A sex and relationships therapist on how keep your relationship healthy during a pandemic
Aoife Drury is a Psychosexual and Relationship Therapist who is passionate about dismantling stigma and myths surrounding sex and relationships. Here, she shares helpful advice on how to keep a relationship healthy while existing under the stress of a continuing pandemic.
Covid has brought unique challenges to us all. However, one of the most prominent stressors are the challenges that we are faced within our relationship. Living through a pandemic with your partner, may have seemed like something from a Meg Ryan movie at first, but now it is riddled with unforeseen stressors. Childcare, health anxiety and finances are just some of the topics that result in conflict.
Open the dialogue
We know what happens when we assume, and irrespective of how much we believe we know our partner, we really don’t. Habitually, we imagine that others are undergoing similar emotions or thoughts as us. Assumptions breed resentments as they entrust expectations that may not be met. The remedy to assumptions are transparent conversations and asking questions so as to prevent mind reading. Think about it this way; we ask people how they take their tea (milk, sugar, strong etc), we don’t assume they have it the same way as us. So, imagine that with experiences, feelings and thoughts too. I implore you to be curious.
Equally, if you are struggling within this overwhelming time, try to be vulnerable. This heightened anxiety may create strong emotional reactions. Try to open up to your partner about your own experience, being clear with “I” statements, saying “I feel” and “I need” are really effective ways of communicating; they take ownership of your emotions and clarity on what may help for you. Give yourself time or tell your loved ones you’re struggling and that you may react uncharacteristically. We are all trying to navigate around this unparalleled time, so be gentle with yourself.
Stealing moments for yourself
At any other stage of our life, we would be having a bit of “me time” on occasion. Perhaps getting to the gym or meeting some friends. The sense of space for ourselves is minimised when there is a restraint about what we are allowed to do. Start by placing parameters around work, life admin and housework as best you can. Creating a routine can create some structure and implement boundaries so that you can actually (try!) chill out. As mentioned above the same rules apply; communicate, communicate, communicate. Delegate responsibilities more and map out a way you can both get that Netflix time in.
Switching it up
Finding new ways to be intimate is a struggle irrespective as to whether we are in a pandemic, things becoming stale is almost an inevitability at some stage, but relationships take work….and creativity! In the smallest of ways think of fun things to cook; sushi, homemade pizza or pancake night. Themed nights should not be excluded; set up a cinema room, have a games night, have an arts and crafts evening. Fun and laughter really is great medicine for dispelling stress, plus if there are little ones, they can get involved.
When it comes to your sex life, change things up too. Take a penetration ban; think of new ways to connect. Massages, mutual masturbation, naked painting, sex toys (Sex Siopa is a great Irish owned shop), make out sessions, reading erotic books together…the list is endless! It may help reframe your views on sex!
So what about those who are not living together but are being massively impacted by the constant of lockdowns?
Long-distance relationships are over-whelming in themselves, this is then amplified when there is a high-level of the unknown, feeling like things are out of our control or plans having to be changed or halted.
Communication is key
Transparent communication is vital to sustain insight as to what may be occurring for you as individuals. This long-distant component means that you both will have to work harder. I always encourage couples to avoid any difficult or tense conversations through text; tone and attitude can be misread. And like I said before; we can create our own narrative as to what we believe is being communicated.
Use your imagination
Try thinking outside of the box to help cultivate an air of excitement. Many local business are finding new ways to gain traction, and this could be a way to implement some fun and thoughtfulness from a distance. Research shops that may be local to your partner, then see if you can buy them a voucher or get an item delivered. Or perhaps look on Etsy or Not On the Highstreet, for personalised gifts. Also don’t discount snail-mail! Use the old-fashioned approach of writing love letters or postcards. Another way to connecting is trying to do things together; you could order each other meals of the same cuisine, bring the laptop to the hob (not too close obvs!) and cook together, bring each other on a walk and describe different things you can see. I know this may sound quite pragmatic but sharing normal parts of life can help the feeling of not being at a distance.
Let’s talk about sex
Being far apart does not have to negate your sex life. Technology has come (pun not intended, but equally fitting!) a long way. There are many things that you can do to still have a sense of intimacy. You can make a replica of your partner’s penis in silicone and even have it vibrating, which is like your own personal dildo. Or, if you have a vagina-owning partner, you can make an imitation of their vulva. There are also toys that connect with an app that you and your partner can use to pleasure each other.
Talking to children
Firstly, manage your own anxiety: Our behaviour around children can be their legacy. We can inherit stress, poor self-esteem, trauma and so much more in our younger years. Children and babies are sponges and if I can tell you one thing your behaviour and feelings are palpable. Your anxious experiences can be tangible to them.
Fake it till you make it
Think for a second about turbulence on a plane. As adults we KNOW that turbulence is common, normal and harmless. It’s pockets of air. But we will still often look around us at other people’s reactions judging and trying to get reassurance as to whether the threat we feel is justifiable. Thing is, with kids, they look at us for reassurance. What I would ask you to do is pretend you are the flight attendant, because when it’s really rocky we look to them and their reactions. They are calm, dignified and cool. Mirror that. Let them see that. Because you are not crashing. This is just pockets of air.
Try providing plenty of distractions and fun. Humour can be a massive antidote to fear. When I spoke earlier about cortisol, the anthesis to that is dopamine (happiness hormone) and oxytocin (the love hormone). So, have lots of fun distractions and plenty of cuddles.
Kids are smart and will have lots of questions. Shutting down questions will only create confusion, upset and anxiety. Talking to them about what is happening in a factual way can alleviate that.
1. Be developmentally appropriate
2. Take your cues from your child; prepare but don’t prompt for questions.
3. Empower them by giving them tips on how to be safe. It may make them feel in charge.
I know that it must be exhausting if you’re stuck at home, trying to juggle demanding kids. What I would say is do not punish yourself for letting them watch YouTube after YouTube clip.
Self-kindness is vital at this time. Mirror the behaviour you would like your children to be experiencing, this can help trick your mind into positive thoughts. Plus, you’re doing a pretty awesome job anyway!