Romance Tips for Pandemic Times
Is the lockdown a passion killer or does it make the heart grow fonder? Photo: MoMo Productions/Getty Images
When all-American senior heartthrob Kevin Costner, 65, “opened up” to People magazine last June about how COVID-19 has brought him and wife Christine closer together, I felt bad. The idyllic picture he paints of celebrity domestic bliss under lockdown just seemed … braggy. After three-plus months of enforced togetherness, I fully admit I don’t always feel quite so cuddly about my own spouse in the endless day in and day out of it all.
“Our partnership has really come into focus,” waxes Costner, a sage for our pandemic age, “about what we do for each other and how we deal with our family.” A Hallmark channel soundtrack must be swelling in the background: “Our house is like a river: You’ve just got to get into the flow of it,” he says. “And whatever you thought it was going to be, maybe it still can, but it’s going to have to work with what the day brings.”
Call me cynical – you wouldn’t be the first – but isn’t anyone else feeling the pressure at the idealized scenario Costner is laying down here? There is a guilty sense that not only should we all be rising to the challenges
of this pandemic – a wartime-like rallying wave of we’re-all-in-this-togetherness – but that we are also supposed to be taking the bonus time of proximity with our partners to supercharge our sex lives and perfect our relationships.
There is a persistent myth that disaster scenarios are supposed to be a bonding experience for couples. And that can be the case: some people are, indeed, steaming up the windows with an energized sex life, says Toronto psychologist Carol Anne Austin, who specializes in sexual health and relationship therapy. “Some couples find connecting sexually is a really good way to find comfort and alleviate stress.”
But that isn’t the case for everyone. She wryly adds: “Stress and boners are opposite states.” It’s ironic, she says, for couples “who used to say they were too busy and never had time to be together, and that was why they weren’t having sex. But then they find themselves sitting around together and still not having sex.”
Worry, she says, inhibits arousal. “If you have an emergency going on inside your body, arousal is hard. Maybe you need to take a few breaths and try to ground yourself, get into a fantasy about something that feels nice right now, get mindful and be present in your bodily senses.”
When it comes to sexual connection and desire, says Austin, absence really does make the heart grow fonder. And absence is in critically short supply right now. She points to Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel as the woman who nailed this thesis. Perel wrote in her 2006 book Mating in Captivity – a prescient title considering our current situation, “Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other.” Intimacy is about routine and repetition and grows over time spent together. Desire soars with distance, novelty, freedom and autonomy. Thus intimacy and sex, according to Perel, are a paradox.
Austin offers up a way to trick yourself to get around this hurdle. “When somebody is ever present all the time, it sounds counter-intuitive,” she says, but “a way to foster empathy and sexual connection is to foster space for independence and autonomy: take a walk by myself, bath or shower by myself, cook alone, do a project that fosters me, something that makes me feel agency. That gives me the space to want to approach my partner again.”
The unprecedented nature of this sudden lockdown threw into stark relief our natural differences in how much separateness and how much togetherness each of us wants. Even in long-time relationships, these issues may never have been forced to a head before in such a dramatic fashion. “Couples’ issues that were prevalent prior to COVID-19 were either exacerbated or dissolved during the pandemic,” says Dr. Dino Zuccarini, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships in Ottawa (there is also a Toronto clinic). “There is no separation between work and home life. Some individuals and couples have struggled in regards to losing their sense of identity that was so tied to the structure and routine involved in getting ready for work and going to a workplace and engaging in a workplace.” This can result, he says, in some partners feeling depressed and lethargic and not being stimulated.
There are compound issues we are all facing. “If there were financial problems due to loss of employment,” Zuccarini says, “a combination of these losses and isolation could make relationship problems worse.” He adds that on top of money and stress over investments and retirement savings, family dynamics can also be upsetting the generational applecart. Adult children may have moved home, upending family roles that can affect a romantic relationship. Many people are taking on care roles for extended family and elder care due to fears around issues in long-term care homes. “All these piled-on elements create stress in the couple’s relationship,” says Zuccarini. “These types of stresses accumulate, and can create emotional distress. If partners are unable to process and support each other, this can lead to an accumulation of distress that may result in anxiety and depression.” In turn, this can “seep into the relationship and dampen connection and sexuality.”
Zuccarini has a few tips and tricks up his sleeve for keeping the flames going specific to the older set. “What’s sexy can change over the decades – the key to staying sexy is about maintaining a sexy attitude, an intent to make oneself attractive.” You need to continue to sexually signal the other “through flirtation, gestures, eye glances, innuendos, sexy texts appreciating the other, sharing sexual fantasies, hopes and desires and interests. And sharing what continues to arouse you.”
And while the quarantine has not made it easy to keep up our grooming routines, self-care is critical, according to Zuccarini. “Continuing to take care of oneself physically and emotionally is an important aspect of maintaining a level of attractiveness and staying sexy.” A good relationship and sexuality require that each partner take care of themselves as well as each other. “If you are not taking care of your mental health, emotional well-being and physical well-being, partners won’t have the energy for connection and sexuality.”
Listening well is also an effective relationship tool that becomes essential in these close quarters. Austin says now is the time to review your relationship basics. “Name the emotion you are feeling,” she says. “It sounds really easy but it is actually one of the most difficult steps: anger, frustration, anxiety, figuring out what you are feeling and why is harder than you think and helpful for your partner.
But always remember to use “I” statements, Austin says. “Speak from your own experience, as soon as you ‘you’ somebody, you can sound unreasonable, and it is reasonable for your partner to get defensive, and you’re gonna get
into a battle.”
If you do get into it, Austin says, conflict is “completely natural in all relationships and does not necessarily indicate a problem. But when things are difficult, as they are right now, with more proximity there can be more of those little conflicts.”
So, for instance, she says, “Don’t say ‘You are such a slob.’ That’s toxic communication territory. Instead, say something actionable, a compromise, something like ‘Hey, I’m feeling really overwhelmed. I thought it was your turn to clean the kitchen. I just don’t have it in me. Could you please help me do it?”
The check-in is another couples’ counselling 101 basic that Zuccarini says is worth reminding ourselves about right now. “Listen to each other’s feelings and needs related to the isolation, the losses and fears they had for themselves related to finances, health and the future.”
In terms of creative solutions to balancing work and life, Zuccarini advises you look for “ways to have needs for separateness and couple togetherness met under the same roof – providing time for each other and for each individual to take time for themselves within the same space.” And to make plans for mindful togetherness, even when activities are limited: “taking walks together, reading to each other, watching movies, exercising together.”
To deal with all the unrealistic expectations we have all put on ourselves, our lingering need to make this time as productive as “the before,” Zuccarini says talking out priorities together can manage those expectations and bring the list down to a realistic set of goals. Staying connected to friends however possible, pursuing hobbies and classes and keeping an eye on each other’s self-care are all part of the solutions to the problems that are unique to this time.
As we all emerge into the light some day in the not-too distant future, we may well be different people by then. Some of us will have called time on our relationships. The extra pressure of the pandemic has been breaking bonds the world over: in March when lockdowns were lifted in Hunan, China, anecdotal reports of divorce filings up by 25 per cent were reported. The Telegraph in London cited a 30 per cent rise in divorces in hard-hit Italy when the courts reopened after lockdown.
Here in Canada, many lawyers are reporting higher-than-normal call volumes. Toronto family lawyer Barry Nussbaum made headlines in June when he sent out a press release stating that outreach at his office is up 20 per cent over usual. He further predicts that the sustained lockdown will spike the country’s usual 38 per cent split rate. This anecdotal evidence chimes with the peak divorce lawyers see every January after extended family time brings long-simmering disputes to the forefront.
Divorce is an expensive solution to the already expensive problems of this pandemic. A few “I” statements, some compromise and some making space for aloneness while together certainly seem worth the try to be less cynical and more like Kevin Costner’s flowing river.
A version of this article appeared in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue with the headline “Sex in the Time of Quarantine,” p. 65.