Relationships, sex and lockdown 3

We are plunged into another lockdown. What is the impact on our relationships and sex lives?

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This January 2021 is a dark month in the UK. We have been told that the COVID-19 R-number has increased. The rate of new infections broke a new record. There have been more deaths reported in one single day than ever before since the pandemic began. We are plunged into another lockdown. London has declared a state of ‘major incident’ as the hospitals are at full capacity. A dark month indeed. 

Some of us wonder if there will ever be a ‘back to normal’. Has the pandemic changed the world we used to know permanently? We have been hearing about the impacts of COVID-19 on our lives almost every day since March last year, it is now definitely feeling like a ‘new normal’, but an undesirable one. Many people lost loved ones prematurely and under terrible circumstances. Indeed, for them, life will never be the same again. 

Vulnerable people

Many elderly people and those with underlying medical conditions have to shield again. Before COVID-19, we all read reports highlighting a loneliness problem with older people in the UK. Now, in COVID-19 times, loneliness has become the silent killer that will not feature in the virus death statistics. 

We are relationship people, we survive and thrive in connection. Many older and vulnerable people are unable to use technology to see their loved ones, many will only have the contact of a care worker whose face has to be mostly hidden by a mask. These people are losing the very one thing that had been keeping them alive: meaningful human connection. The lack of long-term connection erodes mental and physical health. We need to protect our vulnerable people against the virus and also against loneliness. 

What is the solution? 

We must not forget about them, and we need to continue to find a way to provide human connection for them. Perhaps we need to go back to basics and write letters to them. Or we can make more phone calls. Hearing a loved one’s voice can be as powerful as seeing them. If you walk in the street and you see an elderly person walking on the other pavement, look at them, give them a wave, say hello, or just smile. Every little helps. 

Romantic relationships 

We are worn out. Even the hope of a quick vaccine roll out is not enough to lift the gloom of having to endure yet another two or three months of strict restrictions. Unfortunately, there is no alternative solutions at the moment. Many people are overwhelmed with so much loss: financial uncertainty, loss of employment, daily existential dread, lack of physical space, emotional exhaustion, chronic intense stress and anxiety, a major loss of lifestyle, daily bad news, the pressure of home-schooling. It’s no surprise many individuals and couples are struggling with their relationships. When there is a lot of stress and exhaustion in people’s lives, emotional resilience gets depleted which increases irritation and ultimately lead to arguments. If couples don’t have enough skills to repair their hurt, they can enter a cycle of ongoing conflicts. Over time, resentment can take permanent tenancy in people’s relationships; this is when, for some couples, this trajectory marks the beginning of the end. 

 What is the solution? 

Use good communications skills: 

1-    Make your statements with ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ when you speak to your partner. The ‘you’ statement can sound like you’re pointing fingers at them. The ‘I’ statement encourages talking about you, your thoughts and feelings, which is more productive. 

2-    Avoid criticism. Yes, your partner is not perfect. But then again, nobody is. In these difficult times, you can focus on what your partner does well, rather than what they could improve on. A little bit of appreciation for your partner can go a long way in making your couple space warmer. 

3-    Brainstorm.  Rather than criticising, how about brainstorming with your partner when there is a problem. Brainstorming opens up creative thinking and it fosters a sense of team-work. It helps consolidate your relationship. 

4-    Kindness. We can all do with a lot more kindness at the moment. Before you speak, take an extra moment to ask yourself if your words are kind. There is plenty of things you can say to your partner in kindness, rather than bitterness. We do benefit psychologically from being kind to others.  

5-    Radical acceptance. This means to accept your partner’s flaws, and to remind yourself to love your partner how they are today, not to keep wishing they were better. If you really think your partner doesn’t meet your needs at all, perhaps you do need to think about whether the relationship is right for you. Of course, if your partner is abusive, it is important to think about your well-being first. But, often, it is not about your partner needing to change, it is about you being more realistic with the expectations you put on your partner. One person can’t fulfil all of your needs at all times. 

 Sex 

People are facing difficulties in their sex lives in this pandemic time. Some are concerned they’re feeling compulsive with sex, whilst others have seen their sexual desire plummeting.  

 Compulsive sex 

The brain chemicals involved in sexual desire, arousals, touch and orgasms are all natural feel-good chemicals, including dopamine (reward), serotonin (mood stabiliser), oxytocin and vasopressin (love, bonding), and endorphins (pain killer). As you can imagine, we can re-balance our physical and mental health system with sex. For many, sex is a major part of their sense of aliveness, excitement and zest for life, which helps with feeling reconnected with themselves, especially during the pandemic (by sex, I mean masturbation with or without pornography, sex with someone in your household or cybersex, to be COVID-safe). 

 Sexual fantasies, sexual contacts, sexual distractions and orgasms are all normative ways to self-soothe when there is a period of stress and anxiety. Sexologist Jack Morin proposed that stress and anxiety can be an emotional aphrodisiac for some people. In our society, it is often perceived as ‘wrong’ to masturbate or have sex for regulating emotions, even when people are not that horny, but it is actually a very good way to self-care.

 However, if sex is your only strategy to self-soothe, it might start to feel compulsive. The more you encounter unpleasant emotions (at the moment it can be daily), the more sex might feel compelling and out of control. 

 What is the solution? 

First of all, don’t feel shame about it, and don’t berate yourself with thoughts like ‘I’m a sex addict’. Stay reassured that many sexology research showed that sex and pornography are not addictive, so you don’t have a disease. In fact, it can even be counter-productive to try to stop your behaviours, especially if it is the only strategy that you have for self-soothing. What you can do instead is to find ways to add new strategies. The more self-soothing strategies you have, the less the sex one will be compelling because you’ll have many more to choose from. Some new self-care methods you can try are: 

1-     Connecting with nature 

2-     Taking a break from social media and news 

3-     Doing yoga 

4-     Allowing yourself to cry

5-     Smelling a soothing scent 

6-     Taking a nap

7-     Having meaningful connections with friends (online) 

8-     Playing with your pet 

9-     Having a quiet moment for yourself

10-  Being kind to yourself, banishing self-critical and self-punishing thoughts

11-  Thinking of gratitude

12-  Playing your favourite music and dancing (at home)

13-  Laughing 

14-  Reading something you love

15-  Imagining a happy and safe place for yourself

16-  Moderate exercise

17-  Finding a good therapist who works with a sex-positive philosophy that is a non-‘sex addiction’ framework.

 

Low sexual desire

In order to be in a good space for sex, our body and our mind need to be ready for it. Although stress and anxiety can be an emotional aphrodisiac as mentioned above, too much of it can produce the opposite. If people feel significant distress, they won’t feel sexual because the ‘survival mode’ is not compatible with the ‘erotic mode’. Many people describe feeling ‘flat’, ‘lethargic’, ‘tired’ because of the pandemic. Many have also reported gaining weight or not feeling good and sexy. People who feel bad about their appearance and people who experience low energy are likely to have a drop in their sexual desire, sometimes their libido might even completely disappear for a while. 

 Many people who contracted COVID-19 are experiencing a long recovery time. For some, it will take time for the body to be ready for sex again. People have described feeling shame for catching COVID-19 because they worry others will perceive them as the ‘careless’ ones, or the ones who didn’t follow the rules. The sound of the cough becomes associated with an infectious disease, people think of themselves as contagious, even long after they are in fact contagious. It is all very unsexy. People with long COVID have an extended period of time struggling with not being able to do what they used to do easily, people can lose their sense of self. 

 What is the solution? 

The best way to overcome low sexual desire in these circumstances is not to push it and not putting pressure on yourself to ‘get better’ or to ‘recover your sexuality’. Many people who lose their sexual desire are worried that it will be gone forever, but it is important to remind yourself that sexual desire does return when the physical and emotional balance is right again. With long COVID, it might take a long time, but, paradoxically, the less you focus on sexual desire returning, the easier and quicker it will return. Take that time to pay great attention to your body and listen to it. If it doesn’t want to be sexual, it is telling you it is not yet ready: honour it and be kind to it, rather than being frustrated by it. Compassion, love and kindness to yourself and your body goes a long way. 

 Of course, there are some other things you can do to help: for example, make sure you do some moderate exercise – not to lose weight, but for health (serotonin and endorphin get released with exercise, so it’s good). You can be mindful of eating well, not counting calories but enjoy a lovely Mediterranean diet. You can decide to wear your favourite clothes, even if you don’t go out. If you have a partner, make sure you talk openly and honestly about your lack of sexual desire, and make a commitment to each other to be patient, and, in the meantime, find reassurance in talking about your attraction to each other still being alive. 

 You can also do things that are sensual rather than sexual: a long bath, a non-sexual massage from your partner, reading erotica, or even sharing sexual fantasies with your partner. Sometimes, these small little erotic things are possible because they don’t require the high energy of sex, but they can reassure you that your erotic world is not completely dead. 

Remember that the biggest sexual organ is the brain, so thinking of some hot fantasies and sharing them with your partner (if you feel comfortable doing so) can make a big difference, even if you laugh about it (sometimes laughing about sex is really good too). 

 Whatever your struggles during this pandemic, remember that you’re not alone. Some of us are more privileged than others, but the entire world is struggling. In these strange times, the best thing you can do for yourself is being your own best friend by treating yourself with kindness and not putting extra pressure on yourself to keep achieving more. Take the time that you need to rest, and breathe. 

Silva Neves

Psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist. Accredited by COSRT. UKCP registered.

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