Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped a reader who was stuck in a cycle of going for unavailable partners. This week, she tackles a question from someone struggling to find pleasure during sex after trying for a baby.
Can we talk about how to find passion in my sex life again?
My husband and I have been trying for a baby for a few months, and my doctors have asked us to put it on hold because of my thyroid levels. So now, sex just hasn’t been a priority at all. And, when we do have sex, it’s not as enjoyable because we've become so used to having sex to make a baby that we’ve forgotten how to do it for pleasure and connection. Do you have any suggestions for how we can work on this?
Gotta Get That Sexy Back
Gotta Get That Sexy Back
Dear Gotta Get That Sexy Back,
In the search for pleasure, we need to find ourselves first. Then, we can connect, be vulnerable, and build the safety that will allow us to get lost in each other again. This takes time, but can lead to a magical sex life.
The building-a-family chapter of life asks so much of the body and mind. It brings a lot of change. And, for those who chose the parenthood path, many of those changes start in the bedroom. When sex becomes mission-focused and outcome-driven, it can take even relationships where the sex was hot enough to make your skin tingle just thinking about your person and cause them to feel lonely, cold, and disconnected. All the changes that come with trying to get pregnant can also put genuine pressure on your relationship. This happens to lots of couples — in my experience as a therapist, many people land in my office when they’re trying for a baby, dealing with fertility issues, or in the "young kids" phase. We don’t talk about the challenges of this time in life enough. And we certainly don’t talk enough about how all this impacts our sex lives.
So, let’s get into it, shall we? First, let’s focus on how to handle and understand your present reality, and then we’ll dig into how to feel safe delighting in each other again.
I’m happy you didn’t wait to start navigating this issue. Intimacy is a great way to feel close to each other, but, if you put sex off for long enough, it can feel daunting to even start a conversation about it. However, sex is not the only way to feel connected, nor is it always a gauge of how healthy the relationship is. If you have the emotional capacity to have making love be a priority right now, it’s worth doing, but if you can’t handle that as you deal with your health and the disappointment of having to put off trying for a baby, that’s okay too. At certain times in a relationship, taking a break from sex makes sense. Just be honest with yourself about this, and then communicate that to your partner.
But, based on your letter, reader, it sounds like you do want to have to make love and enjoy it again. Be curious about that craving. Confirm that it comes from a longing to connect sexually as a couple — and that it’s not just a quick fix for generally disconnected feelings. If it’s the latter, I would do a full pause here, honor the fact, and examine this further.
If it's the former, know that “pleasure is the measure,” according to Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., author of Come As You Are (highly recommend you and your partner both read). A good sex life is not based on frequency or orgasm counts — there’s no “right” number of times to have sex in a week or a month. It’s about feeling safe to relax, explore, and be curious about each other. This will look different for every couple.
Another thing to consider: What could be standing in your way of pleasure is not what is turning you on but what is turning you off. What are some things that feel like barriers to incredibly passionate sex right now? Start by looking inward. Are you frustrated about having to pause trying for a baby? Especially because that directive is coming from a doctor, and it’s not a decision you made, it can feel difficult. It’s okay to unpack those feelings. There is often frustration, shame, and even anger directed at ourselves and our partners when something gets in the way of getting pregnant. It’s easy to feel as though our bodies are failing us. It also can be scary to have any kind of general medical concerns, and knowing thyroid issues can, in some cases, be connected to fertility may be unsettling. But take a deep breath. Remember that this is just a pause on trying. Still, that feeling of a loss of control over what you do with your own body can trigger a lot of anxiety and be distracting. So much of navigating health is trying one thing, hoping it will work, and waiting until the next test result. This process asks for you to trust your doctor and, more importantly, your body. It can make us feel out of control, while also screaming at ourselves: You’re not doing enough. And these thoughts can be hard to quiet during sex.
But to drown them out so we can feel pleasure, it’s helpful to try to get fully into our bodies. We can do this in a few ways. We can unlearn the negative narratives we were taught about sex and what it should look like. We can better understand what we’re feeling when we dig into the stories we were told about intimacy growing up by our families, friends, and sex-ed teachers. Let’s be honest, there’s often a lot of slut-shaming at the crux of these stories. And depending on how religious your family was, sex for pleasure alone can sound like a pretty radical idea. Many female-identifying kids, no matter their religion, grow up with a constant stream of messages about how sex is for “making babies,” ideally after marriage. Honestly, most of us need to blow that idea up to give ourselves full permission to feel all the beautiful things one can feel during sex. Even if you once had a satisfying sex life that didn’t feel influenced by these ideals, putting the pressure on pregnancy might have made you forget about all the ways you once felt pleasure.
Additionally, if you’re struggling with a health issue related to your thyroid, with all the poking that happens in the doctor's office, you may have been practicing getting out of your body to protect yourself. If you have a trauma history, it could have further encouraged your dissociation. If anxiety and worry are high, it can be hard to relax into sensations. Taking the time to attend to that as you work on connecting with your partner is vital.
It’s worth noting that, in this context, “being present in your body” is different from mindfulness. During the best sex you might feel lost in a full-on fantasy — hardly grounded or aware of your surroundings. But, to get there, you must be able to focus, so if a negative thought pops in that pulls you away, you can let it pass. In these moments, it can be helpful to have a well-practiced positive affirmation to say in your head so you can come back to the present moment. For example: “My body is capable of many things, including feeling pleasure." Or, “I am present in my body that is lovable.” Or even: “I am safe; I will run my hand up my body and take a deep breath as I feel each finger touching my skin.” You might try practicing this during masturbation or self-massage to feel more comfortable feeling pleasure again, without the pressure of performance.
All this will help bring you back to the idea that your body belongs to you and is not just there to procreate. It is capable of an infinite amount of things, including simply feeling joy. This is something you can also re-learn in therapy, if you’re open to it, have access to it, and this work feels daunting to do alone or with your partner only. If therapy's out of the question, but you still want some outside perspective, I’d recommend the book Magnificent Sex.
Your body belongs to you and is not just there to procreate. It is capable of an infinite amount of things, including simply feeling joy.
Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT
Communicating with your partner will be a big part of making sex fun again, too. Don’t think of this as just a “how do we do it more?” discussion. Talk about what feels lonely or fearful about taking a break from intentional baby-making. Try to use “I” statements, and avoid placing blame in the conversation. If you feel your partner is starting to “act funny” now that you're trying to wake up the passion, know that’s not unusual. It can feel awkward bringing all this up, but it’s an important conversation, which can be made easier by asking the right questions. Start by asking “How is our sex life feeling to you?” “Do you have anything you would like different about it?” “What was the best sex we ever had, and what was so great about it?”
Let’s say you felt pleasure when you were trying to conceive. Perhaps knowing you were both aligned on this purpose felt deeply connecting, and in that connection, access to satisfaction was easier. If this was the case, you can try to get on the same page again by asking: "Do you feel like we are aligned in why we’re having sex now?" "Are we both attuned to each other’s needs?" You don’t have to be having sex for the exact same reasons, but your reasons do need to make sense to your partner and vice versa. This will ultimately create safety for you both. Honor that humans and sexual relationships need to evolve together. Being more attuned to each other may allow you two to get lost in each other again.
I would guess that when you were “trying,” you were also being precise over when you had sex to time it to ovulation. Now, without a schedule to adhere to, there’s more pressure to feel turned on and ready out of the blue. This is easier for some than others. I would set yourself up for success by thinking about when you feel really safe together. Do you feel more connected after a deep conversation? Or when your partner helps check things off your to-do list? Do you like flirty texts all day so your mind is anticipating being together? Or are you more into being surprised by a sudden nibble on the back. of the neck? Whatever it is you're into, doing it with your partner more intentionally will effectively set the mood.
Once you’re both vibing, consider what sensations would turn you on and make your bedroom feel less haunted? Silk, honey, a favourite candle, or even a perfectly curated playlist? Thinking about what gets your partner going is another part of finding your own arousal, too. If your own bed feels safe but it is hard to stay present, start with massaging each other. If you’re still having trouble getting into it, even cuddling while having one person reading to the other can be a good place to start; if you are open to it, try an erotic novel. Take the pressure down a little bit. Arousal is about so much more than hitting the right spot.
And, along the way, remember: Finding pleasure is not about going back to what your sex life once was, it’s about creating something new in the right now — something you can continue to build on for years to come.
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specialises in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.