this is women’s work. You might say to yourself, “I work 60 hours a week providing for this family; this is her job.”
Here are some examples of some things you might be saying that fall in this category:
- The kids like it better when you put them to bed/dress them/bathe them
- Can you make me a list? I always forget.
- I’ll try, but don’t be mad when I mess it up.
- Babe, I’m just not good at that.
- See! I told you I couldn’t do it!
- Just show me what to do again.
- You’re just too anal about things.
- You’re just better at x than me.
Let me give you an example of how this might show up on date night. If you’re doing something for us, but it requires us to do work to make it happen, then you’re not actually doing such a special thing for us. If we have to plan the date night, get the kids ready, make the reservations, call the babysitter, figure out what the kids are going to have for dinner, make sure their homework is done before we leave, give all the instructions to the babysitter, pay the sitter and drive them home, then it really doesn’t feel like such a date night. A real date night is when you do all of that!
It’s time to realize you’re a fish who doesn’t know it’s wet and start really paying attention to yourself and your motives and beliefs.
Tip #5: Self-Awareness
- Are you checking in to see if she’s had a rough day?
- Are you actively doing things with the intention of service and a feeling of safety for your partner?
- Do you do nice things without being asked?
- Do you need reminders to take care of your life? (i.e., are you making your own doctor’s appointments, or is your wife reminding you?)
- Are you telling your partner sincerely and consistently how appreciative and grateful you are?
- Do you validate your partner’s emotions?
- Are you answering your partner’s bids most of the time?
- Do you contribute in a constructive way to planning, rides, meals, and logistics?
- How am I being responsible for the emotional connection between my partner and me?
Tip #6: Read and study
I want you to approach strengthening and improving your relationship like you would anything you need to learn. Do some research, study, and implement. A perfect place to start is The Man’s Guide to Women by John and Julie Gottman.
Tips for Women
Tip #1: Understand preference.
If your man cleans up after dinner but doesn’t do it the way you’d like, don’t criticize him afterward. It’s your preference that the dishes be loaded in the dishwasher a certain way. It’s your preference that things be cleaned a certain way, but it doesn’t make it right.
It’s your preference that the kids go to bed at a certain time and eat certain foods, but it doesn’t make it right. If your partner doesn’t do things the way you do, have a real, open conversation about it. What actions constitute your partner being intentionally “lazy” or passive aggressive, and what’s your own need for control and perfectionism?
If you’re the one coming up with the list of what needs to get done and setting the bar on how it needs to get done, then you’re not sharing the emotional labor; you’re just hiring your partner as an employee. This won’t work in the long run.
I get it; the forks should go in the dishwasher with the tines up so they can be cleaned properly. The towels need to be folded this way, or they won’t all fit into the closet. Junior cannot go to school in his pajamas! When you wipe down the kitchen counters, you need to take everything off them first.
Yes, I get it. There’s a right way to do everything and a wrong way to do everything in your eyes. However, you can’t expect your man to step up to bat if you won’t get off home plate! You need to step back and decide together what’s important and what’s not. If you can only tolerate something being done a certain way, then you need to be the one to do it, but I don’t recommend this. I mean, when did this stuff get so important anyway? Why is it worth these huge fights and battles?
It’s because when your man doesn’t do things the way you like, you take that to mean that he doesn’t love you. He’s not supporting you. He’s not listening to you. He doesn’t care about what’s important to you, but that’s not true. You’re making a leap in logic that’s unfair and not real. Your partner’s standards and wants need to be as valid as your own. You’ve got to accept that he’ll do things differently and not always find the same things important or critical.
Tip #2: What can you let go?
We know from the research I mentioned earlier that women forgo sleep and leisure time for their families, and that needs to stop. You’re playing into the gender norms and stereotypes yourself. You think you’re not a good mother if you don’t spend every waking minute with your kids (especially if you work outside the home). But what’s really best for your kids? An exhausted mom who has trouble being patient? An overwhelmed mom who is snapping and critical with them or their dad?
You need to take care of yourself! You can’t fill a glass from an empty pitcher! This means figuring out real solutions that don’t involve you. Maybe the kids eat fast food once a week for dinner so you can go to yoga class or just sit alone in your car pretending you went to yoga class. Maybe the kids aren’t involved in twenty activities, and you cut that down so everyone can relax more.
Also, depression, anxiety, and stress are all linked to lower libido, being exhausted all the time, and being irritable. What are you doing for your mental health? Is it time to get the support of a therapist?
If you feel like your partner’s request for more intimacy or sex is some kind of intrusion, and you’re feeling angry and defensive about it, it’s really time to stop and ask yourself how you’re really doing. Where’s your self-care and creating/holding boundaries for yourself?
Tip #3: Be curious and share true feelings
If you’ve been with me awhile, you know I often say not to SAC your relationship. Don’t offer Suggestions, give Advice or Criticize. When you want something changed, don’t SAC. Instead, ask collaborative questions as you truly try to understand where your partner is at and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Tied to this is to remember that we connect with feelings, not thoughts. That means you want to get to what your partner is feeling and then share what you’re feeling.
Here’s how this looks in action. Last night your partner promised he’d put away the dishes before he went to bed. You walked into the kitchen this morning (already with kids wanting breakfast and making demands while you’re trying to get out the door to work), and the dirty dishes are still on the counter because the dishwasher was never emptied last night. Argh!!!! You’re furious, resentful, and fed up!
You march upstairs and say, “You didn’t put away the dishes again last night! I’m so sick of this! You promised!” You go on and on telling him how angry you are and when he offers to put them away now, you tell him it’s too late, and you’ll just do it yourself! You’re then angry and upset for hours and contemplating divorce (or murder since that might be cheaper).
Instead, gather yourself as best you can and go up the stairs, and say to your partner, “I’m feeling sad right now. You didn’t put away the dishes like you promised. I get that you don’t do this stuff on purpose, but I need us to find a solution. Can you talk now about this, or should we talk later? I don’t want to be mad at you or feel like a nag, but the dishes really do need to be put away, especially when you commit something to me. What are you thinking?”
And then continue to ask questions about what happened that he forgot and see about finding solutions to this issue together.
Tips for Both of You
Tip #1: You might be thinking about sexual desire all wrong.
Some people feel arousal and want to have sex. Others find that only when they start having foreplay do they experience desire. In other words, sometimes desire is responsive so it’s in response to, rather than in anticipation of, being erotically stimulated in some way.
I find this is true for so many women I work with. They’re waiting to feel the desire to want to go have sex with their partners, but that might never happen. Instead, try to think about all the ways you’d like to experience foreplay. Really speak to your partner about setting sex up with more time, not at the end of the day (so you have more energy), and then discuss what you’d like or need to feel more stimulated. You cannot feel rushed. so men, you really need to be on board for the ride, not the destination.
I’ve talked with so many women who assume they have a low sex drive because their desire is responsive, not spontaneous. They assume that sex will then be forced if they’re “not in the mood,” which results in them not having it at all. You don’t have to have a persistent urge for sex. and there are no “shoulds” when it comes to your desire, women! (I’ve also had men who believe they have low libido for these same reasons, so although I’m mostly aiming this at women right now, it can absolutely apply to men).
So, it’s time for a chat about what constitutes desire for both of you. Really be curious and explore. There are no wrong answers!
Tip #2: Make a list.
Another useful tool is to make a list of the ways you used to bond and feel close as a couple that has changed since you had kids. Maybe you used to spend Sunday in bed reading the NY Times together, having sex, and just hanging out. Now you’ve got to get up for kids, or you can’t get up with your partner because you were up all night with your newborn. Maybe you used to hang out after dinner and talk about your day, but now that time is taken up with bath time, sports, or other kid things. What adjustments do you need to make to create that emotional bonding and intimacy in new ways? You can’t just lose all the things that helped you feel close and expect to keep that same bond.
I want to say something along with this. Stop being nostalgic for the way it used to be! It’s never going to be that way again and that’s a good thing! Sure, maybe your man used to spend time planning dates, and now he doesn’t anymore. Well, he’s spending that bandwidth doing other things, so something had to go. No, your wife isn’t wearing sexy lingerie right now, but again, her bandwidth is elsewhere. What do you need now? Where is the focus now that’s different from how it was when you were first dating? You’re always growing as a couple, so what you paid attention to before isn’t always what you can pay attention to now. Really think about where your attention and intention lay on a daily basis.
Get to know one another in a new way now. Ask one another big open-ended questions like you used to do when you were first dating and would chat all night. If you could be any animal, what would it be? If money were no object, what would your dream vacation be (and get granular)? If you were to have a perfect day, what would you be doing?
Tip #3: Turn toward bids
I talk about the awesome work of marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman quite a bit. You know I love anything that has actual research behind it, and Gottman always delivers. Relationship “bids” is a term he coined, and I’ve found in my own work (and personal life) that not only does it work to improve your relationship with your partner, but it works as an effective tool for all your relationships!
For the record, answering bids is a whole chapter in my book, Be Happily Married Even if Your Partner Won’t Do a Thing.
Bids are basically an effort to connect. Gottman calls them the “fundamental unit of emotional communication.” Once you understand what bids are, you’ll realize that they’ve been happening all around you, but you haven’t understood their significance and how they improve your relationships.
The big issue with bids is that we don’t usually understand we’re making them or that we’re receiving one. We don’t understand that they’re closely linked to trust and safety with the other person. We don’t understand how important they are!
Turning towards a bid means stopping what you’re doing and then giving your partner your full attention. I know you’re busy, but it really only takes seconds, and Gottman’s research shows it’ll absolutely create connection and trust in your relationship!
Tip #4: The Couples Check-in Exercise
Resources for How to Rebuild Intimacy with Your Partner After Having Kids
Research for How to Rebuild Intimacy with Your Partner After Having Kids
Bittman, Michael, Paula England, Liana Sayer, Nancy Folbre, and George Matheson. 2003. “When Does Gender Trump Money? Bargaining and Time in Household Work.” American Journal of Sociology 109 (1): 186–214.