Each week we tackle a different sex problem her at The Hotbed Collective. Do you have a problem which you would like us to help sort out?
Then email us at www. thehotbedcollective.com This is the third in our series. Dr Karen Gurney, @thesexdoctor on Instagram, and director of the Havelock Clinic, answers one reader question...
Hey Dr Karen,
I'm not really sure where to start with this!
In all honesty my wonderful husband & I have always had a bit of a shit sex life, which was ok as I was young, skinny & confident and could carry us. Whizz forward 10 years, 2 kids later (one of whom is severely disabled & life-limited), 2 sections, body changes and things between us are kinda dead. We had a huge talk the other day & he's clocked that he has an issue with intimacy, thinks sex is 'bad' and 'wrong', has shut down emotionally...To cope with the situation with our son.
We really want to improve things, and both are willing to try stuff or talk to people, but I've no idea where to start. And as I have given up work to care for our son, we don't have the money to pay for therapy sessions.
Can you help point us in the right direction?
Thanks for writing in.
You say you've never had an amazing sex life together. It’s useful to notice that your relationship has been ticking along all this time with this 'good enough' sex life, so although it sounds like sex is feeling crucial to the two of you - just now it seems that the two of you can feel strong and be together without your sex life being the relationship equivalent of superglue.
This is a good thing for the current challenges perhaps. Before you even start working on your sex life, perhaps sit down together and make a list of the things that you are both thankful about that work well in your relationship. This will give you a solid starting point as a couple to work on the more tricky aspects of your relationship that can be harder to discuss such as sex.
The second thing I wanted to mention is that often children disrupt our sex lives to the extent that parents report the least sexual satisfaction in the period after having children (first couple of years). Due to the nature of your son’s ongoing condition and your continuing roles as carers for him, the two of you might be still experiencing the effects of this even though your children are getting older. This might feel in contrast to other parents around you with kids the same age who might be starting to have (a bit) more time to themselves. It’s important to see this for what it is- the impact of your life stage and circumstances on your ability to keep sex a priority at the moment, not necessarily a reflection of a problem that can't be resolved between the two of you.
I was wondering whether now you are at home full time it feels even more important to you to have other roles outside of carer, mother and wife and perhaps re-instating your sexual relationship would be a protective factor for your own mood and wellbeing, bringing escapism as well as being a way to manage stress?
You talked about your sex life in the earlier part of your marriage when you felt younger and more body confident and you used the phrase 'I could carry us' . I’m guessing you meant that you were the person that kept your sex life going. In my therapy sessions with couples there is often one person that takes responsibility for keeping sex on the agenda, either as they have the higher sex drive, or because they place the higher importance on sex. This can work very well, or can be a cause of resentment for couples over time, as one person feels irritated that it always falls to them, or undesired as their partner is never the initiator, and the other person can feel harassed, pressured and always in the wrong.
Sometimes the problem comes later when the person who kept sex on the agenda has a change in circumstance or body confidence as you described, and then both people let sex slide. You certainly alluded to this when you talked about being ‘young, skinny and confident’ then as compared to now, when your post baby body and other body confidence issues that (sadly) affect us as women have crept in.
It can be hard to fight against messages we absorb from society about youth, beauty and body shape and sometimes a lack of sex doesn't help, as it reinforces our worst fears ('I'm no longer attractive to them'). If you haven't already talk to your husband about this it could be helpful. In my experience partners often have a very different view, and say things like 'I probably don't tell you enough but you are gorgeous', 'I've stopped complimenting you as much as I worried you'd think I wanted sex and I haven’t felt like it recently.' or 'Your body may have changed but I find you and your body even more sexy since you carried my children.'
Your husband talks about some of his feelings about sex and how these might be coming in (in fact, might have always come in) to your sex life as a couple. We all have these hang ups and difficulties that affect our comfort with expressing ourselves sexually and I am pleased for the two of you that he is reflective enough to be able to notice this and brave enough to share it. It might not feel like it just now but this is a real opportunity for you both to carve out a new kind of sex life together which could be better than before once these things are addressed and out in the open. He also hinted that he might be ‘shutting down emotionally’ to cope with his feelings about your son.
If I was talking with him I’d want to ask him whether shutting down from sex is helping and necessary at the moment, or creating another problem in the long run by creating distance between the two of you that may eventually leave him feeling less connected and supported by you. Again, I’m impressed by his ability to reflect and communicate how he’s feeling and it’s a strong indicator of the solid foundation of your relationship.
I'm not sure which bit of your sex life feels 'kinda dead'- the frequency, both of your desires for sex, or the fact that you haven't been sexually active together for some time, but as long as you have positive feelings and some level of physical attraction for each other still (even if deeply buried!) you can get all of these things back on track by gradually re-instating a physical relationship in a slow and gradual way.
Start with finding some regular time together, perhaps one hour a week that's fixed and both agree that nothing will get in the way of this time happening.
Create an oasis of calm in your bedroom, with music that connects you and no phones or distraction. Spend that hour switching off from everything else, talking and really connecting with one another with lots of eye contact.
Whilst sitting close or lying together, touch each other in a way that feels not too far away from what you’re already doing day to day and both comfortable with. For example; playing with each others hands/fingers whilst talking, stroking each others hair, holding hands, or a gentle shoulder massage through clothes.
Throughout this time simply talk about whatever comes to mind. This could be how your day has been, what you’ll do on the weekend, your hopes and fears for the future, anything really. As the weeks go on, make a decision together about whether you feel comfortable doing this with less clothes on, just in underwear or even naked, but continue to lay together, be physically close, talk and enjoy the touch between you for what it is, not needing it to go any further.
After doing this for some time your comfort being together in this way will have increased, you may notice that you both experience more sexual desire than you have before and you may decide you want to take this further. If not, you’ve still created time to connect intimately, to be physical together, to spend some time together solely as husband and wife (not parents, flatmates, etc) and this in itself should bring enough positives with it to keep you both on track for now, until you have more time and energy to put into it.
All of this should help, but you might also benefit at some stage from seeing a sex therapist. Although you can't afford to pay for this at the moment you may be able to access this through the NHS depending on where you live, so speak to your GP who might have knowledge of a local service that you can access for free.
Ultimately, sex is important, but not the be all and end all for all couples. Only you and your husband know whether just now is the right time for you to be working on it, or whether you need to just find a sticking plaster for now that works in a ‘good enough’ way for you both until you have more mental and physical energy. Good luck with your journey with it.
Love Dr KAREN X