Online Therapy with Couples 5/5: Physical Intimacy and the Pandemic
How is the Covid-19 pandemic affecting couples’ sexual lives? In the final installment of his blog series about conducting couple therapy online during the coronavirus crisis, psychologist and author Brad E. Sachs explores the strain on our sense of togetherness and seperateness that lockdown has brought, and the impact of the crisis on our instincts and drives.
Marvin Gaye’s song, Sexual Healing, conveys a lovely sentiment about the curative powers embedded in satisfying erotic contact: ‘… makes me feel so fine, helps to relieve my mind…’
The reality, though, is that physical intimacy, despite its inestimable healing properties, is not always of interest to one or both members of a couple. And when they are in the midst of certain challenging conditions, couples may determinedly eschew, rather than avidly pursue, lovemaking.
It is easy to see how the Covid-19 pandemic produces some of those challenging conditions. For example, the flame of sexual desire requires a balance of togetherness and separateness to be nurtured. When a couple is constantly confined to close quarters due to stay-at-home and work-from-home guidance, separation is rare. What can further calcify this impasse is the lack of privacy resulting from school-aged children and adolescents being home all day, and young adult children who might otherwise be at college or living away from home having returned for a period of time, as well.
One of the most appealing aspects of erotic engagement is the sense of merging with each other. When there are so few boundaries between family members, there is likely to be little enthusiasm for the pursuit of any further merging.
Instincts and drives during a pandemic
Then there is the unceasing matrix of pandemic-related concerns that all couples encounter, having to do with health, work, finances, child-rearing, older and vulnerable family members, and other issues. Simply managing this level of stress requires tremendous mental and physical energy, and summoning that energy means drawing it away from other drives, even natural ones, such as the desire for intimacy. This is similar to when a large appliance like a refrigerator kicks in, and the lights throughout the house temporarily dim.
And then there is the inherent instinct to protect oneself from infection, which means, among other things, staying as far apart from other people as possible. When we are asked to spend our days keeping socially distant, it should come as no surprise that this vigilance may enter the sexual arena and diminish interest in impassioned touch. Even trusted lovers can be seen as (and may in fact function as) viral vectors.
On the other hand, I would have to say that most of the couples with whom I am working these days are either as satisfied with their sexual relationship as they were before the coronavirus made its entrance, and/or they are not particularly troubled by what they perceive as a temporary decline in amatory intensity. Some couples have told me that there have been slight improvements in their sex life, for a variety of reasons, including having more time together as a result of remote work, and feeling more drawn towards each other in loving and comforting ways during such a worrisome time.
With those couples who are struggling with new disappointment in, or ongoing frustration with, their sex lives, therapists can be helpful in some of the following ways. Of course, many of these have relevance whether or not couples are living under the overhang of a deadly public-health crisis:
- Normalising the decline in libido by helping couples to understand the forces at work that create unavoidable obstacles to sexual desire.
- Helping each member to see the importance of preserving individual identity by carving out even small amounts of personal time and space.
- Broadening the definition of sexual intimacy beyond purely erotic contact so that other forms of romantic and affectionate contact (hugging, kissing, holding, massaging, laughing) take on value and significance.
- Encouraging them to be patient with themselves, and with each other, during this unusually disquieting time, and trying to neutralise any tendency for them to blame each other for whatever sexual slump they are in the midst of.
It would be unwise for a couple to expect that pandemic conditions will automatically translate into greater desire for each other. But it would be equally unwise for a couple to ignore the potential benefits of solidifying a sexual bond. At this time, each partner could be needing each other to a greater extent than they ever have before.