Are you friend-zoning your partner?

When you’re pregnant, sex and connecting with your partner might be the last thing on your mind. Jo Robertson, co-director of Practical Parenting Antenatal, relationship counsellor, and sex therapist, has honest advice on intimacy in a time of indigestion.

Pregnancy is insanely exciting and insanely strange at the same time. It’s a little bit like an alien takeover of your body – nausea, weird cravings of putting tomato sauce on apple slices, growth in various locations around your body, the push of feet against your ribs, acid reflux, overheating, and then an animal-like delivery of said baby involving lots of moaning and grunting. This is not everyone’s experience, of course; however, it was mine and it was bizarre. Currently 11 weeks pregnant with my third baby, I am reminded again of how difficult it is to remain connected, let alone passionate, with my gorgeous husband.

Life gifted me an incredible man, but we are still a very normal couple with very normal battles around dishes, hair in drains, and nappy changes. After the alien takeover, a newborn hits your world and spins it around like you can never imagine. This tiny being, dependent on you 24/7, demands that your relationships shift into a new zone. You need to become a team, collaborators in caregiving, which sometimes feels like a shift into the “friend zone”. How do we keep intimacy alive in these times? How do we show and receive the same kind of love we had in the early days?

Start small

Let each other know what your expectations are around the basic things: Work/life balance, household chores, childcare, alone time, routines… Everything! The small things are just as important as the sensual. I have heard so many couples say, “When you haven’t helped around the house in two weeks, I don’t really feel like being close to you.” There is an old cliché that “sex starts in the kitchen” – it’s simple and true. The small things can bring a separation in intimacy, which makes us feel that person isn’t on our team anymore. In our final antenatal group session, we hand out detailed questionnaires for our couples to discuss budgets, chores, family, and childcare expectations. Women are particularly reluctant to feel like a nag; they don’t want to play the mother role with their partner – telling them to do the dishes, or make dinner more often. We can avoid that nagging feeling if we let each other know ahead of time what we would like, followed up with, “I will try to be patient when you’re tired and forget. But when you do XYZ, I feel cared for, which makes me more likely to want intimacy.” I must confess, however, that when I got so sick of my husband leaving dirty nappies around the house, I told him the next time I found a nappy I would leave it in his undie drawer (a pooey nappy especially). He realised at that point I was either very serious or very insane, both of which required a change in his nappy-leaving habits!

Learn your love languages

Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, an book Incredible from Dr Gary Chapman, details five “languages” that indicate how we prefer to give and receive love. You might prefer words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service, or physical touch. I recommend you do an assessment online that tells which you and your partner connect to most, which will indicate how you need to love one another to feel closer. For example, I am a gifts girl, loud and proud. When my man buys me a thoughtful present, or brings home flowers, I feel like he has thought about me and really loved me. Because gifts are my thing, I naturally want to do the same for him. But if I bring home the latest surfing magazine, he thinks it’s amazing, but it doesn’t mean as much without a card with some encouragement written in it. He loves words of affirmation – a talking love, rather than a gift.

The danger with love languages is that we often show each other love in the way we want to receive it, but if we do this, we have completely lost the moment. Understanding how you and your partner tick will encourage intimacy prior to anything sexual happening. Some ideas:

  • Words of affirmation: Write little notes in hidden places around the house for your partner to find.
  • Touch: When you’re sitting and watching TV, stay physically connected. Hold hands or rub their leg.
  • Quality time: Turn off your phone, eat at the table rather than in front the TV, or make sure after a few months you lock in a babysitter once a week for a date night.
  • Acts of service: Offer to pick up your partner’s prescription, fill up their car with petrol, or make their lunch for the following day.
  • Gifts: The easiest, in my opinion! Pick up your partner’s favourite chocolate on the way home and bring it out for dessert.

The actual sex part

Below is a REALLY simplified version of what’s happening to our bodies after we have a baby, and some ideas to work through it.

  • Prolactin levels rise during breastfeeding. Psychologically, prolactin gives new mothers that sense of wanting to be near to and focused on their baby.
  • Oxytocin is released during breastfeeding. This hormone is known as the “love drug”, and is also released during orgasm. For mums, often your sense of bonding and attachment is fulfilled because of breastfeeding, potentially leaving you with a lower drive to seek pleasure in other ways.
  • Breastfeeding decreases vaginal lubrication (wetness), which can make sex more painful.
  • If you had a difficult labour, wounds are healing and you might have some residual sense of trauma of what your body has just gone through.
  • You’re tired, probably unlike any tiredness you’ve ever felt in your life before. In the wise words of Constance Hall, “It’s quite simple, if we can’t sleep we turn into a–holes” – and fair enough. If you are suffering from any kind of postnatal anxiety or depression, then your body is in survival mode. It’s giving everything to just getting through each day, and you don’t want to put any extra pressure on it.

Some thoughts on this:

  • Remove the pressure. If we try to force our body into something it’s not ready for, we create negative associations with the experience of sex. You don’t want to attach concepts of discomfort or pain with sex.
  • Try doing something called “Sensate Focus Therapy”. Typically, you spend one to two weeks doing one thing you both feel comfortable with, such as massage and kissing. Then for another week, you go a bit further. The following week, do more, etc. If it takes you three months to have intercourse, then what’s the big deal? You’ve got your whole life to do this, so make it pleasurable and comfortable along the way.
  • Use lubricant (preferably something natural), then more lubricant, then some more. If you notice you are drier than before, that’s completely normal because of the breastfeeding.

Intimacy is about connection, friendship, and “melting moments”, not about penetration. With both of our babies, my husband and I didn’t have intercourse for months. I had a lot of

healing to do after a rather traumatic first birth, then followed with a Caesarean for our second. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have intimacy! We “fooled around” like the old days, had lots of fun in the shower, and made sure we stayed on the same team the whole time. Then when we did have intercourse, we took it slow. We made sure I was comfortable the whole time and that it was pleasurable rather than something we were “getting done” once a week. We introduced a vibrator occasionally, and had regular date nights where we weren’t allowed to talk about baby routines or poo consistency. The goal was, and continues to be, intimacy over intercourse.

Reframing romance

I posed the question earlier: “How do we show and receive the same kind of love we had in the early days?” My theory is that we don’t show the same kind of love, nor should we. We show a deeper more profound affection that is “standing in love” rather than “falling in love” (see Staying in Love, by Robyn Salisbury). I take comfort in the fact that my husband chooses me every day. He decides to love and care for me no matter the life circumstances we are in. If I’m irritable and 20kg heavier than when he met me, he stands in love with me and chooses “us” all over again. Romance is deepened when you’ve shared life together; it just looks a little different. Don’t get me wrong, the occasional bum grab or love letter is extremely important, but healthy adult relationships are formed, not found. I believe when we offer to make our partner a cup of tea at night, it’s romance; when we get up to turn the light off when we both forgot and are dead in bed, it’s romance; when the baby is crying and we jump up first, allowing the other person that five minutes of rest, it’s romance. Romance is beautiful, and it’s found in our everyday choices.

Man words

I asked the man of my life to contribute to this topic, and he responded in concise bullet points (as do many men).

“Pregnancy – try to understand how she is feeling (tired, sick, hormonal).”

“Probably not that much sexy time in first trimester.”

“Newborn – Just like the above, but amplified.”

“Help to alleviate some of the hardship and the chances of action will increase!”

“Don’t be afraid to ask for some intimacy, but don’t get disappointed by a ‘no’ if it’s not the right time.”

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