Sex makes babies. So it is ironic that the child, the embodiment of the couple's love, so often threatens the very romance that brought that child into being. Sex, which set the entire enterprise in motion, is often abandoned once children enter the picture. Why does parenthood so often deliver such a fatal blow?
The transition from two to three is one of the most profound challenges a couple will ever face. It takes time—time measured in years, not weeks—to find our bearings in this brave new world. Having a baby is a psychological revolution that changes our relation to almost everything and everyone. Priorities shift, roles are redefined, and the balance between freedom and responsibility undergoes a massive overhaul.
Eventually, most of us come to recognize ourselves again within this new context of family. For some of us, this is when romance starts to work its way back into the fabric of our lives. We remember that sex is fun; it makes us feel good, and it makes us feel closer.
But while some couples gravitate toward each other again, others slowly wander off on a path of mutual estrangement. Reclaiming erotic intimacy is not always easy. The case is often made that American parents today, regardless of class, are overworked and overwhelmed. We constantly sort conflicting demands into their appropriate hierarchical slots: The Crucial, The Important, The Dreamt of, The Ought-to. Sex often remains firmly at the bottom of the "to do" list, never fully relinquishing its last-place status to other, more mundane tasks.
Why is it that our erotic connection with our partner winds up so demoted? Does it really matter if the dishes aren't done, or is there something more beneath our mysterious willingness to forego sex? Perhaps eroticism in the context of family is simply too difficult for anyone to embrace.
Safety and stability take on a whole new meaning when children enter the picture. For children to feel confident enough to go out into the world and explore on their own, they need a secure base. Parenthood demands that we become steady, dependable, and responsible. We plant ourselves firmly on the ground so that our kids may learn to fly.
We do it for our kids, but we also do it for ourselves. Facing the great unknown of parenthood, we try to establish as much security as we can. We seek to contain the unpredictable by creating structure. In the process we cast aside what is frivolous, immature, irresponsible, reckless, for these clash with the task at hand: building family. "I got rid of my motorcycle when Jimmy was born. I'm not allowed to die in a bike crash anymore." "It was all spur-of-the-moment for us before the kids. I'd call Dawn at the office at 5:15 to tell her about a band that was playing at 9:00, and she'd always meet me there. Now we buy season tickets but wind up giving half of them away."
Family life flourishes in an atmosphere of comfort and consistency. Yet unpredictability, spontaneity, and risk are precisely where eroticism resides. Eros is a force that doesn't like to be constrained. When it settles into repetition, habit, or rules, it touches its death.
Many of us become so immersed in our role as parents we become unable to break free, even when we might. "I knew we were in trouble when I couldn't even think about having sex until all the toys were put away," my patient Stephanie reluctantly admits. "And then there are the dishes, the laundry, the bills, the dog. The list never ends. If someone were to ask me, What would you rather do, mop the kitchen floor or make love to your husband?' of course I would pick sex. But in real life? I push Warren away and grab that mop." It's easy to disparage the mop. Like a lot of mothers, Stephanie resents cleaning, even while she feels compelled to pursue the tidy household as an icon of successful motherhood. She finds herself irresistibly drawn to cleanliness, as if order on the outside can bring peace on the inside. And, to some extent, it does. These are activities with immediate and measurable results, far more manageable than the open-endedness and terrors of childrearing.
Stephanie bursts with creativity: art projects, nature walks, trips to museums and fire stations, puppet shows, cookie-cutting, cookie-baking, cookie-parties. If we think of eroticism not as sex per se, but as a vibrant, creative energy, it's easy to see that Stephanie's erotic pulse is alive and well. But it no longer revolves around her husband. Instead, it's been channeled to her children. Regular play-dates for Jake but only three dates a year for Stephanie and Warren: two birthdays, hers and his, and one anniversary.
Which brings me to another point. Stephanie gets tremendous physical pleasure from her children. Let me be perfectly clear here: she knows the difference between adult sexuality and the sensuousness of caring for small children. She, like most mothers, would never dream of seeking sexual gratification from her children. But, in a sense, a certain replacement has occurred. The sensuality that women experience with their children is, in some ways, much more in keeping with female sexuality in general. Female eroticism is diffuse, not localized in the genitals but distributed throughout the body, mind, and senses. It is tactile and auditory, linked to smell, skin, and contact; arousal is often more subjective than physical, and desire arises on a lattice of emotion.
Warren Wants His Wife Back
Stephanie and Warren embody a common marital configuration: she is wrapped up with the kids, exhausted, and uninterested in sex; he is frustrated and lonely. Warren feels displaced, and claims he's been fed a litany of excuses for years. By the time they come to see me, they're locked in a pattern. He initiates, she rebuffs, he feels rejected and withdraws, she feels emotionally bereft and even more distrustful of his sexual motives. They blame each other for their sexual unhappiness, and each holds the other responsible for making it better.
What Stephanie fails to see is that behind Warren's nagging insistence is a yearning to be intimate with his wife. For him, sex is a prelude to intimacy, a pathway to emotional vulnerability. She responds to him as if he's one more needy child, and doesn't realize that this is not just for him but for her, too. She's so mentally organized in terms of what she does for everyone else that she is unable to recognize when something is offered to her.
What Warren finds intolerable is that his approach is having the opposite effect of what he intends. He is desperate for a flicker of desire from Stephanie, but he wants it just to be there, sudden and whole, the way it is for him. I explain to him that expecting our partner to be in the mood just because we are is a set-up for disappointment. We take their lack of desire as a personal rejection, and forget that one of the great elixirs of passion is anticipation. You can't force desire, but you can create an atmosphere where desire might unfurl. You can listen, invite, tease, kiss. You can tempt, compliment, romance, and seduce. All of these help to compose an erotic substrata from which your partner can more easily be lifted.
I point out to Warren that Stephanie might be more receptive today if he paid attention to cultivating her desire rather than simply monitoring it.
"Stephanie needs you to take the lead, but you can't just buy her a ticket, you have to get her interested in the trip." I tell Warren." You play an important role as the keeper of the flame. Right now, all she feels is pressure. She experiences your come-ons as abrupt and intrusive. She thinks all you want is sex. Prove to her you don't."
Looking for Stephanie
It was harder for me to reach Stephanie, for neither she nor I could easily separate ourselves from the abundance of ideological pressures that lurked beneath the surface of our conversation. Validating her husband's needs could easily be construed as denying hers. How to invite a woman to reconnect with her body and her sexuality, separately from her children, when she's completely uninterested in either, or when she feels undeserving or too maxed out? How to avoid the pitfall of swinging back and forth between her children's needs and her husband's needs, leaving her own perennially unattended?
Together we probe the elusiveness of her sexual agency. We explore her sexual history, how sexuality was expressed in her family growing up, and what her earliest experiences were like. She tells me how awkward her own mother was around the subject of sex, never speaking frankly but only making veiled references to morality and sin. She has never conceived of her mother as a sexual being, and it doesn't escape me that history might be repeating itself.
We talk about how her sexual identity changed as the result of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and motherhood. Putting her personal experiences in a broader cultural context, we discuss how the politics of motherhood, the chastity myth, and the medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth all conspire to denude motherhood of its sexual elements. I recommend the gem of a book Sexy Mamas by Cathy Winks and Anne Semans, which discusses the topic of sexuality and motherhood in an accessible, down-to-earth, and sex-positive way. I suggest she leave it in plain view on her bedside table.
Together we explore how she might reclaim a right to pleasure, with its inherent threat of selfishness, in a way that doesn't leave her feeling like a bad mother. One upshot of these discussions is that Stephanie does something radical (for her)—she goes on a weekend retreat with her sister, leaving Warren and the children to their own devices. Getting to that point took a lot of work, but I sense that before she can open herself to sex, she needs to expand the domain of personal pleasure altogether.
Lifting the Erotic Embargo
If Warren and Stephanie are going to get their groove back, they need to free themselves from the disproportionate focus on their kids, both emotionally and practically. As much as spontaneity is desirable, the reality of family life demands planning. Couples without kids can initiate sex on a whim, but parents need to be more practical. Be it a regular date night, a weekend away every few months, or an extra half-hour in the car, what matters is that the couple cordons off erotic territory for themselves. When Warren and Stephanie balk at the idea of premeditated sex, I respond, "Planning can seem prosaic, but in fact it implies intentionality, and intentionality conveys value. When you plan for sex, what you're really doing is affirming your erotic bond. It's what you did when you were dating. Think of it as prolonged foreplay—from twenty minutes to two days."
Not only do their rendezvous help maintain the emotional connection so critical for Stephanie, they also help her to make the transition from full-time mom to lover. "For so long, my thinking about sex was about how to avoid it. Knowing that Warren and I have a date has helped me to anticipate it instead. I pamper myself. I take a shower, shave my legs, put on make-up. I make a special effort to block the negativity and to give myself permission just to be sexual."
My work with them isn't finished. Things have definitely improved, but for this couple, and for this woman, caring for small kids doesn't agree with eroticism. I suspect that when they reach the next life stage—when the kids are both in school full-time and Stephanie is back at work as she plans—new energies will be released. In the meantime, thinking of it as but one phase in a life-long relationship helps them remain patient and hopeful.
This blog is excerpted from "When Three Threatens Two" by Esther Perel. The full version is available in the September/October 2006 issue, Couples Adrift: What Science is Telling Us About Helping Troubled Relationships.
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