The Coronavirus has affected how we live, how we work, how we congregate and how we experience touch and intimacy. The world at large has had to renegotiate the common norms of social intimacy with distancing measures that are increasing daily.
Couples are facing a new reality: confinement at home, the need to keep children occupied and help them cope with stress and uncertainty, as well as provide comfort and reassurance to one another.
How can couples navigate their intimate relationships during this time?
There have already been several posts and articles providing marital tips for couples. Find time to be alone with yourself and take a bubble bath. Play games with your partner, try new positions, and don’t forget about your hygiene. Hug, reassure and give each other massages.
These are great tips but they won’t be helpful for everyone.
For many couples it may be difficult to implement these tips if there are small kids at home to care for, children with special needs, or elderly parents to worry about. They may not be practical for those living in a small home with no bathtub in which to take a leisurely bubble bath. Moreover, the threat of illness, loss of income and worries about the future puts people in survival mode, making it difficult to breathe sometimes, let alone meditate.
All couples are different. Some are in healthy and loving marriages and communicate well, while others are in frequent conflict, and fight and bicker regularly under normal circumstances. As a couples therapist I have learned that trying to implement behavioral tips to couples who are experiencing distress, high anxiety, and conflict often triggers an already ongoing power struggle.
Survival mode means getting ready to function through a stressful period. Anxiety is appropriate as it motivates us to prepare for the unknown and to, well, survive. In this mode we are not fully relaxed and the expectation to “work on” intimacy during this time by playing games and giving each other long, sensual massages may be impractical. The intimacy and the sex that many couples are used to experiencing require freedom from high levels of anxiety and an overall sense of security.
Therefore, the answer to maintaining a healthy loving relationship does not lie in what you do, but rather how you do it. It means stepping up with being attuned compassionate and caring rather than arguing over whose turn it is to wash the dishes. It means being self-aware and communicating your feelings to your partner, rather than internalizing them until you explode.
Maintaining intimacy during these difficult times is not about how often you get to have sex, or what new positions to try. It is about how each couple can adapt to the crisis by coming together rather than moving apart. It is about taking turns providing reassurance and comfort, as well as sharing responsibility taking care of children and performing household chores. It also may mean reframing the meaning of intimacy and sex.
We value multiple meanings for sex. Sometimes it is about physical pleasure, and other times it’s about bonding and intimacy. Sex can be about playfulness and recreation and it can even feel spiritually uplifting. Sometimes it’s a combination of all of the above.
If sex provides vitality and reduces anxiety, couples will continue to find a way to engage in it. Even if sex was scheduled and routine, it now may become a place of refuge, providing satisfaction and normalcy in this abnormal situation. If, however, sex has felt like an obligation, has not been pleasurable or is painful, it wasn't worth having before, and isn’t likely to be desired now.
This is a challenging time for individuals, couples and families, and it will impact the emotional and physical relationship. For couples that are in high-conflict marriages, this is the time to take the high road in the interest of the family’s sense of safety and security.
This may be the perfect opportunity for all couples to experience their emotional and physical relationship with vitality and resilience. For more in-depth discussion of this subject, listen to Episode 20 of the Intimate Judaism podcast.