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Sex after illness, loss and infidelity

By Iris Krasnow, Special to CNN
updated 11:15 AM EST, Wed February 12, 2014
Life changes such as illness, aging and infidelity can tax a couple's intimacy.
Life changes such as illness, aging and infidelity can tax a couple's intimacy.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Sex After" looks at the sex lives of women, from the honeymoon hots to steamy senior sex
  • Iris Krasnow's conversations with women set the stage for real and revealing topics
  • Through childbirth, injury and illness and finally death, women and their partners must adapt

Editor's note: Iris Krasnow's book "Sex After ... Women Share How Intimacy Changes as Life Changes" was recently released by Gotham Books. She is a professor at American University, where she teaches journalism and women's studies courses.

(CNN) -- During the past two years, I have been digging into the intimate relationships of 150 women, ages 20 through 90, for my new book, "Sex After ... Women Share How Intimacy Changes as Life Changes." I take readers from the honeymoon hots through tepid midlife to some surprisingly steamy senior sex.

Many of my subjects describe easy and sexy romances; others are pushing through emotional and physical roadblocks. Here are snapshots of some of those stories of tough love.

Postpartum blues

Between 10-15% of women suffer from postpartum depression that affects sexual desire and can cause serious rifts in a young marriage.

Texas psychologist Christine Hall's struggle through the blues after childbirth led her to create a specialty practice in treating clients with postpartum mood disorders. Hall's own depression was so severe that for a flash she considered taking her own life.

With the help of a supportive husband, therapy and anti-depressants, she fought her way back. Here is a snippet of our interview that appears in the "Sex After Baby" chapter:

I see in my practice that sex can really cause a lot of distance between the couple. The spouse is thinking, "All right, the OB said we could have sex after six weeks. Let's go to it, honey." And the new mom is telling me, "Oh my God, I can't do this yet. I am still fat and sad and I am not ready to have anyone close to me -- other than the baby!"

I tell them my own story, that there is hope -- I'm at a really good place now. You go from not feeling sexy at all and trying to get across to your partner, "Hey these are not your boobs right now' to feeling 'hey I'm ready, let's do it'.

Iris Krasnow
Iris Krasnow

'It's only a leg'

Richaela's husband, Derek, was deployed to Afghanistan three weeks after their wedding. She was 20, and he was 22.

Six months later, Derek stepped on an improvised explosive device and lost part of his right leg. To add to the bedlam of this tragedy, Richaela gave birth to their daughter, Madeline, early on in Derek's treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. After excruciating hard work to become intimate again, emotionally and physically, they are now enjoying "full-on sex," Richaela told me, and a very sturdy marriage.

Here is a portion of her story:

When this first happened to Derek, I just felt helpless, like I would never get my husband back. He was so depressed and angry, and he also had post traumatic stress disorder. I felt like leaving the marriage, and it was hard to become intimate again. He'd want to have sex, but with the pain in his leg, he couldn't bear weight.

Once we figured out how to finally do it, every time we'd finish with an orgasm, his leg would jolt with pain. It made me feel really bad because he would say "I want to have sex with you," but it would hurt him afterward.

Honestly, we don't have sex in long sessions any more like we used to because he just gets tired more quickly. I don't really mind. At least I have my husband! You come to realize that love in marriage comes from so many other things than what our bodies can do.

It's only a leg; I've seen far worse when we were at Walter Reed. There were many men with two and three limbs missing, plus genital injuries.

Sex after breast cancer

Five years ago, Sophia was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer at 37. She had her left breast removed and reconstructed, then endured months of chemotherapy and radiation that left her weak and bald and frightened that she would not live to see her two young kids enter kindergarten.

Tanned in a low-cut sundress, today Sophia is cancer-free, and she offers a hopeful message to the one in eight American women who will be struck with breast cancer in their lifetimes. Here is a swatch of our conversation:

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My husband was surprisingly turned on by my new look. It was like he got to sleep with another woman. Though I am not thrilled with the way my chest looks. I prefer to have sex with my shirt on now, because it makes me think less about how my breasts used to be.

Recovering from cancer, while the physical intimacy was good, I would often feel like I needed more emotional support from him. And I should have asked for it; this is a lesson I can pass on to other women in my situation. I created the problem really, because in my efforts to be strong in front of the kids and to just keep going forward, I let my husband assume I was invincible. And he was so turned on by how tough I was, this Warrior Woman, I didn't let myself be weak with him.

In retrospect, I should have told him the truth, that I was often tired. That I was scared the cancer would come back. That I was vulnerable and just needed him to hold me.

Let's talk about sex ... and cancer

The midlife itch

The 15-year mark in a marriage is a popular juncture for divorce and infidelity. Affairs that are outed can either wreck a marriage or open communication lines, as remorse leads to forgiveness and potentially a more honest union. Increasingly, though, I found in composing this book that many people who take on lovers do so in secret, so as not to rock the boat.

Pamela, 53, is a married mother of five who last year reconnected with the "soul mate who got away." They are now lovers, and she is determined to keep both men in her life. Here is part of her story in the "Sex After Infidelity" chapter:

This previous boyfriend was my first love and my greatest lover. And he still is. Yet I do not want to leave my husband and hurt him. My marriage is a good one.

I love both men, and I have chosen to keep both men. A secret life can be very sexually affirming if it stays a secret. If I went to a therapist, she would say "choose." I can't choose. I get the best of both worlds: I have the stability and security of my husband, an intact family for my children, and I have the passion that I want and need in my life.

Sex after widowhood

While researching "Sex After ...," I looked for older women whose husbands had died recently and had been their only lovers. Those wives who had nursed husbands through long illnesses were clearly grieving, yet they admitted to some relief. Patricia was married for 55 years in what she described as a "wonderful love affair." Her husband suffered from a chronic heart condition for most of those years and finally succumbed to leukemia.

At 80, she has found solace with an old friend her age who had also lost his wife. I love Patricia's story, a portion of which she tells below, and the hopeful stories like hers in the "Giddy Golden Girls" chapter that shatter myths of the little old lady as fragile and dried up.

I never thought I would ever want to get involved with another man. Our friend Steven would ask me out, and I would say, "I'm not ready." He was very romantic and persistent, though. He would send me long-stemmed white roses every two weeks. I finally went on a date with him on New Year's Eve. But I was still afraid to touch another man. At midnight, I wouldn't go near him.

Then about a year after my husband died, Steven asked me to go to Paris with him. I said, "OK, I guess it's time to try you out."

My husband was the only man I'd ever slept with, so being intimate with another man was very scary. Without giving you details, let me just say things are going well. I feel wonderful, like a teenager. The love, the making love -- it's so romantic it's almost electrifying.

After taking care of someone so ill for so many years, this is fantastic. Finding love in my 80s is like opening another world I never knew could exist. Not only do I have a golf partner and a life partner, but the sex part is very, very good. It is not "Fifty Shades of Grey," but it is definitely erotic and warm and beautiful.

Do you have a story about acclimating to sex after a major life change? Please share in the comments section, but keep it clean!

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