Living alone is challenging right now. Living with someone . . . well, it’s got its disadvantages too. As week four of staying indoors beckons, Sarah Taaffe-Maguire (Sunday Business Post) asks a trio of relationship experts to share their tips on making romantic relationships work while in confinement.
Michelle Murray is a mental health occupational therapist and founder of Anchor Therapy Mental Health Services in Dublin.
Being forced to spend an indefinite time with your partner can be a challenge for many. The coronavirus has shifted you into a new reality of being at home with your partner all day, day after day. Communi-cation and routine are key elements to helping you navigate the next few months in isolation.
Here’s a first question to consider: are you living with someone who is uncharacteristically anxious about the coronavirus? For many people, the uncertainty around this situation can be the hardest thing to handle. If the answer is yes, consider the following:
- Validating your partner’s fear and worry can be an important step in showing them that you care. Sometimes, simply stating that you hear them and you’re here for them might be enough. Ask yourself, “Am I acknowledging my partner’s anxiety, and do I allow them to feel fear without judgment”? This can be a process of acceptance that your partner’s feelings are valid. Encourage your partner to chat with someone through online counseling if their worry is impacting on their ability to cope day to day.
- Support your partner to only check the news and social media reports for a limited period each day. If this is still too worrying for them, perhaps you could relay information to them at an allocated time each day. Plan distracting and relaxing activities to engage in with your partner such as dancing or walking. Plan some virtual activities with friends or other family members. This could be a quiz or charades. Perhaps someone could help you organize this at a set time each week.
- Encourage your partner to only read/listen to Covid-19 updates from trustworthy sources such as the WHO, HSE, and reliable newspapers. This will avoid sensationalistic coverage that feeds their fear.
- Look after yourself: if you’re finding you’re becoming stressed looking out for your partner, be sure to find your own support and outlets also. Remember that you need to be able to look after yourself before you can help others.
Question two: are you living with someone who is ignoring the recommended precautions, breaking the rules, and in denial about the seriousness of this virus?
People have different ways of viewing our current crisis and may have different ways of reacting and coping. It’s difficult if your partner is on a different page to you. Remember that you can’t control your partner’s actions, what you can control is how you respond to them.
- Share how you’re feeling about the situation. Explain your concerns to your partner in a way that you think they will understand best. Perhaps write down what you’d like to say, and show it to them or say your thoughts aloud using clear, assertive language. For example: “I’m upset and frustrated because the current guidelines are important to me and . . .” If you don’t feel listened to or heard, perhaps reach out to a professional for some support with this.
- Share your problem: chat with a friend or a family member who knows your partner and consider asking them to help you. If you don’t feel comfortable chatting, you could use a journal; write down your thoughts.
- Create a ‘time out’ space in your home. You can go here and practice taking a few deep breaths, play your favorite song, practice a hobby, or just dance or scream until you feel good. Do something in your time out space that makes you feel good!
- Allocate time in the day to see your partner and time to spend alone. If you’re finding that being around your partner is particularly difficult for you now, voice this to someone. Reach out and know that you are not alone.
Therapist Teresa Bergin tackles sexual relationships during Covid-19.
In the very early days of this pandemic, some of us may have seen confinement at home as an opportunity to focus on all the things that normal life precludes; de-cluttering, spring leaning, catching up on reading, dusting off shelved projects, and devoting more time to sexual relationships. For some, this last one has been a welcome opportunity.
The usual pace of life can very often mean that there’s little time or energy for sex; being stuck at home affords some a new opportunity to revisit and renew sexual intimacy. Indeed the reduced stress of work and commuting can also allow people to focus on pleasure and the anxiety that people are currently feeling about what’s going on in the world can draw us together and foster closeness, bonding, and increased sexual intimacy.
This is not the case for everyone, however. The current reality is that children are at home all the time and there is reduced privacy for sex. Couples with kids are telling me that they are finding themselves more tired as they juggle working from home and ensuring the children are keeping up with schoolwork or keeping them entertained.
For some people, the increased time together with a partner may trigger resentment, anger, and conflict – none of which is conducive to sexual intimacy. A 2008 study on the Wenchuan earthquake found that 67 percent of women were having sex two to three times a week before the earthquake. This figure fell to 4 percent in the week after and one month later 24 percent reported the same frequency, clearly illustrating the impact that a time of crisis can have on sexual relationships.
To find a way through this, it’s important that we understand how sexual desire functions and how it may be affected by our circumstances. Sexual arousal is a complex business; it’s highly individual and determined by a multitude of factors. The flight or fight mode of increased anxiety can either increase or decrease our interest in sexual activity but typically anxiety and depression will have a negative impact on the libido.
Right now, very many are experiencing anxieties around almost all aspects of life as there are family, health, financial, and employment worries. The sex educator Emily Nagoski very helpfully describes sexual desire as having brakes and accelerators. The accelerator is pressed when the brain decodes something as sexually relevant and exciting, the brake is on when the brain detects reasons to be turned off – worry, anxiety, and conflict mean our systems hit the brakes. This is a useful time to begin to see desire as emerging in response to, rather than in anticipation of erotic stimulation. In other words, if we create and place ourselves in a sensual atmosphere, then arousal can develop.
Some couples are finding that one of them is much more anxious than usual, or even uncharacteristically anxious, and this is impacting sexual desire. When we’re anxious, we can be irritable, distracted, and impatient. In response to this, our assumptions and perceptions can go into overdrive and we are at risk of misinterpretation.
Take time to talk about worries and anxieties and try to avoid blame and accusation. Open up some space to listen and try to empathize: when we feel heard, we are more likely to feel calmer and move closer, and this may pave the way towards physical intimacy.
Think about how you can recreate some of this at home. When the kids are in bed, light the candles and have a dinner date, even better if you can both dress up as if you were going out. Turn off the screens, turn up the music, and dance together as you might have done back when you were dating – couples could really do with some fun and laughter right now.
Read erotic stories to each other: you may find yourself laughing your way through it, so much the better! If time and privacy allow, park the idea of sex, and instead agree to have a slow, sensual massage with oils. This reframe helps enormously to take the pressure off sex and allow for an intimate connection.
Time apart is also essential to intimacy; we need to be engaged in our own individual worlds in order to reconnect. Allow the other separate time to read, listen to music, talk to friends, and exercise so that there are some small separate experiences to bring back into the relationship.
Above all, during this challenging time for relationships, extend some patience, kindness, and empathy towards your partner-this may go a long way towards maintaining connection and fostering sexual intimacy.
Teresa Bergin is a psychotherapist and sex and relationship therapist with Mind and Body Works, Dublin 2. The experienced team of psychotherapists at Mind and Body Works is currently offering online video appointments for a wide range of issues.
What if your love object is at further than arm’s length? Psychotherapist and couples counselor Lisa O’Hara shares advice on maintaining long-distance relationships during lockdown
All relationships need to regulate themselves in terms of how much closeness and separateness can be accommodated. There is no ‘one size fits all’. Some people need more closeness for security and connection and will struggle with being apart, whilst others are more comfortable with space and being on their own and that is not determined by gender. This type of difference is a common experience in a relationship and it usually settles itself over time.
The added complication at present is the uncertainty about when it will be possible to be together again. Freedom of movement has been taken out of the equation and couples that are not normally apart will need to learn new ways to stay connected without being physically present.
Communication is a vital part of connection but if we are stressed, it can give rise to misunderstandings and disconnection can happen, leaving the relationship feeling somewhat pinched. Take a look at therapist and bestselling author Esther Perel’s YouTube videos, where she offers guidance on how to stay connected in the face of disagreement and how to repair the rupture. Being able to resolve conflict helps couples to become masters rather than disasters in relationships.
World-renowned researchers and clinical psychologists Drs John and Julie Gottman found that some couples exhibited certain behaviors that helped to build a climate of trust and intimacy, making them more emotionally and physically comfortable with each other. Lookup The Four Horsemen on Gottman.com to learn more about these instructive behavioral tendencies.
Relationships are a delicate balance of seeking and receiving love. Bonds work better when we understand each other. How we communicate and feel loved can vary. These are called love languages and in order to find out your dominant love language, see 5lovelanguages.com.
For example, if your love language is quality time, then perhaps your partner could arrange to set some time aside for you online or by phone with no distraction and that can help to deepen your bond. Similarly, if they like receiving gifts, you might send them something you know they’d like in the post. Unfortunately, although we might be coming from a good place, we can trip ourselves up when we demonstrate our love for our partner with our own love language, not realizing that their language might be different.
It is arguably hardest for those couples where a physical connection is a strong part of the bond. They will need to rely on other strengths in their relationship, and in themselves as individuals, to get through this. If they can tell each other that they really miss it, then at least they are in it together and it can ease the pain of not having that need met for now.
This is an extraordinary time for us all and it demands that we find ways to cope until it passes. Being able to soothe ourselves in distress is difficult. Sometimes, we do need a little extra support from an outside source, but we also need to learn how to support ourselves emotionally from the inside when the going gets tough. Don’t forget that support is out there, even if that support must come through a screen, for now.
Lisa O’Hara is a Dublin-based counselor and psychotherapist specializing in relationship issues. Her services are currently available online via www.mindandbodyworks.com