February’s here and with it comes Valentine’s Day and the month of love (if you buy into all the marketing hype!). But what does ‘love’ really mean? And why is it so hard to make after the kids come along?
love | noun. 1. An intense feeling of deep affection 2. A person or thing that one loves 3. (In tennis, squash, and some other sports) a score of zero; nil.
What is love, really? Is it a feeling? Is it a thing? Is it something your partner and you make really-super-very quietly because the kids are in the next room? Or is it simply a nil scoreline? ‘Love’ is different to different people and is also dramatically different through the ages.
When you are a baby, love is your parents’ skin and their touch. It’s a warm boob (or bottle) in the middle of the night. It’s cuddles and softly spoken words. It’s also probably something your parents aren’t making as they are weary in their new role as parents.
When you’re two, love is mud. It’s chunky crayons and ooey gooey paint. It’s watching big trucks and excavators at work. It’s puppies. It’s being thrown high in the air and caught again in your dad’s strong arms amid fits of laughter. Love is a vegemite sandwich.
When you’re five, love is toys. Lots of them. Everywhere all over your bedroom floor. Love is your family. It’s your pets. It’s snuggling with a parent at the end of a big day at school and listening to them read aloud to you. It’s your very first favourite colour and, because it’s been your own choice, it’s all over your bedroom walls and in the clothes you wear and the trinkets you choose from the shops because your parents think it’s cute.
When you’re 10, love starts to become ‘real’ – well, you think so anyway. You’ve heard about boyfriends on the TV and in movies and you want one for yourself – whatever that means. But love is actually not as important as you think it is right now. Your parents want you to focus on your love of schoolwork instead of the opposite sex. Love is your favourite pair of cut-off denim shorts and lipgloss and the beach. Love is your sports team and weekend matches. Love is not what your parents feel having to chaffeur you around to all of your numerous extra-curricular activities and social events.
When you’re 16, love is everything. Every. Thing. It is pretty much all that is mentioned in the above paragraph, but on steroids. Being in love with someone is ultra-important. It’s also fun. First real heart flutters. First kisses. You feel that dating equates to social acceptance. Your parents feel that you dating equates to the end of the world.
In your 20s and 30s, love is adventure. Seeing the world and making incredible memories. It’s making an impact on society through your career. It’s high-end fashion and handbags that you can finally afford. But love also starts to become a real thing. Before you know it, you’re engaged, then married. You’ve bought a house, bought a dog and you’re somewhat settled down. Love is your partner. It’s (finally) authentic statements of “I love you”. And making lots of love – whenever, wherever – is fun.
But maybe then, in your 30s and 40s, that physical love becomes harder to find as your life becomes a juggle of raising babies, work commitments, maintaining the older kids’ social calendars, your family’s needs, your friends’ needs, paying bills, the housekeeping… There’s little time to shave your legs or remember to worm the dog, let alone make love to your partner. Although, by now in life, we’ve all experienced every type of love, all levels of being loved and physically enjoyed a lot of it, why has it all of a sudden become so bloody hard to find time to make it? It’s a trend you’ll hear time and time again amongst parents of young children.
Benchmark Psychology practice manager, psychologist and couples therapist Rebecca Frost is currently completing a PhD entitled “The Dry Spell: An investigation into the distress and consequences experienced by couples where the female has low sexual desire”. Rebecca says remembering to find time for your partner and for yourself amid all the chaos of life is ultra important and should be prioritised.
“Research has consistently shown that relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction change at the same time and so sex is clearly an important part of keeping your marriage strong,” she says. “One way that this works is through all of the happy bonding hormones that are released when you have sex, like oxytocin (the same one as during birth to make you love your baby when you first hold them), serotonin (such as that felt more greatly when people take ecstacy) and endorphins (similar to when you exercise).”
Rebecca explains that as well as dealing with the increasing busyness of life once you become a parent, there is that clear difference in levels of sexual desire between men and women to deal with and, as we age, sexual desire naturally decreases (but it happens more dramatically for women than men).
“In their 30s, 51 per cent of men and 34 per cent of women report high levels of desire. In their 40s, it is 38 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women. And by their 60s, it is only 6 per cent of men and 2.5 per cent or woman.
“Apart from age we also know that sexual desire is lower when people are stressed, depressed, anxious, in ill health, in an unsatisfying relationship and in the period after having a baby. This is actually a very risky time for couples on both the relationship and the sex front.”
Rebecca says that if life is getting in the way of special time with your partner, make sure you do something about it.
“Whatever you do, don’t stop working on it and don’t stop talking about it. Talk about your needs, fears, preferences, inner thoughts and emotions about sex and everything else. Accept that there will be fluctuations in your desire and that relationships take effort and it’s worth it for you and for your children.
“The most important point is that as women age and are in longer-term relationships, it is normal for their desire to decrease. Also, it is normal for men to retain a spontaneous desire for sex but for this to change for women. This discrepancy is the root (pardon the pun) of big problems in many relationships. Rather than spontaneous desire, women’s desire becomes more responsive. This means that they may be less likely to be going about their day thinking about sex and wanting it every day, but if they are open and receptive to their partner initiating sex they will generally find that the desire comes later on once they are enjoying it and starting to feel aroused.
“This is a big shift in thinking as we are given unrealistic ideals about what healthy sex drive should look like and it goes against some feminist ideals. However, the most satisfied couples are aware of this responsive type of desire and are willing to work at sex even if the spontaneous desire is absent.”
REBECCA’S TOP 5 TIPS ON FINDING AND MAKING LOVE AGAIN…
- Be realistic: Know that every other couple is not having more or better sex than you. The average couple (and that includes those without kids) are having sex six times per month. With the added stress and busyness of parenting, be kind to yourselves and don’t add any extra pressure to your lives by overly worrying about how much sex you’re having. Regardless of what many magazines or the guys at the pub say, most people are having very irregular, vanilla sex with their partners. Why worry about everyone else anyway? All that matters is that you and your partner are happy.
- Communicate: This is the big one. Nothing can ever change if you don’t talk to each other about your needs. My PhD research has found that the couples who are doing well talk regularly and honestly about the sexual aspects of their relationships. They talk about what isn’t going well and how they can improve things. Most of all, it is less painful to experience rejection when you know that your partner cares about you and has genuine reasons for not feeling desire.
- Find alternatives: If you are not feeling like having sex and you know that your partner misses this, try to meet some of their needs in other ways. I will let you in on a big secret – sex is often not about sex. Most of the time it is about closeness, connection and feeling desired. Often you can meet these needs for each other through hugs, kisses and just giving them your time and love. When it is actually about the sex, maybe you can meet these needs through foreplay without the actual intercourse?
- Prioritise: Make your relationship a priority. Healthy and happy couples make better parents. You are modeling how to have strong relationships for your kids, so taking time for yourselves is not selfish. It is good for everyone. Find time for date nights, do things that you enjoy together (with or without the kids) and don’t forget to sometimes make sex a priority. Go to bed early rather than doing one more load of laundry. It doesn’t matter whether you end up having sex or not, the point is that you are making the time for each other. Generally, if you work on being a happy and connected couple, the sex will follow.
- Be responsive: As already said, the expectation that you will have regular, spontaneous sexual desire at all times in your life is probably unrealistic. Why not see if the responsive desire is there? Tell your partner that you are not feeling like it but you’re happy to get started and see how you feel. Most likely your desire will arrive. If not, make sure that the two of you make it safe for you to say that on this occasion it didn’t work but you’re going to try again next time. Find another way to find closeness in the meantime.