You’re reading Relationships DIY, a weeklong mini-series full of tips, tricks and perspective on keeping your relationship healthy and happy during the pandemic.
When #StayAtHome first became a government directive, never mind a hashtag, we joked about all the daytime shags and lockdown babies it might generate. Now, months later, sex is the last thing on many people’s minds.
The nation is experiencing a “low level of sexual activity” during the pandemic, according to a study by Anglia Ruskin University – and it’s not just because social distancing is preventing casual hookups. Those who live with longterm partners are also going through a dry spell.
Feelings of anxiety and stress are thought to be behind our dip in desire, plus let’s face it, being shut indoors with your partner all day in your loungewear – aka tracky bums and a holey old jumper – does not a sexy scenario make.
If you’ve suddenly found yourself in a so-called “sexless” relationship, you might be turning to Google for advice. But the articles you’ll find are usually centred on “fixing” the situation – instead of pressing pause on sex altogether, perhaps.
In search of some perspective, we’re redefining sexless relationships in our latest podcast episode of Am I Making You Uncomfortable?, where we will be asking if it’s really such a problem to prioritise a cuddle and The Crown?
“The term ‘sexlessness’ itself is problematic,” says sociologist and intimacy expert Professor Jacqui Gabb, who’s chief relationships officer at the app, Paired, and also guests on this week’s podcast.
“It implies there’s a lack, there’s an absence, there is something wrong, and actually, we know that relationships can function quite satisfactorily without sex if both partners have agreed to it – or found a way to compensate for the absence of sex if one doesn’t agree with that.”
Lucinda, 36, from Blackpool, has been with her partner for seven years and also rejects the phrase “sexless”. Instead, she describes her relationship as “sex-free by choice”.
“We wanted the benefits of companionship, but minus the complications of sex,” she says. “We’re intimate in plenty of other ways. We cuddle and kiss, but more importantly, we have emotional intimacy.
“We share the good and bad bits of our lives. We care for each other. There’s certainly nothing missing from our lives or from our relationship. In fact, our relationship is far, far stronger for being sex-free.”
If you’ve experienced a dip in libido recently – whether that’s due to the pandemic, becoming a parent, dealing with a health problem or simply life getting in the way – taking sex off the table could be a good thing, says Dee Holmes, a therapist at Relate.
It can boost your relationship in other ways, she argues, and it doesn’t mean you have to stay celibate forever.
“It can help a couple relax and feel they can be more loving and affectionate more often because it is not giving a signal sex is on the agenda,” Holmes tells HuffPost UK. “Many people avoid too much intimacy and time with a partner because they are really avoiding sex.”
Without sex, partners often spend more time together sitting and talking, Holmes adds, leading to improved closeness and a sense of connection.
“Couples sometimes avoid going to bed together but if there is an understanding sex will not be occurring they may go together more,” she says. “This will lead to closeness and often when snuggled together in the dark, deeper conversations can happen.”
If sex has fizzled out of your relationship, sex educator Ruby Rare, another of our podcast guests on the episode, recommends talking to your partner about pro-actively having a sex-free month, where you can prioritise non-sexual intimacy, then check-in with each other to see how you’re feeling.
Non-sexual intimacy can take any form that works for you, but Rare recommends a shared bath or massage where neither partner is “diving for someone’s genitals or trying to make it really sexy”.
Although this isn’t about sex, you’re likely to build on your “sexual currency” – a term coined by clinical psychologist and sexologist Dr Karen Gurney.
“When you eventually then get to a space that is sexual and you’re actually going to have sex, you’re not starting from scratch,” Rare explains.
“You’ve already built this foundation in your everyday life of the nice compliments and really looking at each other and saying nice things and intimate touch, and maybe a kiss that lasts for a couple of seconds longer.”
When you check back in, you may be ready to rip each other’s clothes off, or you may not. In the podcast, we discuss ways to navigate sex if one person’s libido doesn’t match the other’s. (As Professor Gabb points out, you wouldn’t want the same amount of food as your partner, so why should we assume we’ll want the same amount of sex? Also, masturbation isn’t just for singles...).
The point is, this shouldn’t be a panic-inducing topic. What all our experts agree on is that frequency of sex is never a reflection of the quality of a relationship.
“Just because a couple are having sex does not always mean it’s ‘good sex’ or both are enjoying it, so being able to say ‘oh we have sex daily/ weekly’ does not mean your relationship is emotionally close,” says Holmes.
Prof Gabb adds that sex is afforded “an excess of significance” in society.
“Sex is an ordinary, everyday part of relationship,” she says. “It is not everything, but also, it’s not nothing, and if we see it as just one of the many dimensions of a relationship, then actually, relationships may be more content.”