How the pandemic affected our most intimate relationships. By Elle Blakeman
It’s hard to believe that there was a baby boom predicted at the start of the pandemic. Everyone stuck at home, commutes taken away, schedules freed up, there’s only so much Netflix one can handle… And yet, 12 months on, research shows that the boom has actually become a bust, with the US and parts of Europe facing the biggest slump in births in a century.
So why the turnaround? Firstly, it has to be said that global uncertainty does not make for fertile ground when it comes to expanding one’s family. Who has a child when they’re not sure they’ll still have a job in a month? But secondly, and more basically, are we simply having less sex?
The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University in the US found that 40 per cent of people surveyed, regardless of gender or age, reported a decline in their sex life during the pandemic.
‘People react very differently [in terms of] how this pandemic affects their sexuality and their relationship,’ Marieke Dewitte, a psychologist and sexologist at Maastricht University, told the BBC. ‘For some people stress increases sexual desire and for other people it kills sexual desire.’
Speaking with The Independent, psychotherapist Hilda Burke noted a ‘polarising’ effect on her clients who are in relationships, with couples either having sex a lot more due to their commuting time being freed up, or having less interest in intimacy due to ‘not being stimulated in other areas of their lives’.
‘There isn’t that coming together at the end of the day, or there isn’t that absence creating a fondness,’ she said. ‘For some couples, their sex life is healthiest on holiday, when they’re in a different location and they’re away from domestic humdrum.’
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, lockdown is the death knell for our libidos. ‘He’s just there All The Time,’ says my friend Jess when we catch up for a coffee. The handsome, funny man she married is now living in stained sweatpants, sleeping till noon and eating directly out of the fridge. Hardly the stuff of romantic novels. ‘Literally the last thing I want to do at the end of the day,’ she says, ‘is jump into bed with him.’
As psychologist Esther Perel puts it in her appropriately titled book Mating in Capivity, ‘It is too easily assumed that problems with sex are the result of a lack of closeness. But perhaps the way we construct closeness reduces the sense of freedom and autonomy needed for sexual pleasure. When intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire.’
At the time she was referring to the construct of marriage, and yet it’s hard to think of a time when a sense of freedom and autonomy has been more impeded than the 12 months in which even lingering in a supermarket was considered an arrestable offence. No new stories, no date night, no lazing-by-the-pool summer holidays to forget the daily grind – no wonder we’ve come to a sexual standstill.
And that’s before you take into account the sheer stress of the year. Financial, health and family worries piled high as we faced the biggest global catastrophe in a century. When rates of depression, anxiety and stress rose, it’s understandable that physical intimacy took a back seat. ‘For us, it’s simply about getting through the day – the kids, the housework, the working from home – there’s no energy for anything else,’ says Jess. ‘It’s just survival mode.’
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Relate counsellor Peter Saddington told The Independent: ‘The key thing about being celibate is how the person feels about their situation. Celibacy in itself is not a bad thing, if you’re okay with it and it’s something that you’re comfortable with. It’s about not feeling guilty or not feeling like you’ve got to be sexual because that’s what’s expected of you.’
So where does that leave us, now that our ‘survival mode’ is gradually coming to an end? In Mating in Capivity, Esther Perel invites us to explore the paradoxical union of domesticity and sexual desire. ‘There’s a powerful tendency in long-term relationships to favour the predictable over the unpredictable,’ she writes, noting how much easier things are at the start of a relationship when boundaries are clear and partners maintain an air of mystery. ‘Yet without an element of uncertainty there is no longing, no anticipation, no frisson.’
Frisson! That is precisely what we’ve been missing in these long lockdown months. Where is the frisson in someone who is legally required to be there night and day? Who has almost nothing new to say to you? How do we recreate it when living on top of each other, taking on housework, working from home and home-schooling together?
Firstly, it’s helpful to note that sexual peaks and troughs are very normal, especially in the wake of such a trying year. ‘That dip can happen for a number of reasons, including the natural progression of your relationship over time,’ says Chris Kraft, Ph.D, a psychologist at the Sex and Gender Clinic in the department of psychiatry at the John Hopkins School of Medicine.
‘But you shouldn’t give up,’ he points out. ‘Intimacy is key to having a healthy, functional and overall happy relationship.’
To start, Kraft recommends removing any roadblocks to intimacy, sharing chores evenly and making an effort to understand what the other person is going through. ‘You really need to talk about it,’ he urges, ‘because the resentment that builds up around feelings of inequality is one of the biggest killers of intimacy and sexuality.’
For women, Kraft notes that it’s important to identify your needs. ‘In general, women’s desire starts with some type of connection to their own sexuality or their partner. Most women often need to be relaxed, not worried about their to-do list, and feeling a connection to their partner in order to set the stage for sexual intimacy.’
If you find it impossible to relax when the house is a mess, can you instigate a 6pm tidy-up each evening? Or do you need half an hour to yourself and a hot bath to signal the end of a long day? Taking charge of what makes you feel good is enormously empowering and will put you in a much better mindset for being close with your partner.
Another causality of the lockdown has been how we feel about our appearance. During the pandemic, 61 per cent of Americans and 63 per cent of Brits reported that they gained weight, while McKinsey reported 55 and 75 per cent year-on-year declines for prestige brands in cosmetic and fragrance purchasing, respectively. A survey of 8,000 people in the United Kingdom, published last October, found that 58 per cent of respondents reported feeling worse about their physical appearance during lockdown.
With little reason to dress up – who cares when our only plans are with the sofa? – many of us have found ourselves spending less time on our appearance than usual.
While this in and of itself is no bad thing, taking time to pick out an outfit or style our hair can serve to reinforce our identity and our value to ourselves. As L’Oréal so cleverly remind us in their ad campaigns, it is ‘because you’re worth it’. If we no longer feel ‘worth it’, this naturally could have a negative effect on our intimate relationships.
‘There’s no doubt that feeling sexy can boost your libido,’ says Kraft. ‘So it’s important that you spend time doing the things that make you feel sensual, whether that’s wearing provocative outfits or lingerie, reading romance novels, or getting bendy at yoga class. The point is to focus on your needs.’
If you’ve been wearing the same clothes for a week, perhaps spending time choosing something you feel good in – or even just adding a quick spritz of perfume in the morning – will help you feel more attractive.
One really important step Kraft recommends is simply making time for each other. While it’s easy to put intimacy on the back burner when there is so much else being demanded from you, often the only way to maintain intimacy is by making it a real priority. ‘Couples who schedule time to connect with each other have healthier, happier relationships,’ says Kraft. ‘It doesn’t have to result in sex every time. It’s more about making time to have fun together.’
So book a date night, or send the kids to bed and plan a nice meal together. Pick out a film. If you both fall asleep at 8pm, plan an afternoon date on a Sunday.
Ultimately, human touch is essential for both our physical and psychological wellbeing. It has been shown to lower our stress levels, alter the release of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that affects mood) and trigger a release of the hormone oxytocin, which helps us bond with others.
So even if sex is off the agenda for now, look for other ways to experience touch – whether that’s long hugs, back rubs or simply holding hands.