Wedding vows say ‘for better, for worse,’ but there’s no marital motto for maintaining marriage amid a pandemic — let alone any semblance of a sex life. It’s no surprise that couples are suffering: Secluded and lonesome, we’re simultaneously smothered sans physical space from our spouses. And when the sensation of “missing” your partner is a relic of times bygone for many couples, it starts to feel like romance is too.
If this sounds like your situation, you’re far from alone. Countless couples — my husband and myself included — have found themselves in love ruts in lockdown. “Couples are having difficulty connecting because it’s almost too much time together,” Dr. Diana Wiley, marriage and sex therapist and author of Love in the Time of Corona, tells me over the phone. “And there’s so much depression and anxiety that it’s hard for people to even think about being physically intimate.”
That said, the pandemic is not a romance death sentence. Intimacy can and will be alive and well in the time of Covid — it just takes some work to revive. Here’s how the experts say to resurrect romance in lockdown.
Focus on yourself first
Remember we’re going through a global pandemic, and no one is feeling 100 percent — or even 50, for that matter. Cut yourself some slack! Applying extra pressure to be or feel perfect is not just hurting you, but potentially your relationship, too.
“The added stress of COVID-19 is a factor in couple conflict,” Sara Lamb, relationship therapist, says. “People are not at their best: More anxious, more worried about finances or losing their job…[This] can be very hard on your relationship.” Dr. Jacqui Gabb, professor of Sociology and Intimacy and chief relationships officer at Paired, agrees: “It’s widely accepted that we’ve all experienced at least low-level stress at some point this year. Arguments are likely to flare up because we’re feeling ill-at-ease with ourselves.”
In short: If you’re not prospering as a person, you’re likely not thriving in relationships. Your mental and emotional well-being directly impact your performance as a partner. That’s why, prior to repairing a relationship, you should prioritize your health first — like how airlines advise putting on and securing your own oxygen mask before helping others.
“As individuals, it’s incredibly important to maintain your own physical and mental health, develop outlets for stress and ways to continue finding meaning,” Lamb says. “Maybe through work or volunteerism or connections with close others.” Amira Johnson, therapist and relationship expert, agrees, noting the importance of couples remembering “that they are individuals first and need solicitude and time to recharge.” Johnson suggests practicing ‘solo self care’ by doing things that bring you joy on your own, like going for walks, practicing yoga, meditating, listening to music in headphones or reading a book.
Be honest about how you feel
According to a KFF Tracking Poll, more than half of adults have cited pandemic-related stresses as having negatively impacted on their mental health — one in four of whom have reported a ‘major’ negative impact. According to the experts with whom I spoke however, many struggle to honestly share these feelings with loved ones — among other emotional obstacles. “Couples may be fighting more as a result of not being able to truly express what they are experiencing,” Johnson explains. “There are couples that don’t know how to tell one another ‘I feel like I’m losing myself right now’ or ‘I need balance between connecting with you and having time to myself.’”
Johnson suggests promoting open and honest communication by “letting each other know their goals” prior to having important conversations, as well as “setting boundaries, creating safe words, and informing one another that they are in a safe place.” This way, “both individuals may feel more open to express how they are truly feeling because the fear of judgment or being wrong may no longer be in their space.” This will not only help your relationship, but can help you feel better in general as well. Plus, as Lamb points out, “partners can be incredibly soothing to each other’s fears and sadness if they can find a way to talk and share their feelings about this unprecedented situation.”
Practice deep listening
“One of the best sex tips in the world is to listen to each other,” Wiley says. “But so many people don’t really listen.” So many in fact she included a deep listening exercise in her book Love in the Time of Corona (which yes, I read in its entirety for this article) to help remedy that. Deep listening isn’t just hearing words then nodding your head and saying “I understand,” though: It’s actually the opposite. According to Wiley, listening to respond — or having a conversation — can actually hinder the ability to empathize because instead of hearing, we’re formulating responses or assuming what our partner is likely to say next.
To avoid mental distraction during important discussions, Wiley suggests the following: Choose one subject of conversation and commit to completely staying on topic. Decide on a “talking object,” which can be anything — a pen, scarf, pillow, cat — as long as you can hold and pass it to your partner without trouble (so maybe not the cat). Appoint someone to go first and speak sans interruption (only when holding the talking object!), and when finished, pass the object to the second speaker who will then explain what they heard and understood from the first speaker. The first assesses whether the second heard them correctly, and the exercise goes on as such — each sharing, then responding, then assessing, and so on — only speaking while holding the object.
“One of the key benefits of this method is that it may help you feel that you have been heard and understood,” Wiley explains. “It slows down your communication into discrete steps so that each of you can focus on really listening to your partner.”
Schedule date nights
While it doesn’t sound particularly sexy, according to Wiley, scheduling date nights — and even sex — can be revolutionary for relationships. “The best way for making sex happen is to get it on the calendar,” she insists. “It’s a Hollywood myth that passion will just suddenly hit you, and you’re going to go running into the other person’s arms — especially these days with COVID and all of the anxiety and stressors.” That said, you don’t need to have intercourse on every date night — not only does intimacy mean something different for everyone (not everyone likes sex!), but it can simply be refreshing to dress up for a nice meal.
Plus, everyone defines ‘date night’ differently. My husband and I enjoy cooking and having a candlelit dinner in dress clothes. Others might prefer playing board games or reading poetry aloud, while some may opt to take a bath together, or give each other back rubs after the kids have gone to bed. Whatever your tastes, be sure to indulge in what brings you both pleasure and “pay extra attention to setting the scene for a romantic time together.” Wiley suggests cleaning the house, taking a shower, and putting on clean clothes — not “dirty pajamas you have been wearing for days.”
And if you’re not feeling particularly glamorous, that’s okay: ‘Date nights’ don’t have to be a full on affair. Sometimes just planning time together, however trivial the activity seems, is plenty. As Lamb points out, couples can simply “meet up at some point, maybe for lunch in the kitchen, a workout, or a cuddle on the couch at the end of the day.”
Get experimental in the bedroom
Having been confined to the same four walls for what feels like forever, time has lost all meaning and so have routines — especially when it comes to nurturing our relationships, and even the possibility to do so. “Often we bring a sense of excitement and freshness to the relationship by being in new environments, sharing new ideas, and vacationing together in exotic locations,” Lamb points out. “For most of us this is impossible now, so we may have to get more inventive or rethink what makes our sex lives work.” But it can feel impossible to revamp your sex life when we’re barely staying afloat as is — or perhaps not impossible, but unimportant given everything else going on. That said, science finds sex (however you define it) to be crucial for a thriving relationship. According to Dr. Wiley, studies show that “couples having regular sex have fewer arguments and get over [arguments] much faster.” Research has also found that frequent sex — meaning at least once a week — improves overall health and well-being. “Sex is the glue of a relationship,” she adds. “And it’s far harder and much more painful to be a sexless couple than it is to do the work.”
If a standalone date night doesn’t do the trick, try something different: Wiley suggests a ‘sex menu’ exercise in which you and your partner each fill out a long chart of sexual activities based on your interest in giving and/or receiving said exercise (‘maybe’ is an option), like spanking, role play, or using restraints. When finished, compare results: Examine what you’re both willing to try, or how you can compromise to fulfill each other’s needs comfortably. Keep the menus handy for date nights and alone time and treat yourself to X tapas from the menu (or should I say XXX). Alternatively, you can simply keep note in the back of your mind. Either way, you’ll always have something new to try for when the time feels right.
And if you don’t want to order a la carte, that’s a-okay. Simply discussing your desires is a great place to start — whether that’s sex, cuddling, or something else entirely.
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Before you go, check out our sex position bucket list to help inspire you and your partner:
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