By Emily Cote
This post is a summary of our paper: Rosen, N. O., Bailey, K., & Muise, A. (2017). Degree and Direction of Sexual Desire Discrepancy are Linked to Sexual and Relationship Satisfaction in Couples Transitioning to Parenthood. The Journal of Sex Research, 1-12.
The transition to parenthood is a unique and often challenging time as couples attempt to balance their roles as parents and partners. Making time for a thriving sex life suddenly seems less important than catching up on sleep or feeding the baby. Even still, sexual partners find themselves concerned with when intimacy will resume and whether their partner feels the same level of desire they do. One particular research study found that both partners in the majority of heterosexual couples welcoming their first child were worried that the father was going to have higher sexual desire than the mother [1-3].
These are not unwarranted concerns – research tells us that new parents do experience declines in sexual desire in the postpartum period. This effect is especially prominent in mothers, although some research shows that fathers experience a decline in desire as well [4-8]. This data makes sense when you consider the physical toll birth can have on a mother’s body! However, both parents still have sexual needs and it can put pressure on an intimate relationship to have differences in sexual desire. The partner who experiences higher sexual desire may feel frustrated by always initiating sex or being rejected, while the partner who experiences lower sexual desire may feel pressure to perform sexually or guilty about rejecting sex . These differences can lead to a decrease in sexual satisfaction, but also a decrease in relationship satisfaction.
We already know a lot about differences in desire and what that might mean for a relationship, but the current available research doesn’t help us predict sexual or relationship satisfaction based on which partner is experiencing higher desire. As previously mentioned, couples typically expect the father to have higher sexual desire. What if the mother is the partner who is attempting to initiate sex? Will couples experience difficulties in their relationship because this difference in desire is not seen as “normal”?
What our research lab wanted to find out was (1) if a larger difference is sexual desire was associated with lower sexual and relationship satisfaction and (2) whether the question of which partner was experiencing higher sexual desire had an effect on sexual and relationship satisfaction.
What did we do?
Using an online survey with validated measures, we asked 255 couples questions about their sexual desire, sexual satisfaction, and relationship satisfaction.
What did we find?
- 70% of couples reported that the father experienced higher desire than the mother, but 25% of couples reported the mother experiencing higher desire than the father.
- Both mothers and fathers experienced lower sexual satisfaction when the difference in desire was larger, but their relationship satisfaction remained about the same.
- Fathers experienced greater sexual and relationship satisfaction when they had higher sexual desire.
- Mothers experienced greater relationship satisfaction when the father had higher sexual desire, but this desire difference was not associated with the mothers’ sexual satisfaction.
- Both partners were more satisfied with their sexual and romantic relationship when they had similar and high levels of desire, as opposed to similar but low levels of desire.
What does this mean?
To put it simply, finding out which partner has higher desire does have implications for the sexual and relationship satisfaction of the couple, as does the degree of difference in sexual desire.
Couples should be aware that this is a possibility for them when they are becoming first time parents. Many partners anticipate a return to pre-pregnancy levels of desire, but this is rarely the case. This study helps to contribute to the normalization of desire differences and helps couples to understand they are not alone in their sexual struggles postpartum. Instead, they can look to consult health care professionals and start a conversation about what they can do to overcome these issues. It may be better for their sexual and romantic relationship in the long run!
 Olsson, A., Lundqvist, M., Faxelid, E., & Nissen, E. (2005). Women’s thoughts about sexual life after childbirth: Focus group discussions with women after childbirth. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Science, 19, 381–387. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6712.2005.00357.x
 Pastore, L., Owens, A., & Raymond, C. (2007). Postpartum sexuality concerns among first-time parents from one U.S. academic hospital. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 4, 115–123. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2006.00379.x
 Schlagintweit, H., Bailey, K., & Rosen, N. O. (2016). A new baby in the bedroom: Frequency and severity of postpartum sexual concerns and their associations with relationship satisfaction in new parent couples. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 13, 1455–1465. doi:10.1016/j. jsxm.2016.08.006
 De Judicibus, M., & McCabe, M. (2002). Psychological factors and the sexuality of pregnant and postpartum women. Journal of Sex Research, 39, 94–103. doi:10.1080/00224490209552128
 Gordon, I. B., & Carty, E. (1978). Sexual adjustment of postpartum couples. Canadian Family Physician, 24, 1191–1198
 Serati, M., Salvatore, S., Siesto, G., Cattoni, E., Zanirato, M., Khullar, V., … Bolis, P. (2010). Female sexual function during pregnancy and after childbirth. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7, 2782–2790. doi:10.1111/ j.1743-6109.2010.01893.x
 von Sydow, K. (1999). Sexuality during pregnancy and after childbirth: A metacontent analysis of 59 studies. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 47, 27–49. doi:10.1016/S0022-3999(98)00106-8
 Condon, J. T., Boyce, P., & Corkindale, C. J. (2004). The First-Time Fathers Study: A prospective study of the mental health and wellbeing of men during the transition to parenthood. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 38, 56–64. doi:10.1111/anp.2004.38. issue-1-2
 Sutherland, S. E., Rehman, U. S., Fallis, E., & Goodnight, J. A. (2015). Understanding the phenomenon of sexual desire discrepancy in couples. Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 24, 141–150. doi:10.3138/cjhs.242.A3