Part 1: Redefining Intimacy after Children

An 8-part blog series, helping parent couples reconnect.

A note on the Reconnecting Parent Couples Series: These eight posts present  perspectives and advice from respected colleagues and experts from across the world. I’ll also weave in my personal and professional discoveries and introduce you to aspects of my evolving theory: Connectfulness.   

The parent couples who find their way into my office and onto my therapy couch are looking to reconnect.

Adding children to their lives reshaped how they interact with one another. Their romance may have fizzled. They may feel disconnected from each other, from their kids, and from themselves.

When the parents are disconnected, the whole family feels the effect. Children certainly feel it and react to it. For many of my clients, this is the point they seek help. They want to keep growing as people, partners and parents and they want their family to grow together.

Intimacy didn’t used to look this way

Once upon a time, not long ago, these same parents were childless couples and life had a very different rhythm.

Now they have children, and they are dedicated to helping them grow up to become resilient adults. Resilience helps us overcome family conflict and weather disconnects. It helps people solve their own problems, take appropriate risks, look within and connect more deeply with others. It’s what helps us bounce back from setbacks and navigate life’s adventures.

To model the resilient behavior they want to see in their kids, they’ve got to be resilient individuals, a resilient couple, and resilient parents.

Intimacy within a parent couple is the root from which the family’s resilience grows. Intimacy begins with how we tend to ourselves, each other… and then ripples out towards our children and our greater community.

Intimacy is everything when it comes to what we teach our children about their world and relationships. Intimacy is what fosters, maintains, and balances connection. We share intimate connections in the form of friendship, humor, romance, appreciation, how we manage conflict, dream and create meaning together.

We all want to live a full life, a life full of relationships that fill you up, a connected life.

I’ve been reflecting back on my own pre-child years. Affectionately, my husband and I have dubbed them our Dual-Income-No-Kids years (“DINK” for short). We played hard, immersing ourselves in one another’s inner lives. And sex was spontaneous and abundant.

Then we became parents. Though we were sure that little would change, inevitably, it did. We had one, then two little beings with needs and desires of their own to be responsible for. Our family income didn’t extend as far as it once did. Neither did our time, nor our energy. With kid mess to clean up at the end of day, and the exhaustion that accompanies parents’ sleepless nights, our busy lives simply didn’t feel as sexy or connected as they once had.

The simple, dirty truth is that intimacy changes after children.

Becoming parents throws just about everyone for a loop!  Despite the rosy lenses you might manage to maintain pre-kids, the shifts that come with transitioning and growing in parenthood are substantial. You have to continuously relearn yourself, your partner, and your children.

In this process, so much unexpected stuff —old, childhood stuff— emerges in new ways. Even if you and your partner have been together for years, you have to figure out how to navigate old territory anew.

You hold and support one another through sleepless nights, tantrums, and illness. Together, you try to get through all the messy, hard-to-manage parts of life and parenting that no one mentions in those books on managing pregnancy and birthing and babyhood.

When a couple’s intimacy wavers, the family as a whole becomes less stable.

When parent couples come into my office I hear a lot about the deep disconnect that emerges when parent’s own childhood obstacles are exposed under the pressure of parenting. These old stresses and wounds grow and overwhelm the couple, and eventually, the family as a whole.

Elly Taylor, author of Becoming Us: 8 Steps to Grow a Family that Thrives, helps us understand different types of  intimacy shared between a parent couple, she writes:

“Intellectual intimacy is sharing thoughts, ideas, opinions and beliefs. Physical intimacy is spending quality time, giving and receiving affection and doing fun things together. Emotional intimacy grows as we share feelings, hopes, dreams and fears. Spiritual intimacy can evolve out of all these things: sharing the wonder of a waterfall, the peace of meditation, the reverence of prayer. Sexual intimacy sets our partnership apart from all other relationships we have. Intimacy gives us our mutual sense of belonging together.

Intimacy is an invitation, a revealing of yourself to another and having this glimpse acknowledged with  acceptance and appreciation. Intimacy involves trust and reciprocation. Shutting down or shutting off in any of these aspects will affect the others.”

Connection Springs From Sharing Your Stories

In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, renowned marriage and relationship expert, John Gottman writes

“The more you know and understand about each other, the easier it is to keep connected as life swirls around you.”

Personally, I’m simultaneously growing as a person, partner, parent, and private practice therapist.  It’s an amazing experience to notice all these aspects of myself evolve in tandem and merge together in who I am.  The more I grow in one aspect, the more the ripple of my growth is experienced both by me and those around me in other aspects.

As I grow and evolve, I’m seeing and respecting more of the man my husband has grown to become. I’m watching him grow into himself and seeing daily leaps and shifts he continues to make, both big and small.

We’re constantly discovering more about one another. He’s still able to share new stories from his past with me.  Some of which make my heart ache for him.  Many make me proud of this man I married.

As I hear more of his stories, the disconnects we experience and the patterns we struggle with make more and more sense. And I know our relationship makes more sense to him as he tells these stories and listen to those I share with him. As our shared parenting journey inspires us to explore past experiences, we get a clearer vision of the people we want to be.

Together you’re on a path to becoming who you want to be.

Anna Osborn, LMFT a relationship therapist in Sacramento, says that we should be mindful about intimacy and define it more broadly.

“Before kids, spontaneity and creating intimacy are typically assumed, but after kids arrive, intimacy is something couples have to work harder at. There has to be more mindfulness about creating and maintaining intimacy. Intimacy also gets broadened beyond just sex and into a deeper emotional and physical connection.

Expanding on what intimacy means to a couple allows them to identify more opportunities for emotional and physical connection. If they only look at intimacy as sex, they lose all these great moments of tenderness and connection. Holding hands as they take the kids for a walk, sitting back and seeing your mate parent the kids, slowing down and having gratitude for what the two of you have created…these are all ways to reflect and create connection in the relationship.”

Intimacy comes in many shapes, sizes and forms when your intent broadens into regaining, deepening and maintaining connection.  Deep discussions, cuddling, holding hands, massage, eye gazing, playing together, being still together, being silly, folding laundry, cleaning up messes and even juggling life’s complexities and navigating the dark places can offer just as much connection as sex -  if not even more.

Sex alone is simply not be enough to maintain connection between a parent couple.

When connecting has become hard, it’s important to be mindful how reconnection happens.

“Couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice.” -John Gottman

Research shows that couples who are mindful of making the effort to reconnect, bounce back from disconnects with more ease. In a word, they’re more resilient.

Dr. Jessica Michaelson shared with me how she helps couples begin to rediscover one another.

“I help parent couples reclaim intimacy through enjoyable activities. I use the concept of “Make the right thing the easy thing,” and believe that if something is pleasurable we are more likely to do it. I help couples find really small ways of enjoying each other, like sharing an inside joke, texting with silly emoji sentences, going to an arcade instead of dinner on date night.”

When you begin to redefine intimacy, you too may start seeing shifts almost immediately. Connecting doesn’t have to be complex!

You’ll develop resilience in your relationship when you stay open and flexible and actively seek ways to reconnect when you lose track of one another’s needs and expectations.

Again, it doesn’t have to be complex. In future posts we’ll dive deeper into how you can  connect more fully by being mindful of one another’s needs and inner world, sharing appreciation, playing & laughing, dreaming and finding shared meaning together.

So much shifts when couples redefine intimacy after children. Shifting your expectations about what intimacy looks like now can create big ripples in the satisfaction you experience in your relationship. I want to help you redefine intimacy now that you are parents.

Please join in the discussion below.  How have you redefined intimacy with your partner since becoming a parent?

>>  Part 2: Life Is Made Of Little Moments  <<


This post is also a part of the Raising Resilient Children blog-hopHop on over for more tips from mental health professionals.