Illustration by Chelsea Charles for The Globe and Mail
Trending on Twitter yesterday was this article about how marital sex is yet another victim of Covid, with married couples reporting – to couples counselors, researchers, each other – a lack of intimacy since the pandemic began.
Calls are up to couples’ therapists, with many spouses feeling trapped under one roof. Amid the strain, uncertainty and unending sameness of pandemic life, many couples find the bandwidth for intimacy is gone. So is privacy, with kids running underfoot. Chronic stress is triggering fights – toxic for sexuality. Another desire-dampener: spouses got overly familiar with each other just as personal dignity went out the window, with people living in sweatpants, forgoing grooming efforts, binging on Netflix and carbs. For some, it’s felt impossible to cultivate a sex life through this year of mandated domesticity.
Oh, dear! On Twitter, replies to this trending topic ranged from, “Speak for yourselves! My sex life is on fire!” to “Oh my God, sex is the last thing I want.” In my very unscientific study, clicking a few of the Twitter profiles of people who bragged about how steamy their relationships have been since last March, it seemed like they all had one thing in common: no evidence of kids.
“The vast majority of couples I’m seeing are finding it impossible to carve out time that’s uniquely for each other, without having to take care of work, children or cleaning the house,” said Dr. Kleinplatz, a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa.
That chronic stress is smothering libido and sexual frequency, notes Lori Brotto, a psychologist who is researching desire and behaviour through the pandemic as part of a longitudinal study from the Women’s Health Research Institute in Vancouver.
“None of us firmly grasped the toll homeschooling and taking care of children without any [help] would take on couples, relationships, privacy and intimacy,” said Dr. Brotto, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of British Columbia.
Of course, it’s not just childcare, homeschool, and lack of privacy that hinders intimacy during these long, long months of slogging through a global pandemic. The constant togetherness for couples both working from home gets old, as does, you know, the constant worry about getting sick and dying, or worrying about parents or other more vulnerable loved ones getting sick. Basically, this has not been the sexiest of times, and if your relationship has suffered as a result, you aren’t alone.
Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz, a clinical psychologist, has some suggestions for salvaging the intimacy component of relationships, even through these unsexy times when being touched might be the last thing you want. She advises that “couples set aside 15 minutes two or three times a week to sit someplace comfortable and ‘check in with each other from the heart.’ She recommends partners turn off their electronic devices and avoid talking about kids or work.” Additionally, “she also shares with her couples the concept of ‘simmering,’ coined by American psychologist Carol Ellison: small, occasional gestures to stay sensually engaged, even if it doesn’t immediately lead to sex. For various couples, simmering can mean dancing to music they listened to when they dated, cooking together, putting on perfume or giving a massage. They are activities that engage the senses somehow – very different from building puzzles or playing Monopoly.” She says that these smaller gestures can keep the relationship simmering “until such time as a full boil becomes possible – even if one knows there is no energy to act on it right now.” Ouch.
Is anyone feeling this? What if, instead of setting aside 15 minutes three times a week to talk from the heart with your partner, you just… did it? Has anyone tried this? I’m not a clinical psychologist, but I feel like it might work? Maybe? If you can get your kids to leave you alone for 15 minutes.