Sex, Communication & COVID: A Therapist’s Guide

Sex, Communication & COVID: A Therapist’s Guide

May 4th 2021

Katherine Friedman, licensed professional counselor, says the COVID-19 pandemic means we all need to be a little more generous with our partners. During and after such stressful times, it’s unrealistic to think we can meet always our partners’ or even our friend’s expectations. Before the pandemic we may have been outgoing, generous and happy—that’s not always going to be the case anymore.

Friedman, of Articulate Desire Sex Therapy and Intimacy Counseling in Oregon, says navigating the pandemic successfully as a couple is doable, and really comes down to communication. We’re happy to share some of her best advice for romantic partners who may be struggling to get along after being stuck indoors, and as COVID variants take hold in different location.

*This interview has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Lora DiCarlo: What are the biggest obstacles to communication couples are facing during the pandemic?

Katherine Friedman: It’s both that people continue to be de-resourced and that they’re getting sick of each other. It’s compounded by the duration of time they’ve been isolated and have been feeling frightened and confined by COVID. They’re in each other’s pocket. The excess closeness of COVID is making it very difficult for people to feel excitement for a partnership.

It’s not true for everybody—some people are thriving—but overall some people are [experiencing] excess, which doesn’t make romance or intimacy particularly appealing.

LD: Does being stuck inside because of COVID put couples in more difficult situations?

KF: Not 100%, but for many couples, yes. There’s less possibility for variety of activity, a sense of boredom and feeling trapped. If there are children involved the possibility of privacy is very limited.

LD: What are some communication tips for couples during COVID? How do they overcome the unique problems the pandemic poses?

KF: Communicate with yourself first. Figure out what it is that is frustrating or painful. What is it that you actually want from your partner? What is it you need to hear or say?

When couples go into a conversation, particularly one that’s emotionally heated, they don’t necessarily think things through ahead of time. So they get into this big mess of yelling what they want, or what they think the other person is doing. I always bring mindfulness in as the first step as effective communication.

Then, lots of patience and lots of willingness to go back to what are, for some people, basic reflective listening skills. Hearing what your partner said and validating it rather than jumping to, “I know when you did that gesture you meant to do X.”

LD: How can couples get alone time even when they're staying together indoors?

KF: Being really deliberate and conscientious is important. I recommend thinking about the living space and structuring private [areas.] Even write it down in schedules, “these are my two hours when I’m by myself. These are your two hours when you’re by yourself.”

Walks are a great idea. Drives are a good idea. Any kind of physical activity like yoga, meditation, a bike ride, can be really wonderful. I also think to the extent it’s within your risk profile, maintaining independent relationships and friendships that don’t put pressure on the romantic partnership is really essential.

That’s part of what’s going on, people’s relationships are overburdened. If they have a live-in or single partner as their sole support and their sole companion, that’s really brutal.

When you're in a situation where [your partner is the] only person you can talk to regularly, codependency is hard to escape. Codependency is a high risk right now, even if it wasn’t a pattern before.

LD: Do you think it's more important for partners to foster and nurture relationships with other friends and family right now?

KF: To the extent it’s possible and to the extent it’s something that people desire. Having other people in your life you can talk to can remove excess pressure from the romantic relationship.

It’s just not possible for some people. People are so unbelievably pushed to the end of their limits that they may not have the bandwidth. If somebody has a draining relationship with a family member, pursuing that isn’t going to benefit the primary relationship.

But if they have supportive friendships where they can find joy and can get re-charged, that’s probably gonna help them have more to bring to their partnership.

LD: How has COVID-19 impact intimacy and sex habits?

KF: Not everybody, but the vast majority of people are having down turns in their sex lives and in their interest in intimacy. It challenges people to redefine as what they think of as intimacy and find things that are mutually nurturing on a close and intimate level that may or may not be sex.

Cuddling, more sensual time together, setting aside special time to do something that both people really want to do, like listening to music, cooking together, playing a game together, structuring their time, maybe being naked together without pressure.

People are exhausted so libido is done. Vulnerability can make some people feel very sexy but most couples don’t have a lot of vitality in their sex drives, unless they’re a newer couple.

There’s also a lot of potential for people to do parallel sexual play right now, like mutual masturbation. That takes a lot of pressure off. People’s sexual selves are being very challenged.

LD: What are your tips for increasing intimacy and keeping sex lives healthy during COVID?

KF: The best thing couples can do if they want to maintain a sex life is to have an open dialogue. Lots of open dialogue, lots of self-examination around what’s coming up for you as an individual in your beliefs of your sexual self.

If you think of yourself as a person who’s always ready to go, and you’re feeling a little less that way, give yourself permission to be different than the person you are when you’re not under COVID isolation. This might be a great opportunity to just play with touch on non-gential areas and to see what that feels like. If you’re a couple that goes straight for the erogenous zones, discover areas of the body that are erotic you didn’t realize before. Open your idea of what intimacy and sexuality is.

When one partner has less libido, it’s a difficult conversation to have. It’s important to understand that libido is not personal to the other partner. My approach to sexuality is holistic, because it’s connected to all the other parts of our bodies and spirits. To expect our libidos to be what they would be under a different circumstance is unrealistic.You can say “I love you so much. I wish I was more interested in sex, but right now I just want to cuddle. I still think you’re so sexy but my body is not responding right now. I look forward to when we have sex again”.

LD: Do you have any words of caution as we move into a season when people typically suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and seasonal depression?

KF: It’s just that much more important to be aware of what works for you in terms of self-care. I’m talking to clients about what they’ve done in the past, and what they can do now to mitigate [the risk]. If they’re someone who usually works with sun lamps, work with it.

I have a fireplace. I ordered some good wood, so I can have lovely fires. It’s almost like preparing for your holidays now. Prep for the winter. Does that mean it’s going to change the way you cook? Does that mean you’re going to set up a really cozy bedroom?

Go outside if there’s light to be had. Take Vitamin D. Try not to give into the [depressive] inertia that would be really easy to give into.

LD: Can you give some signs partners may need couples therapy or individual therapy? Maybe some warning signs that could prevent depression spirals?

KF: Try to be attuned to if you have a history of depression or anxiety. For people who have a tendency to be anxious, the likelihood is that they’re anxious right now. If their tendency is depression, the likelihood is that they’re depressed right now. Anything that comes and goes, people are at higher risk for.

In terms of whether people need therapy. Is the distress great enough that it impacts your life in a negative way? And getting in the way of your ability to function?

Personally, while I don’t have room for new clients right now, what I do have room for is one-off coaching sessions and consulting around sex and intimacy. I’m also generating some curriculum about learning what you want and how to articulate it to a partner both during COVID and not during COVID. I’ll be sending out more details and encourage those who want it to reach out to or check out for these resources, some of which are free.

My individual practice is exploding and that’s true of most if not all mental health practitioners. That’s how much people need mental health support.

LD: What else should couples watch out for during the coronavirus pandemic?

KF: It’s important for people to be aware of their own risk profiles, and that’s where there’s potential for conflict for couples. Where one person wants to go out and go to restaurants, and the other person is like “we’re not going out. We’re getting groceries delivered.”

That’s a place of real strain and some of it is not fully resolvable. Be really careful and loving with each other. It can breed a lot of resentment and distrust. If you don’t trust them that absolutely erodes the relationship and the intimate connections.

People don’t wanna be sexy with people they don’t feel safe with.