Wellness 8 months ago by Liz Adams

Wellness Expert Q&A: Answering All of Your Sex and Relationship Questions

When we first started brainstorming content for Wellness Month, I knew that I wanted Wellness Expert interviews to be one of the main features. If there’s anything that I’ve learned about health—particularly women’s health—it’s that we are our own greatest advocates. The Hello Adams Family community is full of so many smart, inspiring women with so much knowledge to share, especially as it pertains to wellness, and I knew that we could serve as an incredible resource to ourselves. Today’s interview is the perfect example: Amy (Freier) Moran is an AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and the owner of Spark Chicago Therapy, and pretty much the coolest.

Amy has years of extensive clinical experience in relationship and sex therapy, addressing common goals including enhancing the experience of sex and sexuality, improving empathy and emotional connection in a relationship, and reducing relational conflict. She holds a special interest in helping clients feel empowered in their sexual selves and relationships. As an LGBTQ-, kink- and non-monogamy-affirming therapist, Amy works with individuals and couples experiencing sexual desire discrepancies, sexual functioning concerns, genito-pelvic pain, premarital counseling, and the overall improvement and revitalization of intimacy and sexual satisfaction.

I learned so much from Amy’s answers to all of your questions, and I know that you will, too! Let’s get to it!

Q: This first question addresses a number of similar questions that we received, such as: I’ve completely lost all sex drive after having kids. Is this normal, and what can I do to regain that desire? // What are your tips for reconnecting after baby (both physically and emotionally)? // I’d love to hear your tips for sex post-pregnancy. I had a C-section a few months ago and sex is still painful. // After being married for 15 years and experiencing three very rough pregnancies with hyperemesis, I now equate sex to pregnancy—feeling very sick and uncomfortable—and sex just isn’t as appealing. Help! 

A: The loss of sexual desire after having kids is common and can happen for many reasons including hormonal changes, physical changes, and emotional changes. Your relationship to your body, as well as your relationship to your partner, has also likely shifted, and both take some time getting reacquainted! 

Let’s start with the basics. Sexual desire is an interesting and complex process that isn’t nearly as simple as the movies make it seem. There are actually two kinds of sexual desire: spontaneous desire and responsive desire. Spontaneous desire is that feeling of “I’m horny, I want sex!” that usually follows a thought or image, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. This is certainly normal and healthy, but it is not the only form of desire. Those of us with responsive desire, on the other hand, require more specific context and actual stimulation in order to be interested in sex. This tends to look more like “I’m not turned on at all, but let’s get started and I’ll probably get into it.” Essentially, you have to be engaged in sexual activity before you mentally are interested in it. This, dear friends, is also NORMAL AND HEALTHY! Unfortunately, we’ve been socialized to believe that unless we feel horny and want sex spontaneously, there’s something wrong with us, we’re broken, or the “spark” is gone. This is so very untrue, and the sooner you and your partner honor and cultivate this other, very normal, form of desire, the more room you have to explore and engage sexually—judgment-free! This might mean understanding that you likely won’t start from a place of rip-your-clothes-off desire, and that you need to be physically aroused with some foreplay or romance before you’re actually interested in sex. 

This is especially important to understand after having kids, as you will likely need more intentional time to transition into a sexual space. Sexual desire, in general, often requires context cues like a nice date night, a particularly good interaction with your partner, or other context cues that trigger thoughts/feelings of closeness. It’s really hard to snap our fingers and be ready for sex when we just cleaned spit up off the floor. Allow yourself transitional time to enter into sexual/erotic/intimate energy, either solo or with your partner! This can mean starting with a massage, a bath, meditating, cuddling on the couch together, having a deep conversation about things other than the kids, etc. 

This can also mean reminding yourself that sexual pleasure is something you deserve and can access when and how it feels right. A good way to start is by exploring your body yourself through masturbation, which can help safely reawaken the part of you that may have been silenced by any trauma experienced from pregnancy, labor/delivery, and post-pregnancy. 

If you’re experiencing pain, I always recommend speaking with your physician (ideally a sex-positive OBGYN!), as pain is your body’s way of signaling that something isn’t quite right. Your doctor might suggest working with a pelvic floor physical therapist, as they specialize in helping you understand and identify the source of your pain and work to resolve it effectively, and/or working with a sex therapist (like me!). 

Q: Is there a “healthy” number of times married couples should have sex each week? 

A: Yes! But it’s not quite the answer you’re probably anticipating. The “healthy” number of times a couple should have sex each week is whatever amount feels good, healthy and pleasurable to both of you. A recent study even showed that couples who were told to double the amount of sex they had during the week actually reported less happiness and sexual satisfaction than the couples who were told to just carry on as usual. The moral of the story here: Don’t force more sex just because you think you should be having more. Talk with your partner and identify what feels good to both of you, and don’t compare your frequency to other couples you know!

Q: I recently started seeing a new partner and intimacy doesn’t seem to be coming as naturally as it has in the past. What can I do to bring more intimacy into the relationship without making things awkward? 

A: One of the most erotic things you can do to create more sexual delight? Use your mouth! And by that, of course, I mean talk about it! I always recommend talking early and often about sex with your partner(s), because—newsflash—people are not mind readers. We have to communicate our desires, what feels pleasurable, when things don’t feel great, or when you know how to make it feel even better. We can’t assume our partners can pick up on subtle cues, so erring on the side of explicit and clear communication is a fantastic way to create more of a “natural,” pleasurable experience for you both. If it feels awkward, laugh about it together! Talking about sex has been culturally taboo for many of us, so that’s to be expected, but keep in mind that you are deserving of a vibrant intimate and sexual relationship, so advocate for it!

Q: Is it normal for a woman to only be able to climax in one position? Or, is it normal to rarely orgasm (if at all)? 

A: Sexual arousal is often learned, so finding yourself only able to orgasm from one position is normal! Instead of seeing that as a fault, I challenge you (and your partner) to reframe this as a strength, because you know what works for your body!

Many women don’t reach orgasm every time, or sometimes at all, during a sexual experience. While this does not mean something is wrong with you, I would encourage you to reflect on whether you’re allowing yourself enough time to become engaged in and excited (ahem, responsive desire!!), whether you’re worried you’re “taking too long” (you’re not), or whether you’re speaking up about what feels good and what doesn’t. I also recommend incorporating fantasy (getting lost in fantasy is a great way to engage yourself!) and/or sex toys, as many women find they need a vibrator to reach that (sometimes) elusive orgasm. Most importantly, orgasm is not always the end-all-be-all to every sexual encounter. PLEASURE in general is what you should be after, and that can look like a lot of different things to different bodies.

Q: Outside of sex, what are your tips for keeping the “spark” alive in a relationship? It seems like we are always focused on our kids and too tired to emphasize each other! 

A: This is such a common concern I see in my work with couples. We call it the “roommate stalemate,” and is often described as “I love my partner, we’re such good friends and co-parents and I have zero interest in ending our relationship, but we’re so bored with one another and feel like roommates.” It’s time to reevaluate your roles. While you’re likely doing a wonderful job of fulfilling the “parenting” role together, let’s not forget it takes some intention to nurture the “lover/romantic partner” role. It doesn’t just happen.

When you find that your time and energy is limited due to kids, stressful jobs, etc., I always recommend scheduling mini dates with your partner! These can even be in the home, and don’t have to require anything other than creating a slightly more “special” vibe than your normal collapse-on-the-couch-after-the-kids-are-asleep vibe. Interest, or “spark”, in your relationship often stems from cultivating a sense of novelty, so trying new things together is a fantastic way to reengage that excitement: try cooking a new meal together; crack open a bottle of the wine you’ve been saving for no reason in particular; set up a card game on the patio over candlelight. Find small, manageable ways to access the part of yourself that feels more attuned to the roles that kept things interesting early on in the relationship!

Q: What kind of conversations should I have with my partner before having kids? How do we know we are ready? 

It’s a great idea to have conversations (plural, not just one!) with your partner prior to having kids. Here are some great questions to ask one another to start it off:

  • Why do we want kids now?
  • How do you anticipate our relationship changing after having kids?
  • What roles did your parents play, and what roles do you see us playing as parents?
  • What are you scared of?
  • What are you excited about?
  • How will we handle logistics/scheduling/finances?
  • What happens when we differ on parenting styles, religion, etc,?

As many parents will tell you, it’s hard to know when you’re 100% ready for kids. It might be helpful, instead, to think about whether you feel confident in the relationship you have with your partner, and whether you trust that you’ve laid, and will continue to lay, a solid foundation to grow your family! 

Q: My partner and I have polar opposite personalities. What can we do to improve our compatibility? 

A: I think the goal here is less about improving your compatibility, and more about understanding one another better. We often see differences as threats, though they need not be! There is enough room in one relationship for two personalities. For instance, if one of you is an introvert and one is an extrovert, talk about what this means to you, the types of activities you enjoy, what lights you up, when you feel most authentic, etc. Can you create room in your relationship for there to be times when the introvert really thrives? What about the extrovert? Can you design your shared space together where you can both thrive together? Try to reframe your differences as relational strengths rather than causes for concern.

Q: Is it normal not to masturbate? I’ve been married for five years and have never masturbated.

A: As you can probably guess by now, it’s impossible to define what’s actually “normal” when it comes to sex! Let’s think about this less in terms of defining what’s normal, and more about exploring your choice to not masturbate, simply as an exercise in curiosity. Is it because you’re just not interested? Or do you feel shame about masturbation, like you shouldn’t do it? Are you worried that you don’t know what you’re doing? Try to step away from the judgment of normal/abnormal or right/wrong, and instead get curious about yourself. It’s normal to masturbate and to not, just as it’s normal for one person to like oral sex and another to not. It’s also normal to fluctuate around what you like from one day, week, or life stage to another—all the more reason to approach these questions from a place of self-awareness and exploration as opposed to self-judgment and shame!

Q: How can I stay present during sex? It’s hard to reach a climax when my mind is busy and wandering. 

A: Sex is a perfect example of the mind-body connection. When we’re distracted cognitively, our physical bodies have difficulty experiencing sensation and pleasure. Most physical experiences are similar: Think about how your yoga practice is impacted on the days you’re more stressed. Or how much longer it takes you to really sink into enjoying a massage when you have a looming deadline at work. 

If you ever find your mind wandering during sex to your grocery list, wondering if your facial expressions look “weird” or if your partner thinks you’re doing it right (whatever that means…), you would benefit from practicing mindfulness. The idea is to practice a non-judgmental way of staying present, in the moment, and allowing your mind and body to be immersed in the sexual experience. Just like you practice in yoga, when you find your mind wandering during sex, gently redirect it toward your senses (where and how you’re being touched) and your breath (taking a few deep, slow breaths can help reconnect to sensation in your body instead of your thoughts). You’ll notice that on more stressful days, you’ll have to redirect more frequently than other days, and that’s ok!

Q: Is it normal to experience pelvic pain with sex? // What are your tips for dealing with vaginismus? 

A: There are many different causes of pelvic pain, including vaginismus, endometriosis, vulvodynia, among many others! If you’re experiencing pain, as I discussed above, I always recommend speaking with your physician (ideally a sex-positive OBGYN!), as pain is your body’s way of signaling that something isn’t quite right. Your doctor will likely suggest working with a pelvic floor physical therapist, as they specialize in helping you understand and identify the source of your pain and work to resolve it effectively, and/or working with a sex therapist (like me!). 

Q: My husband and I have great sex but kissing doesn’t seem to be a priority for us. Is this normal? 

A: You’re having great sex? RIGHT ON! If kissing isn’t a priority for you or your husband, then it’s absolutely, without a doubt, not a problem! Carry on having great sex! 

Q: I’m self-conscious about giving my boyfriend oral sex. How do I get over that feeling? // I enjoy sex when I’m having it but feel self-conscious about initiating it. How do I get more comfortable initiating things with my partner? // My husband never initiates sex. What can I do to make him feel more comfortable? 

A: First things first: Neither you nor your partner are required to do anything sexually that makes you uncomfortable, or that you just simply do not want to do (explanations are not required). Boundaries and consent are there for a reason and are to be explicitly respected by all involved.

That being said, if you’re wanting to feel more confident sexually, talk to your boyfriend about what he enjoys about oral sex! Again, you are not a mind reader! Don’t assume you’re supposed to know exactly what to do for his pleasure experience, especially if you don’t have the same body parts as him.

If you or your partner want to feel more confident sexually in general, it could be really interesting to explore a bit more about any sexual shame that might be getting in the way of you feeling confident and empowered sexually. Sexual shame is a concept that I talk about daily with clients, and it often stems from early messaging about sex, e.g., what’s normal, what’s healthy, what’s socially acceptable, what’s shameful, etc. A good place to start is by thinking of the “shoulds” you have around sex, or strong narratives about who you are as a person sexually: I should be initiating more; I’m only 25, I should be wanting sex more; Shouldn’t sex only happen when people are in love/married?; I’m dirty or wrong for wanting sex this way; I’m undesirable because my partner doesn’t initiate sex as often as I think he/she/they should.

The less we talk about sexual shame, or shame in general, the more power it has over us, so finding a sex therapist with whom you feel comfortable talking about sexual shame can help create room for self-compassion, and, ultimately, more comfort and empowerment in your sexual self.

Q: My boyfriend behaves differently around other women for attention and it makes me uncomfortable. Am I overreacting? 

A: If you’re having feelings about your boyfriend’s behavior, you’re allowed to bring it up! Ask if he’s open to a conversation at that time, and I always recommend starting with an “I” sentence (“I notice that I feel hurt/uncomfortable/anxious when you act differently with other women.”). When you approach from a non-attacking place, you and your boyfriend might be able to learn a bit more about why he behaves differently, how this impacts you, and what you can do about it moving forward.

Q: My partner and I have never finished at the same time during sex. Is this truly possible, or only a thing in movies? 

A: This is possible but should not be the expected outcome! It can take a bit of choreography, though keep in mind that not everyone orgasms from penetrative sex. The goal should be less about cumming together, and more about heightening pleasure for both partners, at whatever pace and during whatever activity (penetrative sex, oral sex, using a sex toy, masturbation, etc.) works for them!

Q: I have zero sex drive while taking anti-depressants. Is this normal? 

A: This is a common side effect of many anti-depressants. I always recommend speaking with your prescribing physician about this, and whether you have other options! 

Q: Any advice/words of wisdom for a young couple about to get married? Any conversations, in particular, we should have before the big day? 

A: Remember that you are planning a marriage, not just a wedding! It’s easy to get caught up in the details of wedding planning, so much so that you forget that the wedding is just ONE DAY out of the rest of your lives. Don’t get lost in the details (albeit, beautiful Pinterest-worthy details, I’m sure), and remember the “Why” behind the “I do.”

Don’t be afraid to talk about the SCARY stuff (kids, finances, etc.), the earlier, the better! Be a smart fiancé and strategize your way to a thoughtful and well-developed marriage. Sit down with your partner in a neutral, comfortable atmosphere, and make a list of topics you’d like to discuss. Don’t exclude anything, even if you’re worried it will cause discomfort. It’s never too early to begin exploring and identifying your own relationship values and work toward creating healthy communication with your partner. 

Prepare for the post-newlywed bliss stage! When the initial stages of newlywed delight dissipate, your goal turns toward creating a secure, safe, domestic life with your partner. All of those things are important and great, but there can be a tendency to get stuck in routine (translation: rut). While it’s important to recognize that monotonous downtimes are a normal and very much expected part of marriage, also know that it doesn’t need to last forever, or even a long time, for that matter. Go meta-communication here: talk about how you will talk about it when it happens!

Thank you so much, Amy, for your insight! For those interested in learning more, you can follow Amy + Spark Chicago Therapy on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.