By the time your kids are asleep, your mood is exhausted, not erotic. In theory, you want to connect with your partner. In reality, you’re too tired to make the effort. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
It is totally normal for your sex life to take a dive when you have kids, says Dr. Jenni Skyler, certified sex therapist and director of The Intimacy Institute. But that doesn’t mean you can’t – or shouldn’t – seek intimacy in other ways. According to Dr. Skyler, the definition of intimacy is quality connection and it is essential to a healthy relationship. And while it’s the rare marriage that thrives without sex, she says there are many ways to be intimate without it. In fact, Dr. Skyler co-created a model that identifies eight different spheres in which couples foster intimacy – and only one of those spheres is sexual.
Opportunities for intimacy might be less scarce than they seem – if you know where to look.
1 | Talking
Experts and couples agree uninterrupted conversation is an excellent way to create intimacy. While the first step is finding a sitter, putting the kids to bed, or scheduling a lunch date while the kids are at school, the second step is just as important: Put away your phones. “We're so busy replying to texts or checking social media that we hardly hear the one we're with. This is toxic to relationships,” says marriage therapist Jill Whitney, LMFT.
Once you create a distraction-free space for a conversation, you might be surprised where that conversation leads. Sarah Protzman Howlett, a mom of four-year-old twins describes a simple ritual she and her husband share. He says, “So tell me things,” and from there, they might discuss anything from work to travel plans to politics well into the night. Relationship expert Lucinda Loveland says research confirms, “couples who share with each other more, like each other more.”
2 | Kissing
Kissing (with all your clothes on) is something you can do virtually anytime, anywhere – even in front of the kids – and it’s incredibly intimate. I’m not talking about the chaste kisses Mike and Carol Brady exchanged before bed. I’m talking prolonged kissing with tongue. Skyler recommends what she calls a “kissing date,” in which kissing is not a means to sex, but rather the main event. Kelly Burch is a strong proponent of kissing. Though she and her husband have always enjoyed it, now as parents of a three-year-old and working opposite shifts, it has become much more important to them. Burch explains,“Kissing only takes a minute and builds that connection and intimacy.” As Natalie Rotelli recalls, she grew up thinking kissing was “first base” or just something to cover on the way to “home plate.” Now married with two children, she finds kissing is in fact, “the most intimate thing could do.”
3 | Touching
The power of touch is huge. “Whether it's a kiss hello or goodbye or holding hands, even non-sexual touching builds connection between partners,” says therapist Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW.
David Bennett, a certified counselor and relationship expert, explains this phenomenon in terms of neuroscience: “Any form of longer-duration cuddling and touching causes a release of oxytocin in the brain. This is the chemical that bonds couples together. So, any type of cuddling or hand-holding (just make it longer than 20 seconds) will build intimacy.” While Bennett maintains nothing beats intercourse when it comes to releasing oxytocin, touching is the next best thing.
Rhonda Milrad, LCSW, relationship therapist and founder of Relationup, agrees that while touch is no replacement for sex, it’s incredibly valuable. While many new parents are plain old tired, there is limited privacy with little eyes and ears at home. This is why Milrad recommends foot and hand massages as a way to connect: “Being touched and nurtured is sensual and connecting and can feel like the two of you are sneaking a guilty pleasure.”
Some couples just have a habit of touching. Chase McCann, the mother of a 17-year-old says she and her partner have a habit of holding hands whenever they’re out. “We hold hands on the street or in parking lots (also sometimes in the mall, if he's afraid I'll wander off). Sure, in our case it's a practical thing, but it also means that even on days when we're busy and not thinking about intimacy, we're maintaining that touch connection.”
Marc and Stephanie Trachtenberg swear by the extended hug. With two sons, their home is busy, but there’s always time for a hug, whether it’s in the morning, after work, or any random moment. What matters is that the embrace lasts “at least seven seconds” according to Marc. (Stephanie estimated their hugs last a minimum of 10 seconds).
4 | Engaging your senses
If you’re not in the mood to be touched, or if physical affection just isn’t your love language, Skyler reminds us that the five senses include not just touch, but also sight, hearing, smell, and taste. She says sharing a sensual experience is an excellent way to connect. This could be listening to music together, enjoying a meal together, or looking at something beautiful. When a couple sits outside to watch the sunset together, all kinds of good things happen. “Stress decreases, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, neurotransmitters are released and your mood becomes calmer," says Rhonda Milrad, LCSW. "Consequently, you both are more open to connection and communication.”
It doesn’t take much to create a sensual experience in your home. Relationship expert Lucinda Loveland encourages couples to use dim lighting, candles, and music. According to Loveland, “This is a great way to create a warm and romantic environment without doing anything physical.” Many couples I talked to enjoy sharing a meal after their kids are in bed. Amy Bailey, a mom of three, says she and her husband of 16 years look forward to their “date nights in.” Whether dinner is a meat and cheese plate or a steak dinner, they savor the food and each other’s company.
5 | Sharing a hobby
As parents stretched in many different directions and with a “scarcity of resources” as my husband is fond of saying, it’s easy to forget what attracted you and your partner to each other in the first place. Doing a hobby together can be an excellent reminder.
Especially when time together as a couple is at a premium, “sharing something novel helps keep your relationship from getting stagnant,” says Jill Whitney, LMFT. Julie Burton can attest to this. With two daughters, now ages 11 and eight, Julie felt that she and her husband Scott were moving in separate directions, until they started fishing together. Living in Kansas, it’s never inexpensive or convenient, but “it’s always like falling in love again.”
A hobby doesn’t have to be novel or exotic to create intimacy, though. Jacob Brier and his wife have a young son and a shared passion for fitness. For the Briers, working out together equals “heart rate up, sweaty, out of breath ... clothes on. Plus, you're helping to stay healthy together.”
Natalie and Matt Rotelli have a nightly ritual of doing the Sunday New York Times crossword together. “He knows all things mythological, vocab, history (US and world), locations and cute little plays on words," she says. "I generally figure out the algorithm for the long answers associated with the theme of the crossword and all things pop culture.” Natalie says their mutual admiration for each other’s skills is a source of connection.
Intimacy encompasses so much more than sex. It’s about connection – whether it’s a game of tennis, a conversation, or a hug. It’s natural for kids to put a damper on your sex life, at least for a period of time. And while you can expect your kids to ruin certain things, (e.g., your sleep), your connection with your partner doesn’t have to be one of them.