Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Around the time my daughter was 3 months old, I began to slip slowly — and, at first, unknowingly — into postpartum depression and anxiety, with whispers of new-mom worries becoming amplified to deafening screams that consumed my thoughts. Everything in my body felt like an imminent disaster: A headache became a brain tumor, the weight in my chest was a heart attack, a tight calf meant a blood clot was lurking and would kill me in my sleep. Nighttime was the worst — that’s when a sound would inevitably startle me from my sleep, and I’d spend the next several hours sitting vigil on the couch, staring out the living-room window for potential intruders.
Each night, as I slipped into bed, the panic of what was ahead would settle in. Tears would fill my eyes as I rolled toward my husband Dan for reassurance. With time, he learned what to say: “Honey, I’m going to see you in the morning, I promise.” Eventually, as his breath became heavy with sleep, I would wriggle free from his embrace and begin my nightly ritual of pleading with my thoughts to quiet down.
We had sex three times in the year following my daughter’s birth. It wasn’t just the usual new-mom lack of interest in having sex that stopped us — it was the way I had come to view my husband. Dan was my sounding board for every doctor appointment, therapy session, and acupuncture visit; he was now someone I looked to as a caretaker, someone who helped me through the daily — sometimes minute-by-minute — struggles of postpartum depression. It was difficult to reconcile that Dan with the man who had been my lover. And the idea that he could see this new me as sexy felt equally out of the question. Physical closeness now meant him resting his hand on my chest to soothe the feeling of dread balled up in there, or climbing into the shower to hold me while I sobbed.
By the time I found treatment that worked, our daughter was fast approaching 2 years old. What we were left with in the aftermath of it all was a relationship that had weathered a hell of a storm and survived. In a lot of ways, we emerged stronger. But in the bedroom, the devastation felt irreparable.
“Nothing is ever quite the same after depression or trauma, including sex,” says psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz. “The expectation that sex will be what it was — an easily lusty, dopamine-filled experience of ecstasy — can backfire tragically to reignite feelings of hopelessness and loneliness.”
Which I totally get. As Dan and I began trying to rebuild our sex life, I often found myself in tears. I mourned what might have been lost and I feared that we would never find our way back. Sometimes, as we were getting intimate, the pressure to make it feel normal would creep in and kill any feelings of arousal. Within a matter of minutes, we would find ourselves lying side by side, devoid of lust, trying to figure out what just happened. It felt like we were two people who hadn’t spent the last 13 years learning how to satisfy each other in bed.
“Trauma, depression, and negativity are simply not sexy,” Luiz says. “What is sexy is when couples evolve to being comfortable with the harsh realities of deep knowledge about each other. These waters can be difficult to navigate.”
That last part is something I can certainly attest to. When sex didn’t lead to tears or a clunky, awkward encounter, it made me feel angry and detached. If Dan initiated sex on a day where the symptoms of my depression were in full force, I would yell: “Is that all you think about?!” In my view, he was needy and pushy; on his end, he was scared of being unwanted, something I later learned was amplified by my resentment.
Eventually, Dan and I circled that block enough times that we found ourselves exhausted by it. We realized that we needed to start over instead of trying to pick up where we left off.
“I would rephrase ‘reclaiming’ a sex life to ‘restarting’ a sex life, because sex may be very different as a partner feels better able to engage in pleasure and advocate for their own pleasure,” says Nicole Prause, a licensed psychologist and neuroscientist who researches human sexual behavior. “The best thing the partner can do is to respect boundaries.”
After a long period of unexpected celibacy or poor sex, Prause, who is also the founder of the California-based sex-research center Liberos, says a couple’s shared goal should be to make sexual activity predictable and safe. “When the partner knows they are doing exactly what they agreed to do, this should help reduce worry that they are responsible for negative reactions,” she says. “Rather, they are participating in an experiment with their partner to understand what might be different now, so some moments of unease are to be expected.”
Lauren Brim, a sex coach and author of The New Rules of Sex, says that reconnecting sexually with a partner starts with getting naked — emotionally and physically. That means the goal isn’t intercourse, but instead being together in an intimate way, including talking and touching.
“This allows for emotional walls to come down, for desires to be voiced, and for arousal to be rekindled,” Brim says. “Giving pleasure to each other, talking, eye-gazing, and sharing what you’d like to give and receive to each other, or things that turn you on during the day, are also great ways to start to know your partner again or to repair after a difficult time.”
Once Dan and I moved past the frustration and anger attached to our nonexistent sex life, we committed ourselves to starting small. We talked about old loving gestures — like my ritual of touching my foot to his each night before bed — that were lost in the midst of my struggle, and discussed what we wanted our “new” sex life to look like.
“I don’t even know how to ask you for sex anymore,” he told me one night as we sat facing each other on the couch. I knew what he meant — I had shut him down so many times that I wouldn’t know how to approach me either. I thought for a beat before answering: “Can we just start with getting into bed and snuggling?”
“I’d like that,” he said.
That night when we got into bed, I edged my pillow closer to his so that we were lying face-to-face. I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me from the smells of toothpaste on his breath and shaving cream from his just-shaved face. My senses told me this man with his hands pressed into my lower back and lips grazing mine was my husband, but the journey we had taken to return to this place made what we were doing feel foreign. We kissed and I felt a neglected urge reawaken, but I pushed it aside in favor of reveling our newness and unfamiliarity a bit longer. I kissed Dan again before we both pushed to our respective spots in bed.
But as I started to settle into sleep, a thought struck me: There were pieces of who we once were as lovers that still remained. I reached for his foot and rubbed my toes against his. He nudged me back. It was certainly old hat, but it felt like resurrection.