Since quarantine began in March, many of us have been balancing working from home, child care, and distancing ourselves from many people we love. Often, this has meant that workspace, home and relaxing space, living space, work relationships, family relationships, and intimate relationships now exist together. This has blurred boundaries between work stress, home stress, and relationship stress, which has all been compounded by COVID 19, social distancing, and concerns for health and safety.
In general, mental health issues have been increasing: depression, anxiety, and the collective trauma we are experiencing in the midst of a pandemic. If that wasn’t enough to deal with, many couples have also been experiencing difficulties with intimate relationships and sex drive. As we approach cuffing season and the holidays, couples are wondering what they can do to increase libido (sex drive) and intimacy; this article will explore the impacts of quarantine and COVID on intimate relationships and, more importantly, what you can do to stoke the fire both in the fireplace and in the bedroom.
Problems with sex, intimacy, and quarantine
Home from Work is Now Work From Home
There are a number of reasons for fluctuations in an individual’s libido: diet, exercise, lifestyle, medications, hormones, and seasonal change are just a few. However, one of the biggest impacts recently is that most of us are now wearing a number of hats within our own homes. While home used to be a place where we were able to relax, check out of work, and be our authentic selves, many of us have seen dining rooms, bedrooms, and kitchen tables turned into offices. According to a 2019 study by Wrike, 94% of Americans experience work stress. With boundaries between work and home now blurred, people are experiencing increased stress at home, which in turn lowers desire to engage with our partner and libido in general.
Disappearing Date Nights
In addition, many traditional “date night” options are closed: dine in restaurants, bars, movies, babysitters or childcare, live music, festivals, and art galleries used to be a place of connection and grounding for many couples. With these options off the table, couples have struggled to recreate dates and romance at home. Why are dates important? They provide us with an opportunity to remember why we chose our partners in the first place, experience new things together, bond over common interests, and distance and decompress from stressors. Without them, relationships can become stagnant.
Too much of a good thing
Most of us having been living on top of our partners for the last several months, which has actually prevented us from wanting to be on top of our partners. We aren’t afforded as many opportunities to distance from the relationship, which can be a good thing. A little bit of distance allows us to miss our partners and actually draws us back into the relationship, and helps create a desire for intimacy. For some individuals, partners have also become coworkers and/or classmates which blurs the line between our Person (the individual that helps us center and focus, provides comfort, the person we run to and seek in times of stress) and other people we may encounter.
So what do I do?
Self Care is Essential
Allow me to offer you a daily mantra: It is impossible to show up in relationships if you cannot show up for yourself. Self care can mean many things: making a point to exercise, creating routines, setting boundaries around work and home spaces (turning off email notifications, shutting down from work at a hard start/stop), taking time to decompress, connecting with social supports, and engaging in hobbies or projects can all improve self care and mental health. Take self care time both within and outside of the relationship. If you have children or pets that often interfere with self care time, support your partner by providing an hour of supervision for them to perform self care and then trade off. Self care has to be our first priority, as it provides the fuel for us to do everything else, including relationships. If your heart, your head, or your body are struggling, then it becomes increasingly difficult to experience or express intimacy within your relationship.
Intimacy is More Than Sex
Intimacy is more than sex. Many partners experience intimacy only when it is leading to sexual contact, which often causes partners to withdraw from intimacy entirely. In addition, being on top of each other all the time has caused many partners to disengage from intentional, non-sexual contact. In addition to foreplay and sexual contact, every relationship needs intimate contact that either is non-sexual in nature or does not lead to sexual contact in every instance. This could include hugs, hand holding, massage, close physical proximity, gentle touch, and kissing, among other things. If you’ve fallen out of practice in providing your partner with an array of intimate contact, start with close proximity or hand holding. Ask your partner what kind of physical contact they enjoy and go from there. When you increase intimacy in your relationship overall, it leads to increased felt intimacy (as opposed to experienced intimacy or sexual contact) which helps build connection, and in turn libido.
Create New Experiences
Create new experiences within your relationship: it sounds simple, but in reality, is a very broad statement. This could include dates, subscription boxes, communication, and sexual contact. Regardless of what you decide to do, relationships tend to fall into routines which are what leads to things feeling “stale”. Subscription boxes can be a helpful tool for couples to plan a date around every month. If you’ve been ordering takeout and streaming television for the last several months, try reading together and sharing about your books. Build a fort and watch seasonal movies, or childhood favorites. Set a goal to write each other a love note on a post it and hide them every day. Even if you don’t hit the goal, you’ll be doing a lot! Set a time weekly to sit down and communicate about the relationship: check in on sex, intimacy, finances, meal planning, and whatever else you may need to talk about. When it comes to sex, we often hear about “spicing things up”. This doesn’t have to be eccentric, expensive, or complicated. Simply changing positions or locations (if you’re able) can be helpful. Sex, just like everything else in our relationships, can fall into patterns and feel stale. Have an open, honest, non-judgmental conversation with your partner about what they enjoy and what they have fantasies about and make a plan with your partner to incorporate some different things. It is important to have the conversation with your partner, as consent is ongoing and critical to a healthy libido and sex life. It’s never effective to spring something new on your partner during sex, unless it has been previously discussed. Consent and conversations about sex can be some of the sexiest, most intimate things a couple can do.
Make a Plan
In general, couples should be frequently communicating about their relationship. With winter approaching and increasing limitations around outside activities, it’s important to have a plan for your relationship over the winter. What can you do to keep engaging with your partner, intimately, relationally, and sexually? How will you work to perform self care, and support your partner in their self care routine? Are there untapped projects, hobbies, or opportunities you can take advantage of? What will the holidays look like, especially with limitations due to COVID? Did you have a great routine over the summer? How can you transition that plan into a winter routine? What resources are you lacking, and what can you do to fill in those gaps? If you develop a plan now, it will be easier to follow this winter.
Communication is so important to sexual health, intimacy, and relationships and most of only communicate about the relationship when there is a problem. That leads to avoidance and increased strain and stress, which… lowers libido. Particularly where sex is concerned, informed consent is ongoing. If a partner consents to a certain position or act once, that doesn’t guarantee they will consent to it again, or every day or on certain days. Check in with your partner: what do they enjoy? What are they missing or wanting to try? When do they feel most attractive? What helps them feel attracted to you? Are either or both of you having issues with mental health, diet, physical health, trauma, or something else that could be contributing to low libido?
If All Else Fails…
If you have tried these things and aren’t seeing improvement in your relationship, consider couples counseling. Particularly if you are having issues around sex and intimacy, consider counseling. It’s always ok to ask your therapist questions such as: what are your experiences with sex therapy or couples counseling? What is your approach to couples counseling? Alternatively, if you have non-traditional sex practices or non-monogamous relationships, ask your therapist if they have had experience counseling individuals, partners, or couples in your situation. If you are having difficulties with physical health or physical components of sex such as maintaining an erection or difficulties with penetration, talk to your doctor.
For further reading, consider Resurrecting Sex, by David Schnarch or Mating In Captivity by Esther Perel.
Hansen, Brianna. “Crash and Burnout: Is Workplace Stress the New Normal?” Wrike, 6 Sept. 2018, www.wrike.com/blog/stress-epidemic-report-announcement/.