Long term relationships

How to Navigate ‘Duty Sex’ While Trying to Get Pregnant

Published: APRIL 2, 2024 | Updated: APRIL 12, 2024
When you're trying to conceive, sex can end up feeling like a chore instead of a joy. But there are ways to keep the spark alive.

Prior to trying to conceive, many of us spend a large part of our lives trying to prevent pregnancy at all costs, believing that one slip-up could lead to instant parenthood. Though it’s true that one missed pill or ripped condom could take you from carefree to prospective parent in one night, the road to parenthood isn't always that simple.


What is duty sex?

Trying to conceive can be a very challenging process for some folks for lots of different reasons. The biological clock is the most known factor that can affect fertility, as the amount of eggs and their quality decrease over time.

For people in their early to mid-30s who have a uterus, there’s a 25%–30% chance of getting pregnant each month, declining to around 5% for those in their 40s. For people with chronic reproductive illnesses like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, abnormal cycles, or a number of other disorders, there are often many other challenges when trying to conceive.

On top of all that, there are only a limited number of days per month that you can become pregnant. Even people who aren’t dealing with circumstances that make conception harder only have a 5-6 day fertile window each month. This means that there is a lot of stress to get pregnant during this window, and then the dreaded two-week wait to find out if you've become pregnant.


When pregnancy doesn't miraculously happen in the first couple of months, many of us turn to products and apps to help us figure out exactly when we’re ovulating, which days of our cycles are best for baby-making, and when we need to pee on a stick to see if all our efforts bore fruit.

When you're stuck, knee-deep in the fertility trenches, spending your days plotting out your fertile days, peeing on ovulation predictor kits, scheduling sex during your fertility window, or even visiting countless doctors for medication or procedures to help the process along, having sex can become more like a high school science project than a pleasure-filled experience shared between you and your partner.

For those entrenched in the ups and downs of trying to conceive, sex can start to feel like a chore, or what some people call duty sex.


Read More: In Defense of Scheduling Sex

Why do fertility and conception struggles affect relationships?

Struggling with fertility can put a huge strain on both partners and also the relationship, particularly as the months go by with no positive test.

As Jenn Parretta, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy Associate and Certified Sexologist, states, “The disappointment that follows seeing a negative pregnancy test isn't easy, and it becomes more and more challenging as the months go on without a positive test.”

These struggles may initially affect the sexual relationship in the form of "Pressure to perform sexually according to ovulation cycles, which can strip away the spontaneity and emotional intimacy that make sexual experiences fulfilling,” according to Holly Wood, PhD(c), Sexologist at Bedbible.com.


"The emotional burden of infertility can also lead to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and decreased self-esteem, further impacting the sexual relationship," she adds.

And, as months stretch into years without the illusive double lines on the pregnancy test, the constant stress and disappointment may weave their way into other aspects of the relationship.

As Rachel Goldberg, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist at Rachel Goldberg Therapy, explains, if a couple is trying to conceive for a long time, each intimate moment may become increasingly fraught, carrying a heavier emotional weight. The person trying to get pregnant can often feel like a failure, while their partner can often feel like they aren't able to adequately support them through this tough time.


For couples who turn to fertility treatments, there’s the added stress of frequent doctor visits and the clinical nature of the process. Then there’s the financial strain it can put on families. Goldberg states that fertility treatments, like in vitro fertilization (IVF), can be particularly hard on couples.

“[IVF] involves handing over an experience, once full of joy and personal connection in the pursuit of family expansion, to medical professionals like doctors, nurses, and care coordinators."

Pregnancy loss, which is common for couples who struggle to conceive, can cause further strain on the relationship. The grief and loss of hope caused by a miscarriage or failed fertility treatments can deepen emotional wounds and create distance between some partners. The shared dreams of parenthood may feel shattered, leading to feelings of isolation and despair, and the fear of experiencing another loss can create anxiety and reluctance to try to conceive again. This can become its own challenge for the couple, especially if one partner is eager to try again when the other isn’t.


How to navigate duty sex and relationship struggles when trying to conceive

Maintaining your relationship and a healthy, pleasurable sex life while struggling to conceive can feel pretty damn awful and sometimes insurmountable. But Heather Tahler, a clinical health psychologist with specialty experience in maternal and women's mental health, stresses that this feeling is “extremely common,” so there is no need to feel shame if this is happening to you.

What to do if you’re feeling all the feelings?

As with many sexual and intimacy challenges, open, honest communication between couples can significantly reduce the amount of stress each partner is feeling, as a lack of communication can lead to irritability, isolation, and resentment. But this is often easier said than done,

As Parretta points out, "Many couples already struggle to communicate their sexual needs, wants, and desires, so infertility can exacerbate this difficulty."

If you feel like this is you, you’ll likely benefit from speaking to a mental health professional. Tahler stresses that therapy can be great for those struggling to conceive as it allows you to develop the skills needed to handle these complex emotions and serves as a space where you and your partner can discuss feelings that may be difficult to talk about outside of therapy.

Read More: What Happens in Sex Therapy - From A Real Sex Therapist

What to do if you’re stuck in a duty sex rut?

If you and your partner are in that space where you’re both approaching sex like it’s something you have to do rather than something you want to do, there are a few things you can try to make things more pleasurable.

First, it's important for both of you to acknowledge that trying to conceive is making sex feel like a chore. Wood states that this is super important since not addressing the issue can lead to avoiding sex altogether, which further complicates the goal of trying to conceive.

Once this has been acknowledged, you and your partner can work out some ways to help make sex less of a chore. Woods suggests having sex outside of your ovulation window to take the pressure of conception out of the equation so you can focus on pleasure instead. Introducing new toys or exploring each other's turn-ons can be a fun way to help bring back pleasure into the bedroom. Make time for non-sexual intimacy as well. Scheduling regular date nights with your partner can help rekindle your connection and remind you why you fell in love in the first place.

To further shift the focus away from conception pressure, couples should consider setting aside time once a month for each person to talk about whatever is going on in their mind regarding their fertility journey. These conversations allow each partner to express their thoughts and concerns freely, strengthening your bond.

If you’ve done all this and still aren't vibing with baby-making sex, you may want to try at-home artificial insemination.

Woods states that this alternative is “Particularly useful for couples who might find the pressure of timed intercourse challenging.”

Rather than digging out the turkey baster, there are kits, such as the ones from Mosie Baby, available that help make the process a bit more seamless. Woods says that using these kits helps to separate conception and sex so that couples can focus on their sexual relationship without the stress of trying to conceive.

Resources that can help

If the trying-to-conceive journey is bringing you down, it’s important to remember that you're not alone. Luckily, there are many resources that can help, including local fertility support groups and a whole heap of online groups. Tahler emphasizes the importance of these groups in offering support, noting that many other women are going through similar challenges.

She suggests, “If you feel comfortable opening up about your story, you may be surprised to find people in your own community have been on a similar journey."

Reaching out to a mental health professional, particularly one who specializes in fertility-related sex issues, is also an excellent option. They can help guide and support you and your partner during this process and put you in touch with other healthcare providers.

And as you navigate this process with your partner, try to remember you're on the same team, working to achieve the same goal -- a beautiful, bouncing baby.

Rhiannon John

Rhiannon John obtained her Master's of Sexology from Curtin University in Perth, Australia, where she researched women's use of pornography for pleasure. She is a sexologist with a keen interest in women's sexual health and pleasure. Rhiannon believes that sexuality is vital to our overall well-being and should be celebrated.

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