A Dad's Guide to Painful Sex
By Allison Danish, MPH
Being a new parent is tough. While it’s a time of wonder and excitement as you get to know this new, small person—it can come with some challenges (hello bodily fluids, goodbye sleep). And while we as a society don’t like to talk about it much, one of those challenges might be painful sex.
New postpartum realities like a healing body, hormonal and libido changes, and feeling too exhausted and “touched out” to even consider getting jiggy with it can be difficult to navigate—and our society often places these concerns solely on the shoulders of the birthing partner to deal with. Naturally, that leaves partners and dads today at a bit of a loss—without an existing script for how to support the birthing partner, it’s hard to know what to do. So we talked to licensed professional counselor, Heather Davidson Ed.M., M.A., LPC, & CST, to understand how dads and non-birthing partners can help.
The top 5 things to do to support your partner if they’re experiencing painful postpartum sex
1. Go in with the assumption that sex will probably be uncomfortable at first
Not to be a downer, but it’s reeeeeeally common for postpartum people to experience pain with penetrative sex. It’s generally recommended to expect it to be uncomfortable, and either a) be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t hurt or b) be prepared if it doesn’t feel so great.
Davidson says, “In terms of what the research demonstrates, 85.7% of people reported pain during their first attempt at penetrative sex after having a baby. Another study found that 41% of people reported painful sex at three months postpartum, and 22% at six months postpartum.”
This even applies when someone’s had a c-section. Davidson explains, “Some dads might also mistakenly think that if their partner had a C-section delivery, painful sex will not be a concern. However, people who have had C-section deliveries are more likely to experience painful sex six months postpartum compared to people who had a vaginal delivery.”
Luckily, painful sex isn’t your new forever reality—it does get better. But it’s important to note that the first time is uncomfortable for almost everybody who’s given birth, and a really high percentage of people are still experiencing pain months after. Acknowledging this can be a really helpful way to tell your partner you understand and you’re there for them.
Davidson says it’s best to “simply ask what [your partner] is experiencing” and to “normalize the experience if they’re having some pain.”
2. Don’t put pressure on having penetrative sex
It’s understandable that you want to connect sexually with your partner—that’s probably how the baby happened in the first place! But as we discussed above, that might be a painful or unwanted experience for your partner right now. But good news! There are tons of other ways to feel intimate post-baby.
Davidson recommends you “find other sensual or sexual ways to connect with your partner (if you both desire to do so). This could look like giving each other a massage, taking a bath together, or cuddling and then passing out while baby is down for a nap.”
Figure out what kinds of connection are welcome by communicating to your partner “that although you would like to connect sexually again, you understand that it is normal for this to take much longer than six weeks (more like six months…or longer),” Davidson advises. “Ask them about other ways they would like to connect, either emotionally or physically. Also ask if they need space! Some new birthing parents feel touched out and need alone time when no one is making demands of their body.”
3. Encourage your partner to seek out medical care
As Davidson says, “One of the best things dads can do to support their partner who may be having pain with sex is to encourage them to get an evaluation from a pelvic floor physical therapist. Some [birthing parents] will eagerly make the appointment with a pelvic floor physical therapist, while others are so overwhelmed that their own self-care is not on their radar.”
Screenings for pelvic floor dysfunction are provided in many countries similar to the U.S.—for instance, France provides 10 free visits. As Davidson says, “Don’t go along with the failures of our healthcare system which neglect women [and people with vaginas]. Please get your partner to a pelvic floor physical therapist if they are complaining of pelvic pain or pain with sex.”
But wait—there’s more! Your partner also needs to be able to take the time to go to the appointment without having to worry about childcare or other pressing matters in the home. Again—this is where you come in! This is an excellent opportunity for you to step up and be a really great, supportive partner. Davidson recommends telling “your partner that you can either take over the childcare, or find someone who can, for them to have time to make appointments.”
Davidson also says, “this is an opportune time to check in about the division of household labor and identify places where you can [take on a bit more], so your partner has more time for self-care, which includes taking care of their health. If you have the resources to outsource help at home, it is worth doing.”
4. Be a supportive partner and parent
Sex is complicated! If you’re looking to connect sexually with your partner (and are just generally looking to be a good support person), a great place to start is helping to alleviate your partner’s stress.
Davidson says, “Being physically ready to have sex does not mean your partner is emotionally ready to have sex. Lack of sleep, body image issues, not feeling connected to you as a romantic partner all influence emotional readiness for sex.”
When it comes to sex, context matters. A lot. That means, for example, it’s harder to feel open to sexual experiences when there’s a crying baby, sore nipples, unwashed hair, or a feeling of general exhaustion. Conversely, it’s easier to feel a little funky in the junky if you’re well-rested, the house is in order, and you feel like a person outside of being a parent to a tiny human.
Davidson recommends focusing “on being a supportive partner (this could mean [doing more of the] household chores, making sure your partner is getting enough sleep, encouraging your partner to go out and do something without the baby, etc.). If your emotional connection remains strong during this difficult period, it will be easier to transition back to sexual activity once they’re ready.”
Sometimes it can be hard to figure out how to best support your partner. “Many new parents may not know what they need in terms of support or how to ask for this support,” Davidson says. This is where the next suggestion could be really helpful.
5. Seek out counseling
This might seem a bit outta left field—but it’s an important one. This is big and life changing for you too. And not only is your life and your partner’s life different now—your relationship has shifted as well. This can be a beautiful opportunity for growth, but it’s not without its growing pains.
Davidson says, “The additional stress of a newborn will magnify already existing problems in the relationship. Given this, I hear a lot of new parents struggling with how to manage areas of conflict in the relationship that once were easier to navigate (chronic lack of sleep will make any relationship conflict worse).”
“After a few weeks of sleep deprivation and fighting, some dads worry about whether the relationship will get back to ‘normal,’” Davidson explains. “The relationship will never return to what it looked like pre-baby, however couples can still have healthy and happy relationships. It’s normal to panic, even freak out about this new reality. However, while yearning for a childfree past might be normal, it’s not helpful to dump or vent about this to your partner, who is also having their own difficulties adjusting to this new role. If you’re struggling with your new role as a dad, one of the best things you can do for your partner is to seek your own counseling.”
Unfortunately, our society doesn’t do a great job preparing new parents for what is and isn’t normal after baby arrives, which can create a lot of stress and misunderstanding. But while things have changed a lot, it’s important to remember you and your partner are a team, and your partner potentially not wanting to have sex isn’t personal.
Davidson says, “After a few months of perceived rejection, many new dads can become frustrated or depressed about the lack of sexual connection. You must be patient—it does take months…sometimes a full year, for birthing parents to get to a place physically and emotionally where they are able and wanting to have regular sexual contact again.”
Wanting to better support your partner and reading this article are great first steps—so give yourself a little pat on the back and let us know if there are any other ways you like to help your partner!