Thoughts on Fatherhood
Recent research is uncovering important neurological and hormonal changes as men become parents. The marked drop in male testosterone and change in neurological activity illustrates this point. Interestingly, the male changes tend to happen over the first two years of the child’s life when in the brains of women, the nurturing aspect is very active. In men the nurturing is present but slightly less pronounced - but the planning for the future, the scaffolding for the child going forward longer term, seems to be much more active.
The issues raised in this article apply every bit as much to same sex couples as to heterosexual couples, and in essence, when talking about ‘male’ I am talking about the ‘male style’ of parenting which means it’s more typical of males rather than fundamentally male. Equally, a child seems to flourish with a female and male style of parenting that is referred to in this article - not that only men or women can provide either style. Dad doesn’t equal genes, dad equals roles.
If we imagine a typical playground scene, a woman might prevent a child from having accidents, whereas the male is more distant in proximity and might allow the child to make mistakes and even have small accidents. Sometimes women can feel that men are indifferent, careless, or even lazy as fathers, and yet it seems this style of relationship has an important place in the child’s growth. Rather than criticising, we could celebrate this difference and recognise that both styles offer an important contribution to the child’s development.
Similarly, men tend to play more roughly with children and are typically favoured by children as play partners. This active type of parenting promotes language, working memory, inhibitory control, attention, executive function and general stimulation and development. This also contributes to good mental health and self esteem, whilst the absence of male-style parenting is associated with various mental health issues, including loneliness and depression.
Interestingly, we are now recognising that men often experience post-natal depression (PND). Unlike women, their depression tends to be characterised by high levels of anxiety.
For men out there who are finding fatherhood (or the prospect of it) challenging, don’t hesitate to reach out for therapeutic support.
Ref: Machin, A (2018) The Life of Dad: The Making of the Modern Father, Simon & Schuster Ltd
Protecting your mental health in these uncertain times
We suddenly find ourselves in a global crisis, with many changes happening quickly to our daily lives that are out of our control. At this time it is a good idea to take stock of how this is impacting you, your family, and your mental health. Although this is a challenging time for everyone, there are things we can do to protect yourself and help others.
Working from home
With strict social distancing measures in place, lots of people are now working remotely and noticing that the boundaries between work and home have to be re-established in a creative way.
Normally, when we are traveling to/from work, we have some space and time to think and de-compress. Now we are more likely going straight from one thing to another, such as talking with our partner or playing with our children, and there is no ‘buffer zone’ to re-charge ourselves.
Marking the end of work/beginning of play can be beneficial in these circumstances and you might find it useful to take your daily exercise outside at a strategic time to help ‘change gear.'
Whether we have mental health struggles or not, many of us are probably experiencing a whole range of thoughts and feelings, such a loneliness or heightened anxiety. The things that usually help us manage our mental health may be getting cancelled - fun and social things are being taken away and progress can be stymied. It’s therefore important to have a plan in place to help us stay on track.
All of us benefit from a degree of structure and organisation and this is a time when we need to take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing. Perhaps you could create a daily programme (for example; exercise at 8am, start work at 9am, tea break at 10:30am, etc) or try some mindfulness meditations to help you stay calm and connected with yourself. Practising these daily rituals can help us to feel more safe, secure and grounded.
This period of isolation is also an opportunity to invest in our relationships and do nice things together, such as watching a movie, playing a game or going for a walk. It’s a good idea to plan these in advance and put boundaries around them so that other tasks don’t encroach on them.
Try to include things you both like and be creative. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of squandering the extra time you have through mindless activities such as social media scrolling, so try to plan time away from screens and make the most of it!
If you are separated from elderly and vulnerable family members or your children (in case of separation/divorce), it’s important to keep in touch regularly and for this to be quality time. For example, you may choose a specific day and time to video chat and agree that other distractions will be put on hold so that you can really engage with each other. This is particularly valuable for those living alone.
Keeping up with the latest news, being online and using social media can be equally helpful or unhelpful when anxiety levels are high. It may be a good idea to notice how you feel when you are doing these things - if it’s making you anxious or worried, then it’s worth evaluating how much online content you consume and whether it’s wise to set healthier limits.
It is good to be reminded that we are not alone through this experience and each person is facing their own unique challenges and circumstances. Verbally processing with others can be a lifeline during isolation and you’d be surprised how much better you can feel just by talking things through, particularly if you struggle with mental health issues. Calling a friend or family member for support is absolutely invaluable. Alternatively, you may find it beneficial to reach out for professional support.
2020 - Beyond New Year Resolutions
How are your New Year’s resolutions going? Maybe they’re going really well, or perhaps they’ve fallen by the wayside. We often use the beginning of a new year to motivate us to make a change in our lives and even if we don’t always manage to follow them through, it at least provides us with an opportunity to re-evaluate what’s really important to us.
It might be interesting to identify a few significant relationships around you and consider where they are at the moment and where you’d like them to be in 2021. We are often reactive to relationships and it might be helpful to decide to be more proactive.
We might decide, for example, that we’re a little bit distant from our partner at the moment, and would like to become closer. This could well be achieved by a combination of activities, such as working on empathy and spending more quality time together. One way to grow in our capacity to empathise is that we could simply mark our diary on a particular day and when we get home on that day, spend half an hour parking our own content and exploring how things are going for our partner in a rather more focused way. And to have more quality time together you might book in a quarterly weekend away, or a regular evening to do something nice together that you can both look forward to.
Your relationships with your children may be another area where you’d like to invest. Perhaps you’re struggling to connect with one of your children, or you’re encountering age-related issues (I have a 13-year-old, I’m an expert in this!). Identifying a project that you can do together is a great start to enhancing the relationship. It could be anything - gardening, cooking, cinema - something you do regularly with them, come what may.
Most of us have family members who we are fond of but we don’t always give the relationship the effort it deserves. I was struck by the story of a young man whose uncle died. His grandparents were grieving and quite depressed. The young man contacted several charities and one got back to him - they offered group therapy for grieving parents. He took his grandparents to their first meeting and they came out visibly lighter, reporting that it was a positive experience.
Friendships are so important to our health and wellbeing and it’s worth making an effort to maintain the connection. One might include texting them with something you value about them, or suggesting a way of meeting up. If you have a friend that you have a running difficulty with, you might arrange quality time together to explore the relationship and to discuss any issues. If you find yourself lacking in genuine friendships, perhaps it’s a good time to join a group, class or club where you are likely to find others who share your interests.
Finally, our relationships with our work colleagues can sometimes be neglected, even though we spend a big chunk of our week with them. Maybe you could have a coffee with somebody who you’d like to get to know more, or spend a bit more time appreciating the qualities and achievements of someone who reports to you. There may also be people in a different team who you’d benefit having a better relationship with. Don’t be afraid to reach out and make the first move!
Investing in our relationships is one of the best things we can do for our own wellbeing, as well as for others. They protect our bodies and minds and improve the quality of our lives in a way that money and possessions can’t.
You could make 2020 the year of enhanced relationships.
Christmas - thriving, not surviving!
The festive season can be a very special time when life is celebrated and time spent together with family feels special and enjoyable. It’s an opportunity to show each other generosity, warmth and affection and it can foster a sense of belonging and safety through traditions, happy memories and shared experiences.
But with elements such as tiredness, alcohol, in-laws and excited children, Christmas can feel like the perfect storm! It’s a danger zone for conflict and it can be a time when relationships are tried and tested. The idea that the Christmas season is supposed to be full of joy and happy families can also bring with it an enormous pressure and expectation. Issues and resentments may come to the surface and feelings of grief, hurt and disappointments can take us by surprise.
For couples, this time of year can present particular challenges, such as choosing who to spend Christmas Day with, or which traditions to follow. There are financial pressures to navigate too, and extra demands on time and resources. Balancing the needs and wishes of your friends and family members can feel overwhelming and leave little room for time together as a couple.
There are a few things that can be done to ease the burden and make the most of this busy season.
A whole mixture of tensions and pressures at this time of year means that people can overstretch themselves (women are particularly susceptible to this) and it can result in the person feeling too exhausted to really enjoy what is going on. Discuss with your partner what needs to be done and prioritise; talk about who can do what and how you can share the pressure in an equitable way. Grandparents will be delighted to provide dessert, for example! There is no need to try and do everything for everyone. Equally, as your children get older, they will enjoy helping out with smaller jobs such as wrapping presents for other people.
Couples often feel they have to give people a certain amount of time, but it’s good to be firm with people about the time you need for yourselves. Try to hold healthy boundaries around what you feel you can handle and what you think might be too much. Be kind but honest and firm with those placing demands on you and remember that you and your partner are allowed to make your own decisions. “We’d love to see you on this day” rather than having family round for a week, for example. This requires assertiveness and support from your partner.
In addition, try to carve out some time for you and your partner to re-connect. Go for a walk (fresh air can go a long way in helping you feel re-energised and lifted), play a game - even doing the dishes together whilst others are snoozing on the sofa or watching a film can give you a chance to talk about the day and simply enjoy each other’s company.
Christmas traditions are often very special, and early on in marriage or family life there will be expectations carried forward from each person’s family history about how these traditions will be played out. One partner can often feel disappointed that they are getting the other’s version of Christmas rather than their own. But this is an opportunity create new traditions that work for you, your partner and children. Ask each other what would feel special and establish traditions that are unique!
Make it a priority to regularly check in with your partner about how they’re doing; are they feeling stressed, overwhelmed, excited, sad? Give each other the opportunity to express whatever you’re feeling without judgment. Acknowledging that this time may be stressful or difficult for both of you and talking it over, even briefly, can go far in helping you to remember that you’re on the same team.
A common problem is one partner reporting that the other doesn’t have their back with the in-laws. They feel that their mother-in-law is taken as seriously as they are, for example, such as in relation to how children are being raised. In a healthy relationship each partner will have the other’s back.
The best thing you can do for your partner is to respect your own needs and know when it’s time to draw a line - whether it’s about staying up late, an interaction with a tricky family member, consuming alcohol, or doing too much - you are the person who is best placed to sense when you need a break. Listen to that voice within you and honour it.
Life is not perfect, people aren’t perfect, and families aren’t perfect! It’s easy to spiral into feeling inadequate, anxious or overwhelmed about things. Letting go of the expectation that everything must be perfectly happy is one way to bring balance. Try to stay in the present moment and enjoy the good bits!
At the end of the Christmas season, when we’re easing our way into the New Year, we can sometimes find ourselves feeling depressed, bereft, anxious or angry. This may stem from an encounter with a difficult family dynamic or issues with your partner that have left you feeling hurt and confused. It is these times that, with the help and support of a therapist, can offer us an opportunity for new growth and healing.
As with any life transition, becoming parents can create challenges for a couple’s sex life that have not been navigated before as they juggle new commitments and discover who they are in their new role as mum or dad. Couples can find themselves to be unprepared for the toll that parenthood can take on their sex life, and with a new little person taking up the majority of their attention and energy, intimacy can be difficult to nurture.
When a couple become parents, the fundamental dynamics of the relationship change. For example, a husband might feel he is replaced as the centre of his partner’s universe, regardless of how stable generally he may be. It’s very common for men to feel a little bit pushed out because of the unique bond between mother and child. Dynamics change as priorities change; all of a sudden the baby becomes a core priority and it’s so easy for things like intimacy and quality time for the couple to get shoved down due to high demand on resources.
It’s natural for a couple’s lovemaking to decline in the first few months of parenthood, but generally the hope and expectation is that a healthy sex life can be resumed as the couple learn to adapt and thrive as a family.
Tiredness is probably the biggest and most common barrier to having sex, as well as a lack of time, energy and privacy and some more complex issues such as low self esteem, low libido and anxiety/depression.
The key, of course, to maintaining a healthy relationship and sex life is communication. It’s important to talk to each other about expectations, desires and goals. Being honest about how you are feeling and clear about what you want, such as “I’m not ready to have sex but I’d really like a cuddle,” sets a helpful parameter and helps avoid disappointment and resentment. Having these conversations away from the bedroom to relieve the pressure that something will happen there and then can also be worthwhile.
Sexual intimacy won’t improve unless there is a sense of both partners feeling heard, understood and appreciated, so spending time together to strengthen the relationship is vital. Asking friends and family for support can help facilitate quality time as a couple. Stay flexible, but try to make it a priority and plan ahead.
Small gestures will also go a long way to strengthen the emotional connection between partners, such as a word of encouragement or praise.
Sometimes resentments and unhealthy habits can be deeply ingrained and require some extra help to find ways to resolve them, but it’s never too late to put sex back on the agenda.
Pornography and its Effect on Relationships
A recent survey by relationship charity Relate found that half (47%) of relationship counsellors and sex therapists have seen an increase in relationship problems linked to pornography. Porn has become so readily available that its consumption is on the rise, and because of its addictive nature it has a tendency to escalate. In addition, the gap is narrowing between the number of men vs the number of women who watch porn.
The evidence that porn can harm relationships is overwhelming. Studies show that porn addiction directly relates to problems with sexual satisfaction in a relationship, libido, erectile dysfunction and arousal. Porn can communicate several unhelpful messages about sex and men/women; for example, the message that sex is almost entirely about getting physical pleasure without regard for the emotional and relationship aspect of sex and intimacy, or that women are largely portrayed as objects for men’s pleasure.
Pornography is also having a profound effect on younger people who are exposed to it online from an alarmingly early age. This colours their view of what is considered to be ‘normal’ in a relationship and significantly shapes their ideas around consent, expectations and performance. Sexual fantasies are heavily influenced by porn and this too can create undue pressure on relationships. Porn addiction will almost certainly limit a person’s potential to develop intimacy skills and form lasting relationships.
It is often the case that couples ignore sexual problems and turn to the ‘quick fix’ of porn to meet their needs, rather than working on their relationship and sex life together. Then there is a felt sense of betrayal and confusion when one partner discovers that the other has been looking at pornography. It can make them feel like they aren’t “enough” and that they must be undesirable or unattractive.
We need to understand the damaging effects of pornography and to educate ourselves and our children about the negative impact it can have on relationships.
I find in my clinic more and more people coming to deal with their porn addiction and get help forming relationships or support in repairing the damage that it has done to existing relationships. It is possible to quit porn and replace it with healthy habits that will enable relationships to grow and flourish.
How to Talk to Your Partner About Sex and What a Discussion About Sex Might Look Like in Therapy
These are some of the key areas that couples have trouble communicating about:
One of the things that astonishes me is just how difficult highly intelligent couples have thought they are about talking about sex in a meaningful way. Those people will bring their own sexual scripts to the marriage and couples seldom talk about these. The many may carry a script such as “I’m only aroused when I have an erection” and the female may carry a script of “my partner will initiate sex more A. Because it shows he desires me and B. Because its of questionable femininity to initiate sex.” These scripts are from parents so they may not be contemporary ideas.
If the man starts to develop erectile dysfunction or lose spontaneous erections he may well stop initiating sex. She may well conclude that he doesn’t desire her and so sex stops happening at a time when they both need reassurance and emotional/physical intimacy.
I’ve yet to meet a couple where they seem to have explored their scripts/their view of how sex ‘ought to be.’
Women in particular often carry a script “he’d know what I like if he really loved me.” And so if her partner touches her in a way she doesn’t enjoy she will interpret that as a lack of care as opposed to a lack of awareness. She may come out with a phrase like “oh don’t do that, I don’t like it” which will de-skill her partner.
After discussion in therapy taking an approach such as “I really like it when you touch me like this” is much more productive. In short she’s educating him as to what she likes in a positive way.
Dynamic nature of sex
If she says “I don’t like oral sex” he will assume that’s true forever whereas actually it might be in the early stages of the relationship that she lacks confidence, or she might say it on a day where she doesn’t feel she has showered enough. In other words, it can be a comment ‘in the moment.’ The reality that what we do and don’t like changes from day to day and from life phase to life phase. It’s really up to couple to keep each other updated.
Example: people feel it becomes mundane and predictable and they solider on with it forever rather than “I wonder if we could make it more interesting or experimental.” They are afraid to say it because they feel like it’s a criticism of a partner or of themselves.
There are areas which are very difficult in terms of communication, such as male use of porn. For some reason female use of porn is not viewed as quite the same way. But the man doesn’t want to talk about it because he feels ashamed or disgraced. And also it’s a very a-relational habit but the woman interprets it very personally and it undermines self esteem, sense of attractiveness, etc. It’s such a contentious issue that it may be best sorted out in therapy where both can come to a better understanding of the behaviour.
If a man has erectile dysfunction he will often stop being sexual because if he can’t have penetrative sex, it’s not “proper sex” whereas a couple can have a very rich sex life without penetration being essential and indeed erections are much more likely to recover within a rich sexual context.
Tips for Sexual Wellbeing
It always fascinates me how many people that are good at communicating about all other facets of life manage to miss each other around sexual issues. It is an area where people often have a naive belief that the other person is a mind reader, so they may say something vague but expect their partner to understand the specifics. Similarly, assumptions are often made about doing something ‘wrong’, rather than appreciating that there may have been a failure of communication.
It is truer of this area than any other that communication needs to be put in an encouraging and palatable way. For example, 'you’re too rough when you touch me' might cause the person to feel inadequate, whereas a gentler approach such as 'I like it when you touch me like this' is encouraging, positive and will produce a much better result. This kind of communication not only puts the person in charge and empowered to educate their partner but at the same time the partner feels safe because they are in a position where they can get it right.
Each couple will have their own set of communication mishaps and having a third party to pick them up and help to resolve them is useful.
Take the pressure off
People often focus on a particular facet of physical intimacy, for example, if a man has erectile dysfunction he will go into the whole process anxiously, wondering if things will work. Then, by concentrating on the thing that isn’t working, all of the good stuff - the other 95% of love making - is neglected in the process. A much better focus would be to emphasise affection, tenderness, and all the good aspects of love making by relaxing and putting the issues that are not working on the back burner for a little while. If low libido is an issue, don’t try and force yourself to be sexual but do a bit of an audit on why it might be low (tiredness, health, stress, work/life balance). It may be better to settle for affection rather than sexual contact for a little while. If you’re anxious, you’re likely to avoid affection because you don’t want it to become sexual, but if you have good boundaries in place you will be able to preserve the affectionate contact.
Don’t believe the myths
We often absorb attitudes that limit our capacity to optimise our physical intimacy with our partner. A woman may internalise a myth such as 'it’s not feminine to initiate sex' and yet sharing initiation is a crucial part of letting each other know that you are important to each other and are desired. Men may carry a myth that he is only aroused when he has an erection and will avoid initiating sex if he’s having erectile difficulty at a time when his partner may need reassurance that she is still desirable. These kinds of myths can serve as barriers to an enjoyable and fulfilling sex life so it is important to allow these attitudes and beliefs to be challenged.
Many people carry a view that these types of issues need to be resolved privately and yet an external perspective can be extremely helpful. For example, a women who suffers from vaginismus (painful intercourse) will often feel very isolated but as soon as she is able to talk to someone and realise it is a common condition it makes it much more treatable.
Lifecentre are a specialist organisation based in West Sussex that supports survivors of rape and sexual trauma and/or abuse. As a psychosexual therapist, the valuable work of Lifecentre frees me to focus on a client’s adult sexual relationship issues that they are contending with today.
To visit the Lifecentre website, click here.
For helpful information and resources you may need if you are a survivor of sexual abuse or rape, or if you are supporting or working with a survivor, click here.