Whether you’re in the lockdown love-in or Covid cold war camp, chances are this pandemic is having an affect on your relationship. Lizzie Gore-Grimes has a number of very frank conversations with other women to talk about our current pandemic passion – or lack of.
Libido. It has taken me three goes to even spell the word correctly. Clearly this is the first time I have written about the subject and yet it’s something that affects every single one of us – male or female, young or old, pandemic or no pandemic.
“As a community in Ireland, sex gets left out of the conversation,” says Sarah Gilligan, a psychotherapist with a specialist interest in relationships, sex and sexuality. “And yet no matter what issue brings a couple into therapy – feeling under-appreciated, going in different directions, clashing parenting styles – we always end up talking about sex.”
Libido highs and lows
We’re enjoying relaxed breakfast and lunch together – and bumping into each other around the house feels like a lovely little tease!
Right now, some people are finding lockdown’s less hectic life schedules doing wonders for their love life, while others are cracking under the strain. Isobel*, is in a long-term relationship for over five years with her partner. It’s a second relationship for both of them (they each have children from previous relationships). “We don’t live together full time,” Isobel explains, “I imagine if we did, with children running around everywhere, things would be different. But at the moment, I’d say lockdown has given our sex life a boost. Instead of being exhausted after a long day we’re both working from home, enjoying relaxed breakfast and lunch together – and bumping into each other around the house feels like a lovely little tease!” But Isobel admits that she knows all too well what it feels like to struggle to want to have sex with a partner (in her former negative relationship). “I know no amount of candle or mood music would do it for me when your heart’s just not in it anymore.”
I used to love sex so it makes me feel sad to be so apathetic about it
“I will freely admit there have been times I am writing tomorrow’s shopping list in my head while having sex, I’m that switched off,” admits Carol*, 12 years married, “It’s not unpleasant, I just feel like I can barely be bothered. I used to love sex so it makes me feel sad to be so apathetic about it.”
Honey, I’m hormone…
There are many reasons a woman can lose her mojo when it comes to sex, explains pharmacist and general common sense queen Laura Dowling (aka @Fabulouspharmacist on Instagram). “I have had countless women over the years talk to me about feeling “dead from the waist down” and indeed, once you hit mid-forties (or earlier for some) you can begin to experience peri-menopause hormonal changes in your body.
Menopause as a topic, alongside sex, has been ‘cloaked’ for too long in this country, but not any more thank god
Even if you don’t have hot flushes or other symptoms your oestrogen may be dropping and your libido alongside it. Menopause as a topic, alongside sex, has been ‘cloaked’ for too long in this country, but not any more thank god.”
In the same way that some women’s sex drive surges during pregnancy while it drops off a cliff for others, the hormonal fluctuations of menopause and peri-menopause can have the same contrasting affect on different women. “It’s important to remember,” continues Laura, “that we’re all living longer. You might be in menopause for half your life, so it is absolutely vital that all women talk about how they’re feeling and seek help and support. No one should feel alone.
If you’re worried about a depressed sex drive, or find sex physically painful, talk to your GP or contact the Menopause Hub in Ireland. There are so many different ways you can support your body and mind in this area. Good quality supplements such as Clean Marine omega oils and Sara’s Choice Maca root can be beneficial too.”
I think some people are possibly grieving the relationship they thought they had compared to the one they are in fact in
And while biological and physiological factors can have a huge part to play in reduced libido, our mind, of course, is the main power player. “Stress and anxiety are both massive intimacy blockers,” says psychotherapist Sarah Gilligan. “When communication starts to break down so will everything else. How can a couple have sex if they are not even having a conversation?”
Many couples have gone from being busy, busy, busy to sitting in the soup with each other
Sarah goes on to make the very interesting point that while she is witnessing a lot of distressed clients declaring that this current situation has brought their relationship to breaking point, it has only been nine weeks, which is not an inordinate amount of time if a relationship has been in place for years. “I think some people are possibly grieving the relationship they thought they had compared to the one they are in fact in.
Many couples have gone from being busy, busy, busy to sitting in the soup with each other. With all the other usual distractions removed they are being forced to really see each other and, in some cases, ask the difficult question, do I actually like you?”
Sarah is adamant that one key question anyone struggling with their relationship must ask themselves is, What are my expectations? Have I lost my perspective? Is what I am expecting of this person fair? She goes on to make the point that right at this moment, many women – and men – have lost access to a vital social lifeline. The kind of intimate chats you only have with really close friends and family, in person, to share worries or frustrations is missing right now and that needs to be taken into account.
We are asking from one person what an entire village used to provide
Esther Perel, the renowned Belgian psychotherapist and author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence agrees wholeheartedly with Sarah when she makes the point, “We are asking from one person what an entire village used to provide.” As our lockdown lives continue, we are missing our wider village and maybe expecting too much from our partners, and indeed ourselves.
French kiss in the kitchen
Complacency is possibly the biggest problem I see arising between couples – we become complacent around care and complacent around affection
Laura Dowling has sound advice for those moments when the very sound of your partner blinking is enough to want to make you scream. “When levels of frustration are at an all time high, give your partner the same lee-way you would if they were a five-year-old child. Take a deep breath before you lose the head, leave the room for 10 minutes, and then forget about it and move on. In other words, give each other a break.
“Complacency is possibly the biggest problem I see arising between couples,” continues Sarah. “Particularly in a long-term relationship, we become complacent around care and complacent around affection.”
Nicola* lives with her husband of two years and toddler at home in Galway, she feels that making a concerted effort to be affectionate is the key for them. “Even if it’s just a quick proper French kiss in the kitchen as we tidy up at the end of the night.”
This issue is not confined to long-term relationships – I have couples together for 8 weeks struggling with this as well as those together for 8 years or 18
“I probably take sex for granted,” admits Rebecca*, married 18 years, “I have it available on tap which makes me libido-lazy. I’ll be honest, I find it hard to gauge my libido levels as I generally have sex when my partner wants it rather than feeling a huge desire to be the instigator. Let me be clear, I never have sex I don’t want but I would more often have to warm up the engine rather than keep it in check!”
I think this is the case for many women in long term relationships, including Carol*, apathy and complacency have crept in, leaving them feeling disconnected from their sex drive. “This issue is not confined to long-term relationships by the way,’” clarifies Sarah. “I have couples together for 8 weeks struggling with this as well as those together for 8 years or 18.”
Tapping back in
When I asked the women I spoke to for this piece to list the factors they felt gave their libido a boost – the inevitable cheeky glass of vino was in there of course, alongside exercise, sunshine, happiness and feeling good about their body. “I think masturbation is something we don’t talk about enough though,” added Rebecca, “While penetrative sex doesn’t always result in orgasm for the woman, masturbation allows you put yourself first and feel safe to experiment.”
It’s important, at any stage in your life, to retrieve the sexuality piece of being a woman, to check in with its perceived loss perhaps, and work on getting it back
Nicola made the point that “Chatting to my girlfriends, sex toys still seem to be a taboo topic, which is a shame because they can seriously enhance your experience, and exploring them together can become a jumping off point to discussing what turns you on, which can sometimes be a tricky topic to bring up.”
“It is interesting that while many couples are comfortable to have sex with each other they are still not comfortable to talk about it,” observes Sarah. But on balance, while the subjects of self-pleasure and experimentation in the bedroom are still taboo for many, there are a growing number of women looking to explore new avenues.
Shawna Scott, owner of Sex Siopa, has noticed a huge uplift in business since Covid-19. “I’m getting multiple emails a day asking for recommendations for newbies. I think it’s great that so many people, the vast majority of which are women, are using this opportunity to get to know their bodies better.”
Communication being key is not a novel view but I like that idea that there are many ways to communicate. Not all verbal. You can communicate your care and affection through small gestures and deeds. “You need to feel intimate in each other’s company before you can feel intimate in bed,” says Sarah. “It’s important, at any stage in your life, to retrieve the sexuality piece of being a woman, to check in with its perceived loss perhaps, and work on getting it back.”
But nothing is a given, there is no one magic answer or magic (blue) pill. As Esther Perel puts it, “Love is a verb. It’s an active engagement. It can ebb and flow with the moon. We think it’s disappeared, and then suddenly it shows up again. It’s not a permanent state of enthusiasm. I’m 35 years in a relationship and I practise. Everyday.”
Wise words. We all have to practise.
And in this case, practise will not make perfect.
But that’s absolutely ok.
*Names have been changed. Sarah Gilligan, sex and relationship psychotherapist, can be contacted through her Capable Minds clinic in Dublin.
Illustrations by Dina A Razin. Follow her on Instagram @dinamalina_illustrations.