sex IN THE TIME OF QUAR­AN­TINE

Is lock­down a pas­sion killer or does it make the heart grow fonder? Leanne De­lap asks the ex­perts for a few well-po­si­tioned strate­gies to stoke that lovin’ feel­ing

ZOOMER Magazine - - RELATING -

When all-Amer­i­can se­nior heart­throb Kevin Cost­ner, 65, “opened up” to Peo­ple magazine in 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

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?

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 self­care 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.

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