A new Canadian study that explores the sex lives of first-time parents has produced a surprising finding that could serve as a caution to well-meaning fathers.
The one-time survey of 255 first-time parents with infants, published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, found that new mothers reported lower sexual desire when their partner expressed more empathy — a finding that turns conventional wisdom on its head.
"We had results that are all in line with empathy being good for both people, and then we have this one little finding that wasn't consistent," said the study's lead author, Halifax-based psychologist Natalie Rosen. "I would like to replicate this in other studies before drawing grand conclusions."
'OK with less sex'
Rosen speculated that some fathers are perhaps so intent on helping their wives deal with the challenges of parenthood that they assume avoiding sex is the best policy.
"They might be saying they're OK with less sex," said Rosen, a professor with the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Dalhousie University.
"They might be saying, 'I'm just going to kind of back off no matter what sexual needs I might have.' That might actually lower the desire that the woman has."
Rosen, who also works as a sex therapist, said she sees this pattern when counselling those coping with sexual dysfunctions.
"Partners think they're being really understanding and supportive, but they're actually just reinforcing and encouraging avoidance ... It comes across as very supportive and both people think it's a good thing, but it reinforces ... that sex is not that important."
More research needed
Rosen stressed that her speculation could be shot down by further research, so she offered another possible explanation.
She said it might be a mistake to assume that the fathers' increased empathy caused reduced sexual desire in their partners, when the causal link might be the other way around. In other words, the new mothers who reported reduced sexual desire may in fact be causing their partners to express more empathy.
It's also important to note that the women who said their partners were showing increased empathy did not report lower levels of sexual satisfaction, even though their sexual desire had diminished.
"You can be sexually satisfied and having no sex," said Rosen.
However, the study mainly found that women and men who expressed more empathy toward their partners showed higher levels of both sexual satisfaction and successful relationship adjustments after a baby arrives, as researchers had predicted.
As well, the researchers looked at something called dyadic empathy, which refers to the subjects' self-reported feelings of empathy toward their romantic partners. Again, women and men with more empathic partners reported higher sexual satisfaction and relationship adjustment.
"We have a tendency to focus on what goes wrong and what the challenges are, but we don't give people a lot of information about what they can do to make things better," Rosen said in an interview.
"We need to have messages out there about things couples can do to promote their well-being during the transition to parenthood ... This study tells people a little bit about what they can do. Trying to see things from your partner's perspective — that's something that people can hold on to, especially for new fathers."
Let's talk about sex, baby
Communication is the key, she said. However, conversations about sex are often difficult for couples, as many studies have shown.
New fathers should be understanding of their partner's changing needs, but that doesn't mean avoiding talk about sex.
Rosen, who works at the Couples and Sexual Health Research Laboratory, also co-authored a recent study that found the severity of sexual concerns among 239 first-time parents was "highly prevalent and moderately distressing."
"New parents reported concerns about when to reinstate sexual intercourse after childbirth, pain during intercourse, the impact of body image on sexual activity, and discrepancies in sexual desire between members of the couple," the study says.
When the parents were presented with a 20-item list of possible sexual concerns, which they ranked on a scale, as many as 89 per cent of new mothers and 82 per cent of new fathers cited at least one concern, and about half of all parents experienced multiple concerns.