Pregnant Passions: Keep Intimacy Alive

If pregnancy has caused you and your partner to lose that lovin' feeling, don't despair; reviving intimacy may be easier than you think.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 14, 2005
7 min read

He's thinking: "Wow, she looks sexier and hotter than I've ever seen her -- boy am I turned on!"

She's thinking: "I'm nauseous and tired and I feel like a blimp -- if he so much as touches me one time I'm going to scream!"

Welcome to pregnancy -- a time when many couples find their sex life has become a roller coaster ride, with neither partner knowing what to expect from themselves or each other.

"From raging hormones and mood swings, to incredible fatigue, a change in body image, fears, anxieties, and sometimes, important medical reasons not to make love, there is no question that pregnancy can cut deep into a couple's intimate life," says Shari Lusskin, MD, director of reproductive psychiatry at NYU Medical Center in New York.

At a time when partners should be pulling closer together, Lusskin tells WebMD it's not unusual to find many coming apart at the emotional seams.

Sometimes, all sense of intimacy seems to come to a dead halt -- and neither partner understands why," says Lusskin.

If this sounds familiar, fear not. Although having sex -- specifically having intercourse -- may be out of reach for part or even all of your pregnancy, intimacy doesn't have to take a back seat. The key, say experts, often involves nothing more than a slight shift in thinking, and a redefining of what it really means to be close to your partner.

"Too often couples end up thinking that if they can't have intercourse -- regardless of the reason -- they should just stay away from each other altogether and kind of blank out the whole concept of intimacy from their minds," says Dennis Sugrue, PhD, past president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, and co-author of Sex Matters For Women.

Instead, Sugrue tells WebMD couples need to recognize that intercourse and orgasm are only one way to experience intimacy -- and if it's not possible, there are other ways to stay close.

"Stroking and caressing, and sometimes just getting naked together and sharing the way that vulnerability feels, can help keep bonds of intimacy strong between partners -- even if intercourse isn't occurring," says Sugrue.

And, he cautions couples not to overlook the power of intimate conversation to ignite those loving feelings.

"When you talk about hopes and dreams and fears and longings and your secret desires -- especially in an intimate setting -- that's intimacy -- and it boosts that special partnership connection between a man and a woman and keeps them emotionally close," says Sugrue, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Sounds like a reasonable plan. But as any pregnant woman can tell you, the minute she puts her head on his shoulder or asks for that intimate, bonding cuddle, his thoughts rapidly dive below the waist. Within minutes, she turns him away and he gets angry -- and both partners end up feeling guilty and pretty bad.

So what went wrong? Experts say a lack of communication is at the core.

"Key is that the woman let her partner know that not wanting intercourse does not mean she is rejecting him or their relationship -- she's simply focusing on their child for a time, and explain the fact that there is a whole lot of biology going on, at least some of which is controlling the way she feels about having sex at any given moment, " says Jerrold Shapiro, PhD, professor and chairman of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University, and author of When Men Get Pregnant.

While it's often the pregnant partner that doesn't feel comfortable about having sex, Shapiro points out this is not always the case. In fact, he says, sometimes it's the man who has conflicting feelings about intercourse and intimacy -- and pulls away from the relationship, even when she's raring to go.

The way to solve that problem, says Shapiro is to put the "mommy" image aside, even for just a little while.

"If a woman thinks of herself only as 'mommy' and presents herself only as 'mommy' -- and if he is thinking of her only as 'mommy' -- for a man, that can be a real turn off to intimacy," says Shapiro.

If, however, the woman continues to think of herself as a sexual being -- and she realizes that overall, most men find their pregnant partners incredibly sexy at every stage and size -- then both partners have a better chance of continuing to relate to each other in the same intimate way they did before conception, with or without intercourse.

And, in fact, many experts agree that part of what can keep intimacy alive is for both partners to continue the sexual bond they previously established, and to try to continue to satisfy each other's physical needs as they arise.

"For the man, this might mean giving her that sensuous foot rub -- and not going above the ankles if that's what she wants at the moment; for the woman it may mean recognizing her partner's need for orgasm and helping him achieve that in whatever way she can manage to do so -- even if it does not involve intercourse," says Sugrue.

It's not about forcing yourself to do what you don't want to do, he says, it's about honoring the needs of someone you love to the best of your ability.

Perhaps most important, is the recognition that coupling is also about partnership -- and realizing a good partnership has many components that need to be honored to keep intimacy alive.

"Somehow our culture is not teaching us that marriage is more than just a romantic liaison, and not emphasizing the life-partnership aspect. Because in truth, when you build a life with someone, there are many equally important components that go into the mix," says Lauren Howard, CSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York.

At the end of the day, Howard says keeping the intimacy alive is all about compromising, without losing yourself. "You don't want to give more than you can afford, but you better be giving something to each other, says Howard.

To help keep the romance and the intimacy in your relationship, our experts offer these additional suggestions for pregnancy -- and beyond!

  1. Don't take each other -- or sex -- for granted.
    " When you first start dating there isn't the expectation that sex is going to be there every time -- only hopes -- so you treat the person in a way to make those hopes come true," says Shapiro. As in dating, so should it go in pregnancy, he says, and treat your partner accordingly.

  2. Revive the art of flirting.
    "Marriage is multitasking -- as the marriage builds and practical issues of life come up you tend to let go of the things that started the whole thing -- the flattery, the courtship, the flirting," says Howard. To keep intimacy alive, she says, revive all the things you did to win each other over before marriage -- and flirt with each other like mad!

  3. Have a "date night" at least once a week -- with no talk of painting the nursery or what to name the baby.
    "Couples must carve out a time for being together that focuses exclusively on each other, something which is important to continue to do after baby is born," says Lusskin.

  4. Add some mystery to your relationship and surprise your partner now and again.
    "Introduce your partner to something they didn't know anything about -- or didn't know you knew anything about. Or just do something that he or she might not expect -- like renting an erotic movie, or arranging a candlelit bath together. Choose something that is pleasurable to you both, and make it a surprise," says Howard.

  5. For Men: Court your pregnant wife!
    "Treat her with the same kind of sensitivity you had when you first started to date. It's not going to make a big difference for you, but it's going to make a huge difference for her, and help you both to stay close," says Shapiro.

  6. For Women: Keep him a part of your pregnancy.
    "Despite the fact that your best girlfriend or your mom may be more fun to talk to right now, it's important to share what's going on with the pregnancy with your partner," says Lusskin. Bring him to your doctor's appointments, have him view the ultrasound, and if there is a medical reason why you can't have intercourse, consider bringing your doctor into the situation to help explain to your partner what is going on and why.

  7. For both of you: Remain proactive about keeping intimacy alive.
    "Don't let your relationship slide, even a little bit; if you feel the closeness slipping away do something about it -- if you have something of value, you want to take good care of it -and each other," says Sugrue.

Editor's note: Writer Colette Bouchez is the author of Getting Pregnant: What You Need To Know Now, and author of the forthcoming book, Your Perfectly Pampered Pregnancy: A Beauty, Health and Lifestyle Guide For The Modern Mother-To-Be.