During the recent COVID lockdown, many previously commuting, working couples were offered something they’d long craved: luxuriant stretches of time together. It even seemed that spiritual and sexual reconnection—discovering each other again, body and mind—might have been a silver lining to an otherwise dreadful time.
Research has long borne out that the more time couples spend alone together doing things they like, the closer they become. But studying what couples did do during the extra time they had together during lockdown has offered an interesting glimpse into what can happen when togetherness is forced upon us.
Was couples’ extra time in the same vicinity taken up with things that made them feel more connected? Or was the experience as a whole more divisive than affirming? Even if they’d gotten to indulge some passions, more than a third of couples reported they’d still faced serious levels of stress. For those whose finances had worsened, that number climbed closer to 50 percent. Some couples told researchers that staying home together improved their sex lives and even increased their sense of connection. But close to 20 percent of the men and more than a quarter of the women reported the opposite experience. Still others found they wanted more sex and connection in quarantine—just not with their partners!
In fact, it turned out that being veritably shut into a shared space put many couples’ emotional and sexual connections under a level of strain they’d never before experienced. Now that re-entry is here, what are couples who’ve experienced such a schism to do? And can therapists help them find their way back to a satisfying connection after so much time spent in enforced domesticity?
When One Partner Has Had Enough
Kaya, a young mom and former restaurant server who lost her job during COVID, is a fan of new experiences and one of the women whose desire for her partner tanked during the pandemic. She’s married to Mark, who doesn’t share her need for novelty. Understanding how quarantine had exacerbated this difference quickly became a priority in our work together.
A few minutes into our first Zoom session, Mark said abruptly, “Kaya’s lost all sexual interest in me. I don’t even know if she loves me anymore.” He looked away from her and the screen to get the next part out: “A lot of the time I feel like she’s just waiting for the right moment to leave me,” he muttered.
While quarantine was on, Mark and Kaya shared a focus: getting the children through online classes. But once in-person classes had resumed, they’d begun asking themselves what was actually keeping them together.
Kaya had lost her job in the early days of lockdown, and the restaurant where she’d been working was now closed permanently. She had no interest in finding another job, but she admitted she was bored—not just with Mark, but with domesticity itself.
“I’m so tired,” she said. “Tired of taking care of the house. I want to get out and start traveling again—do something exciting.”
Quarantine has further delineated two groups of people I’ve long seen in my practice: seekers like Kaya, who yearn for new experiences and repeated stimulation, and nesters, who tend toward introversion, take pleasure in maintaining their homes, and are happy to stay alone or just with family for long periods of time.
Mark rightly worried that quarantine had revealed a substantial divide: Kaya was a seeker, and he was a nester.
“Sex can be a great place within a relationship to play with novelty—and novelty may be needed now, more than ever.”
There’s some neurological basis for this difference. Seeking behavior is correlated with higher levels of dopamine in the brain than nesting, and stress can enhance a sensation-seeker’s drive to push for more exciting and complex experiences. Seekers are at higher risk for affairs. For them, not being able to get away from partners means that any feelings of distance or annoying habits that were once easier to ignore may start to feel huge, even catastrophic, to the relationship.
Some of these seekers have turned to outside relationships as distractions. Mark and Kaya weren’t at that point—yet. But Mark did think Kaya’s need for sensation was too intense, and that she’d most likely end up searching outside the relationship for a connection that thrilled her. “She’s not looking to me for that,” he said.
“He’s right,” Kaya admitted. “My desire has totally flatlined.”
Kaya’s home life wasn’t supporting a self-identity that included a positive relationship or sexual schema. She had no privacy, and the lion’s share of the childcare, homeschooling, and domestic tasks fell to her. “I’ve been in sweatpants for a year,” Kaya said. “I haven’t had my nails done or my hair cut in months, and I’ve gained nine pounds. So, no, I don’t feel attractive at all, sorry.”
The more we talked, the clearer it became that Kaya wasn’t just mildly itching to get out. She needed to.
She was aligned with the female research participants who’d reported a decrease not just in desire and arousal, but also—when they did have sex—a dip in pleasure and satisfaction. “Who could blame us?” she asked, when I let her know she wasn’t the only woman feeling this way.
The level of resentment Kaya was expressing, and her resistance to experiencing sexual pleasure, reminded me of the work of Canadian researcher Peggy Kleinplatz, who writes, “We often proceed as if low frequency of desire were evidence of psychopathology, whereas it may be evidence of good judgment.”
Kaya didn’t just need to want more connection and sex with Mark for the relationship to feel satisfying. First, she needed a reduction in the stress she felt. Then, perhaps the seeker in her needed to experience new or novel experiences within the relationship to help mollify her desire to seek stimulation outside of it.
The Need for Novelty
Sex can be a great place within a relationship to play with novelty—and for many couples whose COVID stories mimic Kaya and Mark’s, novelty may be what’s needed now, more than ever.
When I asked about any sex they were having, Mark complained that their marriage had become virtually sexless, while Kaya thought the real issue was that the sex they did have had become boring.
This is a complaint I hear all the time, with all kinds of partners. The reality for most couples, whatever their sexuality, is that they have a narrow sexual repertoire that’s on repeat. For hetero couples, sex often flows from kissing to touching, from manual to oral genital sex, and finally to digital penetration and intercourse. Because this order usually gets the job done, frequency often becomes the topic of complaint about the couple’s sex life, instead of what’s really at the root of the problem: the quality and variety of the sex. And sure enough, in much the same way that the stifling repetition of daily routine and uninterrupted parenting during quarantine had exacerbated her annoyance with Mark, going through the same sexual motions with him was a no-win for Kaya.
I recommended that they switch from a performance model of sex—where achieved orgasms are often the goal—to a pleasure model, which could help free them from their sexual monotony and enhance their love connection.
Even couples who haven’t been endlessly holed up together with the kids will repeat sex patterns to the point of boredom. All couples emerging from COVID lockdown a little tired of their partner can benefit from a reintroduction to the joy of touch, and it’s a simple intervention that every therapist can offer.
“Let’s talk about sex as if it’s really just pleasure,” I ventured. “It shouldn’t be about checking off a list, getting to orgasm, or counting up how many times you have it. Instead, ask yourself, what do you find pleasurable about touching or being touched? Do you like to give each other massages? To shower together? What would be something pleasurable that you could imagine sharing?”
Without a hint of a smile, Kaya said, “It’d be very pleasurable if Mark would clean the house.”
Mark turned to stare at Kaya, clearly stunned that one of these things could be tied to the other. I broke the awkward silence that followed. “And if Mark cleaned the house, would that take some of the pressure off you?”
“That’s a good start,” I said. I suggested they put some time on the calendar that wasn’t focused on supervising the kids or maintaining their house, but on a pleasurable activity just for them.
They both confessed that they missed the pleasure of being touched, but had been touching each other only when they were having sex. Since Kaya felt pressured to “give” Mark sex, that sex had become transactional. I suggested they could instead start with sensual massage, without the goal of intercourse.
Taking away the pressure to perform—or “give in,” as Kaya identified it—would allow them both a much-needed respite, and a place to identify what pleasure was actually about. Sensual massage can be done in 15 minutes or an hour—whatever works!—and neither partner has to be great at it. They can take turns being the giver and the receiver.
Kaya desperately needed stress relief and a way to relax, and with Mark’s help, she could allow herself to be in her body in a positive way.
I told them that eventually, when they began to feel more relaxed and positive around each other, they could begin to integrate more soft touch, cuddling, and holding into their sensual massage. That slower physical connection could then lead to a leisurely, more rewarding type of sex. For now, though, the goal was to relearn to be in each other’s arms.
They agreed to try, and as we ended that session, they turned to each other and broke into slow smiles.
What’s a “Normal” Amount of Sex Now?
For Kaya and Mark, sexual reconnection and reinvigoration was the right prescription, but as more couples come to us with concerns about post-COVID reductions in sex drive or closeness, it’s important that we remember not all of them will need a big intimacy boost.
Janice and Emily initially came into therapy for issues around untangling their work and love lives. They’d been married for 10 years, had no children, and ran a storefront design business on the first floor of the apartment building where they were living. During COVID, they were having sex once every few months.
Their business had survived the pandemic, partly because people had time to focus on redesigning their homes. And it had even grown since the lifting of COVID restrictions. They were deeply grateful for their continuing success, but they were worried about being able to protect their relationship from their all-encompassing work world.
As we talked, it became clear that both women were nesters. And unlike Mark and Kaya, neither Janice nor Emily was measuring their bond by the frequency of the sex they were having. When we dove into how their relationship had faired over quarantine, Janice said, “We’re a little worried about how work is going to change who we are together, but honestly, I think maybe our relationship itself has gotten even better.”
Emily agreed but then added, “Yeah. I mean we aren’t having loads of sex, but I don’t think either of us is disturbed by this.”
Some COVID surveys say that during lockdown in the United States, 12.1 percent of men and 18.7 percent of women perceived an increase in sexual desire. While Emily and Janice weren’t having more sex, they told me they’d seen an improvement in the sex they were having.
We were Zooming as we talked and the canary-yellow wall behind them accentuated the brightness of Janice’s smile as she gazed at Emily.
“We spend so much more time together now,” she said. “We bought the business, so we no longer have a long commute. We just have to go upstairs when we’re done for the day. I don’t have to wait up for Emily to come home. We aren’t missing each other all the time. When we do have sex, it’s relaxing, and we can talk about what we want, and spend time to make sure we’re both into it and satisfied. Some nights we just fall asleep in each other’s arms. It’s magical.”
Emily nodded her agreement. I noted that she moved even closer to Janice, comfortably leaning in so their shoulders were touching. “Yes,” she smiled.
Couples Still Know When It’s Working
As we try to parse what’s happened to our couples clients during quarantine, it’s important for us therapists to remember that there’s no right amount of sex. This is especially true now, after so many clients have suffered in their particular ways during a year of lockdown.
Clinicians are notorious for seeing sexuality through our own lens, with our own biases, and in the context of our own experiences. And many of us need to check our assumptions about what qualifies as normal. When we see couples who have less sex than we do, or less sex than we deem a healthy amount, we may assume that they need to increase the frequency of intercourse, instead of focusing on the quality of the sexual encounter itself.
Low desire is common among all couples. In fact, it’s the most common sexual issue for 70 percent of women at midlife. Even in nonpartnered women, 40.5 percent complain of low desire. Instead of pathologizing this, we can look at it as a normal fluctuation in sexual behavior and identify it as a sign that something hindering the quality of sex, not necessarily the quantity, might be improved.
One of the signs of a sexless marriage is that the thought of initiating sex creates anxiety and avoidance. That wasn’t the case for Emily and Janice, who reported that while they might go months without initiating sex, the thought of doing so didn’t make either of them anxious. In general, their experience of sensuality was positive.
Before we got offline that day, they agreed to have regular check-ins with one another about when they might need to set aside work and focus on being a couple. That might be as simple as going for a slow walk to a part of town away from their business, or cooking an extravagant meal for one another. But whatever the activity, penciling sex in after it wasn’t a requirement.
Sure, many of the sexual issues our couples clients bring to us existed long before the pandemic swept through. But if we’ve learned one thing during this crisis, it’s that our closest relationships can be both vulnerable and precious. Whatever happens in the future, if we help our clients work on their connections now, while the insights this troubling time has bestowed are still fresh, we can help them face a reopening world with a deeper understanding of themselves and their needs and desires, and a greater capacity for renewal and joy.
PHOTO © ISTOCK/PROSTOCK-STUDIO
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