Couple relationships: advice for new parents
When meeting new rainbow families we have noticed that many LGBTQI people are having a tough first time. Life with a baby, lack of sleep and new priorities put a strain on the relationship. Therefore, we have enlisted the help of Kalle Nordwall, sociologist, therapist and sexologist to write a little bit about relationships and sex.
To nurture your relationship when you have young children
One problem that many have faced at some point is that there are different needs for sex; something that definitely isn’t unusual when the family is growing. In a relationship where one person has a high sex drive and a big need for sex while the other has a significantly lower need, there might be discord. And this kind of problem can lead to bad feelings both for the person who perceives that they ask about sex the most and the person who perceives that they turn it down, and often it’s difficult to talk about. This can become a negative spiral that is difficult to get out of. This can also make it harder to be close to each other in non-sexual ways.
It can be a good idea to start by thinking about what a need is. How do you feel when the need isn’t fulfilled? What emotions surface when we feel that we don’t get what we need, or when we feel that we can’t fulfil a need for someone we love? Emotions that can surface are for example:
- Abandonment or not being a priority
- I’m nagging, or am being nagged at
- I’m unattractive
Also, try and sort out what actually defines your high or low need for sex. Is it primarily a need for sexual satisfaction, which could, for example, be satisfied by masturbation, or is it about a need for closeness and intimacy? Then the different levels of lust may mean that you have different expectations and wishes about what the term sex entails. The person with the lower libido is often the one who feels bad or as if they have caused the problem. On the other hand, the person with the higher libido often expects the other person to feel equally interested in sex. But here it’s worth investigating what is desirable in your particular relationship and then try and find a way to make compromises.
If you are the person with a lower libido it can be a good idea to think about if you actually want things to change. There’s a difference between forcing yourself and challenging yourself. Lust rarely comes on its own and you may need to get past the first feeling of disgust or discomfort in order for it to come. A precondition for all change is a will to change. What are you prepared to change and compromise about? Would a change in this respect be good for you as an individual or would it be harmful to you? How important is this for you? If the answer is that you’re not willing to change your position you might think about what you want with the relationship. But if you both agree that you want to get to a point where you can accept each other’s differences then there’s a good foundation to work from and good preconditions for finding a good way to relate to each other.
Intimacy in everyday life
Taking care of young children takes a lot of time and the child’s needs must be prioritised because of the simple fact that a small child can’t cater to its needs on their own. This puts higher demands on the parents’ communication in order to avoid destructive conflicts that can affect the relationship negatively. To be transparent about one’s thoughts and feelings may feel scary if you haven’t done it before; it takes practice. This includes both communication with yourself (individual wishes, fantasies and dreams) and with partners (wishes regarding the relationships, fantasies and dreams). This also includes being clear about your own needs and a need for alone-time when you can do “what you want” without having to consider the family. This need, like all our needs, differs between people and should therefore not be assumed about someone else. To be on your own can give energy to the relationship, which then can then lead to more sexual desire.
Being intimate with your partner isn’t synonymous with having intercourse or an activity that has to result in one or more orgasms. These are myths that we need to get past. By increasing other expressions of intimacy you can get closer to each other without having to have sex. Here are some examples of expressions of intimacy:
- Ask curious questions about your partner and their life.
- Touch each other, kiss each other and hug.
- Express appreciation of the other.
- Break routines and be helpful in everyday life. For example, unload the dishwasher even though it’s not your turn.
- Sit close to each other and hold hands.
In order to meet sexually and intimately, you need to prioritise and plan for time with each other. If you have smaller children you need to find and prioritise adult-time. By doing fun things together you can find opportunities to talk about the problem of differing sexual needs without it having to be too difficult and charged.
- Take a walk. Difficult conversations can be easier when you don’t have to maintain eye contact! Then a stroller can accompany you if necessary.
- Have a late dinner together when the child has gone to bed.
- Do something that you both like and that stimulates conversation.
- Play a game.
Do you want to..?
There’s a general perception that sex should be a regular occurrence in everyday life that happens by itself. These kinds of norms can be difficult to struggle against and can affect us more than we think. Think about to what extent these norms can get in the way of what would be favourable for you. Some norms are positive while other norms can work against us and even harm us. Because isn’t it also the case that it’s OK not to have sex at all if nobody in the relationship thinks it’s a problem? It’s when the needs and wishes are too different that there’s a problem; when assuming that everybody should be equally horny and willing.
Sometimes it’s easier just to have sex rather than talking about sex. This leads to an increased risk that sex becomes more and more difficult with time if you avoid talking about what’s difficult. If it still feels too difficult to have a good talk it’s recommended that you go to a therapist or family counsellor to sort out the problem of your different sexual needs. Each municipality in the country should offer family counselling at a subsidised cost.
Becoming a parent can be overwhelming in more than one way and brings challenges you haven’t faced before. No matter if it’s the first, second or maybe even fourth child it’s a new situation that requires new measures. For those of us who live in a norm-breaking family constellation there may be challenges that those who live in families that are closer to the norm (especially the hetero norm in this case) don’t have to deal with. For same-sex couples it’s not unusual that there’s a perception of imbalance of power between partners, especially if one of them is the gestational parent and/or has a genetic bond with the child. When people are in a relationship and perceive inequality or an imbalance, the risk for destructive conflicts increases. Conflicts in themselves aren’t necessarily a bad thing, neither for the parents nor the children, it’s yet another way to get to know each other and for the children to see that you can feel differently about the same thing. But, it’s about making up. Both for the relationship’s sake and for the child who is able to see how you can make up and witness constructive anger and a way to express it. But since we in the West have a tendency to want to avoid “difficult” feelings, many topics are avoided in a relationship. For example the experience of competitiveness between partners based on the feeling of not being equal as a parent when you’re not the gestational parent. This tends to lead to destructive conflicts that take a toll on the relationship if it can’t be expressed in any way. But how?
Putting difficult things into words
Many of us recognise the feeling of needing to put your feelings into words to our partners but don’t know how. This is a result from how we ourselves viewed adults during our childhood verbalising needs, our own experiences from previous relationships, and how our motivation today seems to challenge our uphold these habits.
Us humans have a tendency to not want to be uncomfortable, and therefore we choose more or less consciously to avoid difficult things. When you have young children it’s not unusual that difficult talks are postponed because energy is low or that you want to stay in the baby bubble as long as you possibly can. In the short-term this is clever, but not in the long-term. The risk is high that the conflict then starts being about something completely different and maybe becomes bigger than necessary. To avoid this, it’s a good idea to have a parental meeting at home, for example talk about how the week has been. It’s a good idea to start the habit of communicating about things that aren’t super charged, to then successively approach those subjects. It might feel safer and more in line with a possible habit to react with grumpiness, give criticism or pull away if a feeling of for example despair or sadness arises, but it’s not constructive long-term. It’s better to talk about the feeling that’s causing the behaviour than about the possible criticism or grumpiness.
Being in a relationship and communicating takes work, but we know that if a foundation is formed early on in the relationship, you have a lot of time to save in the future. This can of course be done at any point in a relationship, it’s never too late, and then it’s even more important to be honest and transparent with each other. For parents who have conceived in a non-heteronormative way or live in norm-breaking families, it’s important to focus on the “us”. It’s a problem that society views norm-breaking families in the way it often does, but it’s not us who are in the wrong. By creating transparency, a sense of community and a habit of talking about difficult things, the likelihood of cooperation, an increased sense of “us” and good parenting increases.