For many of us right now, sex couldn’t be further from our minds. Our usual routines have been turned upside down and the way we are living can be challenging for even the most harmonious of relationships. But what if we viewed this time as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset and refresh our sex lives?
The fact that sex isn’t a priority for a large proportion of people fits with findings from sex research along with, well, common sense. Stress and anxiety are known to reduce our sexual desire and a preoccupation with the news, our finances, the health of our loved ones, or how much is in our store cupboards, can understandably slow the wheels of our sex life to a standstill.
But for some of us, the opposite happens. Sex boosts our mood and increases our feelings of connection and wellbeing. Some people are motivated to have sex to relieve stress or find that they naturally feel more sexual in times of fear and anxiety, so for them desire might be on the up and an important means of coping.
For the good of your relationship, it’s worth considering whether you know how each of you relates to sex in times of stress and make this knowledge explicit. How does dramatic change affect the libidos of you and your partner? What if one of you sees a rise and the other a fall in sexual appetite in the next few months? How can you manage this discrepancy? Research shows again and again that it’s not the difference that can be damaging, but the lack of discussion and acknowledgement around it.
It’s also useful to know a little bit about how desire actually works. We have been socialised to understand sexual desire as a drive, a feeling you have out of the blue. It’s true that many of us experience these feelings – and more so in the early years of a relationship – but this is certainly not the only way to experience desire, and definitely not the most common way in a long-term relationship.
At these times, sex may well be the last thing on your mind
Every day of the week I see evidence of the 34% of women and 15% of men in the UK with concerns about their lessening interest in sex as they arrive at my clinic for counselling. The truth about desire is that we don’t truly understand how it operates and, if we did, we’d manage our sex lives very differently indeed.
This is the opportunity we have ahead of us right now and some of us may be in the right headspace to take advantage of it.
It’s important to know that in long-term relationships, many people don’t ever feel like sex out of the blue, but instead need to have their desire triggered. These are the people who say to me in therapy: “I never feel like having sex, but when we do it’s great and I say to my partner, we should do this more often!” This is a normal manifestation of desire in a long-term relationship and not feeling like it from the outset shouldn’t be something to worry about.
Our societal expectations of desire have trickled down from the findings of sex science in the middle of the last century, as pioneers such as Alfred Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson made headlines with the study of human sexuality and how sex “worked”.
In sex research, the popular view of the time was that desire came first, before our bodies become aroused. When I speak to my clients for therapy, I hear the practical legacy of this societal understanding: “We don’t kiss passionately other than as part of sex”; “I never feel like it so I avoid going to bed at the same time as him/her so he/she doesn’t get the wrong idea.”
Over the decades, attitudes and understanding have progressed and we know now that sexual desire is a more complex process. Often we can start from a position that isn’t triggered by sexual longing alone, but other factors – think “stress relief” or “wanting to feel connected” or even “wanting to feel like it”. This motivation – which is neither a sex drive nor unbridled lust – encourages us to either make advances, or be open to advances in the right circumstances. Only once there is sexual stimuli – such as a passionate kiss – might desire then make an appearance. This means we’re often instinctively doing the very opposite of what our desire might need, and curtailing any opportunity we have to trigger it.
Couples who do fun activities together feel more connected
When I talk through these newer understandings of desire with my clients, it can be a complete game changer. Not only do they realise that they are not broken, but they understand that the way they have been managing their sex lives is all wrong.
Waiting to feel like it in the context of a busy life when you only have half an hour alone together a day and you’re both exhausted, does not constitute “the right circumstances” and is very unlikely to work anyhow. All the elements that we rely on to fuel sexual desire, such as novelty, a lack of pressure that “A must lead to B” and a lack of predictability, make it even more challenging in long-term relationships. Challenging, but not in the slightest bit impossible.
Another danger is to assume that sex should be the last thing on our minds at the moment, with so much else to worry about. Even though it is viewed in our society as a frivolous recreational pursuit, it is anything but. Sex meets psychological and relational needs, and sexual satisfaction has been shown to boost mood, self-esteem and wellbeing.
A good sex life has also been shown to act as a buffer against a drop in relationship satisfaction – and I think we can all agree that feeling connected to our partners and experiencing improved psychological wellbeing are important right now.
In this sense, there is no better time for many couples to nourish their desire. Long-term monogamous relationships bring with them the most challenges for maintaining desire – especially for women – and there are many reasons for this. One is the dilution of our roles as sexual partners by the prevalence of other less sexy roles, such as being housemates or co-parents.
Many of us currently find ourselves suddenly seeing an increase in the amount of childcare in our day, or by the introduction of a new role at home together – as work colleagues. These changes are necessary and temporary, but risk the squeezing out of any time we might have left to relate to each other as sexual partners.
Sexual currency reminds you both of your role as sexual partners
There are two ways we can respond to this. One is to increase the moments in the day we relate to each other as sexual partners, which I call “sexual currency”. Sexual currency can be defined as anything that’s not “sex”, but you would only do with a partner. It might look like a five-second lingering kiss rather than a peck on the cheek, a suggestive glance, a compliment, an unexpected touch as you pass each other in the kitchen. Sexual currency not only marks out and reminds you both of your role as sexual partners, but can also be a stepping stone to a natural transition to more sexual ground, should you wish to head in that direction. Sexual currency is also, of course, a trigger for desire.
The second change you could make is thinking about how you spend the time you have together. Research tells us that couples who engage in challenging, exciting or fun activities together have more desire than couples who spend that time doing something else (think Netflix). This means that swapping one of those evenings watching TV to cook something elaborate together, play a game or even planning where you’ll go when you can finally travel again, could be just what you need to feel connected sexually.
Only you can know whether this time is fertile ground for your sex life or not – and whether you use these weeks to nurture it, or put it on hold. One thing is for sure – your sex life is unlikely to be unaffected by the strange and difficult times we find ourselves in
Dr Karen’s top three tips for boosting desire
Stop Faking It Faking orgasms reinforces the sexual scripts we currently have available to us by creating the illusion that women are just as satisfied by the way sex is happening as men are. Faking it also affirms the false belief held by society that most women can come from penetrative sex.
Plan time for each other The mistake many couples make is waiting for desire to emerge without doing anything to encourage it, so no desire emerges. The key thing here is that having a good sex life is not always about needing to be on the same page, or wanting as much sex as your partner, but the success with which you navigate these differences.
Plan time for yourself Masturbation provides a great opportunity for people to enjoy their sexuality outside of a relationship, connect with their sexuality, know what works for them, and trigger arousal and desire.
Dr Karen Gurney is a psychosexual therapist for the NHS and author of Mind The Gap: The Truth about Desire and How to Futureproof Your Sex Life (£14.99, Headline). Buy it for £12.89 at guardianbookshop.com