• The Covid-19 lockdown has challenged and changed many of our relationships, perhaps in unexpected ways

  • Couples therapist Gilead Yeffett explores how couples are navigating changes in their sex lives 

  • Our therapists and counsellors are available to work with you online during lockdown – find your therapist here 

Many intimate couples report experiencing an unexpected turn in their relationship recently. The concern that the lockdown period would lead to conflict and tension has surprised many in how they handle difficult moments. In a sense it is a paradigm shift. The shift from who is right and justified to the acceptance that ‘we are in it together’ and that ‘there is no escape’ makes many couples feel an increased sense of teamwork and friendship. Some couples also speak about how they get to know each other better in many ways.

Yet, it is very common for couples to also report that whilst their friendship has strengthened, their sex life has diminished or has ceased altogether.

What is happening?

Of course, each couple will describe their own personal and unique experience, yet, here I consider two main trends that I often see.

The first trend is closeness, too much of it. Becoming a long-term couple entails pulling many resources together, some are obvious, like money and time. Others, less so, are our emotions. Slowly, as partners cooperate more, they start to synchronise their behaviour and rhythm to meet and match the other’s needs, wants and expectations.  This closeness, which is necessary for enduring and caring relationship can also have a side-effect: it narrows the space that is necessary for sexual desire; talking about desires and fantasies can become embarrassing and uncomfortable. For the erotic mind to thrive, it needs space for mystery, curiosity and imagination.

Being at home together 24/7, sometimes with kids, may accelerate diminishing sexual desire in long-term romantic relationship, a process that in normal times would take longer. Various studies show that this decline starts between two to four years into the relationship.

The second trend is the disappointment that comes from knowing someone too well and realising that they do not meet sexual expectations, dreams or fantasies. This disappointment can create an emotional and psychological gap in an otherwise close relationship. It can be difficult to talk about sexual disappointment with someone who is very close to you. Here as well, being together 24/7 can accelerate this process that would otherwise take longer.

What we can see is either too narrow or too wide a gap between the partners in a relationship – they become too similar to or too different.

If this rings a bell, you are not alone; this is a struggle that many modern couples share.

Things you can do

  • Talk and map your relationship – try to understand where you are located. If you identify that you have become too close, even sibling-like in your relationship, work on creating space for the erotic. If it is too far emotionally and you want to stay together, it will be fruitful to create a safe environment to talk it through. It may not necessarily lead to sex, but it will open a door to honest conversations.
  • Go easy and be tender with each other, it may not be easy to reintroduce sex into your relationship, despite the closeness. Especially if the last time you had sex was long ago.
  • Make sex a priority. Research suggests that couples who enjoy a rich and active sex life do so because they make it a priority. Being erotic is a state of mind rather than an event. Keeping this state of mind alive and active requires time and attention. Here is a link to a research I am currently conducting (anonymous and short). Its content may help you to understand you how you approach sex.
  • Sometimes, satisfying sex needs a scaffolding to hold it. This means, that relying on spontaneity as the only measure of good sex may be limited and have a negative effect on intimacy. Some sex needs planning and preparing for. Especially, when there are children at home and privacy is nearly impossible.
  • There are two types of sex that a couple can have: the familiar that contributes to strengthening the bond, and the novel that is about excitement and emotional risk. Talk about which you would like to engage with beforehand. If it is novel sex, the sex menu that follows may help you understand and talk about what you may consider or not.

Having said all this, you may not want to have sex with your partner for many reasons, such as anger, resentment, self-esteem, body image, depression, anxiety, beliefs about sex and what it means, values and physiological difficulties to name a few. Here again, honest conversation can bring clarity to why sex has stopped.

Gilead Yeffett is a verified welldoing.org couple therapist based in London and online

Further reading

7 ways to manage conflict in relationships in lockdown

Sex in the therapy room

What does real intimacy feel like?

Why is intimacy so complicated?

Is your childhood sabotaging your relationships?