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Ask a Sex Therapist: How do you maintain your relationship with a 3-year-old sleeping between you?

Q: If you're raising your kids as co-sleepers, how do you find time for sex when you don't sleep alone together? How do you maintain your relationship with a 3-year-old sleeping between you?

Sex Therapist Kate Morrissey Stahl: One answer: you don’t have sex like you used to. And you ignore the links on your computer that try to plant seeds of dissent: are you in a sexless marriage? In my experience, sex ebbs and flows through a relationship—the idea that there is an amount that is “the right amount” for any couple is frustratingly oversimplified. Some happy couples have periods of significantly less sex, including when kids are small. Knowing if that is okay requires the couple exploring their needs together.

Another answer: what counts as sex? Can you increase sexual and intimate contact that fits your needs during the time you are together, whether it’s making out on the couch or dancing to a song in the kitchen or taking a walk holding hands? Maybe part of what feels like it’s missing could be intimacy broadly defined, rather than or in addition to intercourse or whatever constitutes sex for you.

A third answer: you as a couple decide you want intercourse or some kind of orgasmic sexual contact, and you schedule it in, either by hiring child care and having date nights if you have the means, or putting the kid(s) to bed early some nights, meeting up somewhere other than your bedroom, hopefully still with a door that locks. One of the interviewees for my dissertation grew up with her parents locking themselves in the bedroom for private time for a couple of hours every Sunday, saying they were playing together, and she ended up thinking of sex as a really sweet fun thing her parents did together. That wouldn’t be a fit for everyone, but it worked for them. Can you make time early in the morning? Come home early from work some days? Get a hotel room and let the kids stay with family for a night? If it really matters, then it’s worth making time for.

A final thought: many of my suggestions include some privilege that not everyone has. Parents in the United States are not supported by policies in the way they are in many other countries. We don’t subsidize childcare or even family leave. Many states block unions, which means that people’s collective bargaining power for fair pay is reduced. Social activism is sexy, and creating supportive structures for parents likely will help them to be less stressed out and more erotically energetic. It can also be important for parents to challenge stigma by raising awareness of how common feeling overwhelmed by how to parent well and take care of yourselves in a partnership can be.

The amount of sex and the definition of sex are something decided between partners, as a sexual team. You win together or you lose together—ignoring someone’s needs or badgering someone into complying is not a winning strategy. Check in with each other about how things are and what options are available. See if a workable compromise can be found to meet everyone’s needs. If you are having a lot of troubleshooting as a team, invite a couple or sex therapist in to support the conversation.

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