“We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity – in freedom, in the sense that the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea
“Since we lost our baby, I just don’t want to be touched in that way.”
“How are we going to try again?”
“I actually feel more interested in sex right now– is that weird?”
“We’ve been dealing with infertility and miscarriages for so long, sex has a whole different association for me now. There’s nothing sexy about it.”
Sex and Meaning
The most loaded of three letter words, sex can mean so many things to us: comfort, excitement, pleasure, intimacy, fun, freedom, and an affirmation of life. It may feel like a physical need at times and a spiritual event at others. It can feel like one of the best parts of life and the epitome of an expression of love between you and your partner.
Unfortunately, after baby loss, it can also mean:
Physical pain for the partner who carried the baby– this may be related to a vaginal delivery, C-section, termination procedure, discomfort related to lactation or other medical issue.
Emotional pain because you’re grieving and lots of things are emotionally painful right now. If you are in a heterosexual relationship, sex can feel like a distressing reminder of how the two of you made a baby who can’t be here with you. Having to use birth control during the time you expected to be pregnant can feel both weird and sad. If you have had fertility challenges, it may remind you of another chapter of your reproductive history that has been painful.
Confusion regarding what sex means now. Are you “back to normal”? Trying again?
Guilt about doing something enjoyable. You may feel like it is a betrayal of your baby to do something physically pleasurable.
Just impossible because you don’t feel comfortable in your body, because sex is playful and you don’t feel playful, because you need to feel safe to feel sexy and that is not your world right now, because you need to feel vulnerable during sex and you can’t stand to be any more vulnerable, because you experienced a trauma associated with your delivery and now sex triggers anxiety, because you’re too exhausted, because you’re too preoccupied or for any other number of other reasons.
Or, especially appealing because you need to feel comforted, connected, alive or not alone and sex is providing that for you.
If, since your loss, you’ve been feeling upset or disconnected about the idea of sex, you are not alone. Your feelings are totally understandable and most likely temporary.
“Cause when a heart breaks, no, it don’t break even.” The Script, Breakeven
Sex and Partnering
Sharing a pregnancy or baby is, in itself, a form of intimacy. A baby is of us and of our relationship in a primary way. Babies are either biologically connected to us or made with hope, planning and intention involving donors, surrogates or additional birth others. Going through a pregnancy or having a baby with a partner tends to be a time that stands apart from the rest of our time together. We may have higher highs, lower lows, and scarier scares together.
It is generally a time of greater interdependence and greater need for a couple as they undertake a journey together to bring a new human into the world. Even if multiple pregnancies have come before or are expected in the future, this time is a bit different. The wishes, fears, expectations and memories of a specific pregnancy are exactly that, specific to that pregnancy and special in their own way.
And after baby loss? I think the heart can’t break even. And the physical fallout of perinatal loss is never even. Although so much can and usually is shared in terms of a couple’s reactions, one person is more likely to have been more attached to the baby or more ambivalent about the pregnancy or more physically affected by the loss than the other. I don’t think it’s necessarily that one partner feels more or less overall. I think it’s more that the jagged edges of the broken place for each person are just not exactly the same. Maybe similar, maybe just as painful, but different.
So wherever you and your partner might be regarding the reactions to sex listed above, you likely have some significant differences. In addition, you lost some things as a couple such as your identity as an expecting couple or parents of a new baby and your dream of where that path would take you.
With the loss of the baby is a loss of what you hoped for and expected together. You are both at least a bit changed by your loss and part of what you shared is gone. This can feel like a new world that you have to learn both individually and together. The feelings of acute grief and the need to relearn your connection with each other may make sex intimidating or unappealing for some time. This can feel like a huge secondary loss, but it is probably a short-lived one and one you can work on.
“After you experience the loss of a loved one, a solid boundary suddenly stands before you. It feels as though you’ve hit a hard wall, and you need to find some softness in your life. Death is the breaking of a connection, while sex can be the establishment of one.” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
What Can Help
If your sexual experience with your partner feels out of sync, it may help to remember that this is more likely to be a phase of your relationship rather than a permanent change. You both are hurting from your loss and coping in different ways. Here are some suggestions of what may help during this time as you find your way back to each other.
Start Slowly because you’re not exactly the same as you were before your loss and it’s unlikely that your sexual self will be immediately back online. Having that in mind and managing expectations can help you and your partner give each other the time you need.
Communicate needs and meanings of sex now. Communication is itself a form of intimacy in that it helps you to know each other better and offers opportunities to connect.
Accept differences in reactions and coping mechanisms. Physical intimacy may feel comforting to one of you and not so much to the other. It doesn’t make one of you wrong, it just may take some time to bridge the gap. In The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, Gary Chapman popularized his idea of “love languages”. The idea is that people have their love tank filled by different means, which he categorized into the areas of physical intimacy, quality time, acts of service, gifts or words of affirmation. As a general concept, this can be helpful to consider when you and your partner seem to express and feel love/intimacy in different ways.
Broaden your definition of intimacy by discussing what makes you feel close, connected or turned on and considering new possibilities. Even after you have communicated and worked on accepting differences, there may be ways to expand what feels connecting to each of you. For example, in the realm of physical intimacy, if sexual intercourse is not the right thing for one or both of you right now, experiment with holding hands or massage as a starting point.
Spend Time Alone Together and consider how you would like to use it. Walking, talking, crying, or sitting together can all be healing and intimate experiences.
Learn About Sensate Focus, a technique developed by William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson that was developed for couples experiencing a variety of sexual challenges. It involves a series of steps that focus on touch, initially non-sexual, to explore what is pleasurable. It provides a structured and nonthreatening way to revisit a sexual connection that has been challenged for any reason. For couples who have been through baby loss, it may take some of the pressure and triggers away from sexual intimacy by shifting the focus to a slow, physical exploration.
Get Additional Help as needed. This may include individual and/or couples counseling. A therapist can work with you or you and your partner to help you address barriers between where you are and where you want to be with your sexual connection.
The intimacy of sexual expression between partners is related to the intimacy of pregnancy and having a baby. Baby loss can turn the world upside down for a couple in so many ways, including their sex life. By looking at your individual reactions to physical intimacy, noticing what is happening between you and your partner and experimenting with ways to reconnect, the two of you can return to a closer emotional and physical relationship.