By Ruth Ramsay, Sex and Intimacy Coach
I’ll be using language in this article which assumes a male-female couple; this is not meant to exclude other types of relationships or situation where a fertility journey may be underway. I also recognise that different stages of the fertility journey can bring very different experiences of sex. I hope all readers will find something of use in this article to adapt to their own situations.
At the start of the fertility journey, the act of sex may be full of excitement, hope and romance. Family and friends are making “enjoy trying!” jokes and you’re having the most sex you’ve had since the early days of your relationship.
Fast-forward months or years with no successful pregnancy, and it may instead have become an act devoid of passion, surrounded by deadlines and stress, a reminder of ‘failures’ and the elephant in the room socially. The special bond which sexual play gave you as a couple may feel lost. This can make an upsetting picture even more distressing.
However, there are mindset shifts which can massively help – and in doing so strengthen your bond, help you relieve stress, and future-proof your erotic life going forward (as it’s not just fertility struggles which can put a dampener on erotic flames).
1. Consider sex and eroticism as different things
By ‘sex’ I mean the act of sex itself. Non-human animals have sex. By ‘eroticism’ I mean the emotions, meanings, rituals and creativity with which we as humans surround the act of sex. Until something comes along to practically challenge one’s ‘sex life’, the two elements may run intertwined. But fertility challenges, illness, the onset of disability, side effects of medications, extreme stress, and ageing may affect the act of sex.
That doesn’t mean eroticism has to be lost... In fact in all these cases I strongly urge couples to make sure eroticism continues.
What’s an ‘erotic’ act? Think of a loving intimate act, which fills you with positive feelings, which might lead to sex but doesn’t necessarily have to… Something you would only conduct with your partner, or only in a certain way with them. For example, maybe you would massage a friend’s feet after you’ve run a 10km race together and that’s not an erotic act; but make it your partner’s feet, in low lighting, with sexy music in the background, and that becomes an erotic act.
2. Write a list of erotic activities to do together
Think about what you enjoyed as extended foreplay – eroticism – when you were first together. Long meals gazing into each others’ eyes? Slow-dancing in the living room? Massage? Baths together? These erotic things can exist independently of sex in your life.
Make a list together of what you enjoy and, even if it feels contrived initially, aim to start doing one a week.
Be aware that at first feelings of sadness may come up – “oh, when we used to do this we had no idea of the struggles ahead…” but acknowledge that then let it pass. Try to relish them in their own right, not grieve if they don’t lead to sex. Value the intimacy and connection this brings you now, and the feeling this is something special which you share. This can help stop you falling into a pattern of relating more like housemates or colleagues than a couple.
Here is an example of eroticism staying alive, from my Granny (in her 80s) when my Grandad was terminally ill in hospital. Granny called me saying she needed my advice (she knew I was working as a striptease artist at the time). “Ruth dear – I bought a pair of hold-up stockings, wore them to the hospital and gave Grandad a flash: he loved it! But I washed them and now they won’t stick to my legs. How can I make them stick again? I want to wear them to the hospital today.” What a wonderful example of keeping that special bond of eroticism alive.
3. Identify the benefits of sex, and find them elsewhere
Strengthening the exclusive bond we have with our partner can be a reason we want to have sex. We may also want it to affirm our attractiveness to our partner; to feel close to them; for stress release; or to let loose a part of ourselves we usually keep under wraps. If sex has now become a functional act of attempted conception, we may be missing out on these other benefits.
Think about what used to drive your desire for sex, aside from the physical urge itself. At times when you wanted sex with your partner, but had you been alone you would not have masturbated – what were you wanting or needing that sex was going to provide? You and your partner can make a list each and then share. Then think what activities aside from sex can give you these feelings, and make sure you add some into your weekly lives. Keeping these feelings of attractiveness, closeness, relieving each others’ stress, and having an exclusive bond, helps keep both the relationship and you as individuals nourished.
4. Remember that your fertility does not define your sexuality
The fertility journey can bring an individual sense of shame around ‘failing’ for both partners. For the woman, keeping a sense of femininity is important. Try to remember that your fertility does not define your sexuality or your femininity. You were sexual and feminine when fertility was not part of your picture at all (in fact you may have done all you could to suppress it); and you will be feminine and sexual in the future when fertility is again not part of the equation (thanks for the example, Granny!).
For men, try not to bottle up your feelings if you’re stressed about ‘performing on cue’ or feeling like ‘just a sperm donor’. Speak to male friends you know have been through this, or seek resources online or in a community. If you can’t find a supportive group, why not start one?
5. Communicate openly
Keep talking and sharing your feelings. The more you want to hide something in darkness within yourself, the more crucial it is to bring it out into the light to be looked at. This includes your feelings about the status of sex in your relationship.
If you feel you really cannot share, this is a red flag to seek professional couples’ counselling.
A crucial element of the fertility journey for a couple is being strong and stable together, with maintaining eroticism being a healthy part of that. The best investment of time and money you can make is ensuring you remain a strong connected team.
As stated earlier, this may be the first but will not be the last challenge you face in your lifetime together. Take this as an opportunity to learn about each other and how to work as a team, at a level you may not have reached without this journey.
When you hopefully transition into pregnancy and parenthood, this will prove even more valuable; as will the foundation of eroticism you have created together.
To find out more about Ruth and to get in touch with Ruth, visit her website – www.ruthramsay.com.