No Ordinary Love: The Pandemic's Impact On Relationships & Intimacy

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No Ordinary Love: The Pandemic's Impact On Relationships & Intimacy

SO2

Sunday, February 14, 2021

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Since the pandemic has taught businesses the advantages of remote work, why wouldn't it also show that relationships, need a little shaking up, too? Devastating world events won't eliminate the need for love, affection, and intimacy. For some married couples, the pandemic has tested the limits of “for better and for worse.” In contrast, others have enjoyed this time rediscovering their spouses.

The impact that the pandemic has had on romantic relationships is being studied. Though a comprehensive study has yet to be released, there have been some interesting findings.

A 2020 study using data gathered during the early months of lockdown revealed that couples were satisfied in their relationships. It states, “Changes in relationship outcomes were not moderated by demographic characteristics or negative repercussions of the pandemic.” However, according to Internet search data, in the first weekend of September 2020, there was an increase, up to 25% in some cities, in searches for divorce information across the United States and England. Social psychologists at the University of Massachusetts are studying the actual effects of the pandemic on relationships and early-stage research has found that “couples may end up being better at communicating and providing mutual support after this crisis is over”.

After poring over data and studies, the Style Observer (SO) decided to ask a couple of professional sexologists with Jamaican roots — Jess O'Reilly and Machel Hunt — their advice.

Jess O'Reilly, PhD, is no stranger to the pages of SO (after all, she is the niece of Island Grill CEO Thalia Lyn). O'Reilly is a television personality, author and host of the @SexWithDrJess podcast. Though Toronto is home, Dr Jess has been enjoying the benefits of remote work on the island of Jamaica. “Dr Jess's work experience includes contracts with school boards, social services agencies, community health organisations and private corporations,” says her bio.

Machel Hunt is an Atlanta-based relationship counselor and psychosexual therapist and the director of Therapy For You. With over 17 years in the industry, Hunt's advice is highly sought-after and has worked with many celebrities, to boot. Fun fact: He appeared on Season 12 of The Real Housewives of Atlanta when Kandi Burruss and partner Todd Tucker needed couple's counselling. Hunt's work has taken him across the world where he has facilitated workshops, done consultancy work, participated on conference panels and been a keynote speaker.

SO asked O'Reilly and Hunt the same questions. Here are their responses, some of which have been edited for space.

Dr Jess O'Reilly

SO: What in your experience has been the hardest thing for couples to cope with during quarantine?

Jess O'Reilly (JO): Individual stress and anxiety can affect how we interact with a partner if you don't learn to differentiate emotionally.

The pandemic has added additional stress and anxiety layers in response to exhaustion, transition, fear, anxiety, and spending too much time online. When we experience stress (as we are in light of COVID), cortisol levels increase to provide the energy required to deal with the stress. This process involves the hypothalamus signaling the pituitary gland, which signals the adrenal glands and mobilises the liver (for glucose and fatty acids). If prolonged, chronic stress can impair communication between the immune system and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which can adversely affect mood, mental health, energy levels (as well as metabolism).

It follows that this can lead to relationship tension: If you're angry, resentful, frustrated, tense or exhausted from stress, you may find that:

a. You don't communicate as effectively.

b. You approach conflict differently; you may be less rational and less empathetic.

c. You don't respond to your partner's bids for affection, love or attention, as you're too worn out

SO: What do you suggest couples, who want to strengthen their bond (and intimacy), do during this time?

JO: Take one minute in the morning, one mid-day and another in the evening to reconnect. It doesn't sound like much, but just one minute can help you reset, heighten intimacy and interact with more love and empathy.

a. Wake up with 60 seconds of connection. Breathe in sync for 10 breaths or rest your head on your partner's chest to listen to their heartbeat — this can be so grounding and gratitude inducing.

b. Interrupt the day with a one minute favour. If you see that they're swamped on Zoom calls, bring them a drink or a snack before they ask or if they're on a stressful call, massage their hands or shoulders for just one minute.

c. End the day with one another. Rather than going to bed to your newsfeed or chat groups, go to bed with your partner. When you're sitting in bed scrolling or typing, you risk sending the message that what's on your phone is more important or alluring than the person sitting next to you. I know this is a big shift for some people, but consider not bringing your phone or tablet into the bedroom. Try it for one night and slowly work your way up to multiple nights per week. We have a rich body of data indicating that technoference (the mere presence of a phone) detracts from connection, trust, intimacy, and even attraction.

SO: Now that most couples are at home for long stretches of the day, how can they give each other space?

JO: Overexposure can lead to frustration and boredom. If you're both working from home, you may feel as though you never get a break, so I encourage you to carve out separate time if you can. Even if it's a 10-minute walk by yourself to stretch your legs. We need physical space from one another to create some mystery and ease the tension.

Not everyone has a sprawling home, of course, so get creative with the way you divide your space. Can you divide a room up to give yourself more privacy?

SO: What can parents do to add a bit of spark this Valentine's Day?

JO: Consider feeding the kids early and ordering in a meal just for the two of you. Sit them in front of the TV, order comfort food from Island Grill or takeout from your favourite spot like Uncorked.

If you want to bring those loving feelings back after decades of marriage, revisit your early days. Go back to the places you first visited so many years ago. Listen to the songs that set the backdrop when you first met. Pull out old clothes, cologne or perfume that remind you of younger days. And retell the story of when you first met to reminisce and dream of the future.

And of course, if you really want to take your relationship to the next level, check out my latest book, The Ultimate Guide to Seduction and Foreplay, available digitally.

SO: What acts of radical self-care can couples do together?

JO: Turn off your phone and turn on the intimacy. V-day falls on a weekend this year, so can you commit to turning your phones and devices off early on Saturday night and ignoring them for most of Sunday (or at least for the morning)? Put them in a box in a closet or lock them away in your kitchen. Reducing the effects of technoference is radical self-care in a world where ties to tech are now associated with compulsive behaviours.

If you're into physical connection, consider couples yoga. You'll find many options on YouTube. If you're into words of affirmation, write lists of why you appreciate one another. If you're into quality time, go for a walk in Hope Gardens, in the mountains or along the beach.

If you're into acts of service, consider volunteering together. Volunteering is associated with lower levels of anxiety and stress and higher levels of happiness and attraction. If you're into receiving gifts, you're running out of time. Support a local artisan today and go shopping together.

Machel Hunt (MH)

SO: What in your experience has been the hardest thing for couples to cope with during quarantine?

MH: The quarantine has been challenging for so many couples for a range of reasons. The hardest thing for couples to cope with in my experience has been being quarantined together and communicating effectively with one another. Before COVID, couples wouldn't be spending as much time together at home, so communication was more limited. During quarantine, couples are having to learn about themselves and their partners and find it challenging to face each other's truths.

SO: What do you suggest couples, who want to strengthen their bond (and intimacy), do during this time?

MH: Routines have shifted, roles may have changed, and challenges have become more frequent, which might affect couples sex life and commitment to intimacy. Here are some ways in which couples can strengthen their bond (and intimacy).

1. Have a conversation about sex — talk about your likes and dislikes, get reacquainted with each other's fantasies as well as how you want to engage with each other sexually. Whether you have been together for a short while or many years, this is the perfect time to re-engage in the sex talk.

2. Do activities that require you to use your hands — anything with your hands will help stimulate the heart chakra and relax the nervous system — using your hands in a great way to strengthen your bond and elevate intimacy. Touch can be extremely sensual and lets your partner know that you are engaged in the moment, and focused on them. Use your hands to stimulate different parts of your partner's body and begin to discover new erogenous zones.

3. Make time to give each other your undivided, undistracted attention. Intimacy starts with engaging each other's senses, so rather than laying on the sofa watching Netflix, try turning the TV off and giving each other your full attention. Perhaps you can start with sensual touch or an erotic story. This engagement will begin to elevate your intensity for further intimacy.

4. Stay connected throughout the day — letting your partner know that you are thinking about him/her throughout the day is a great way to build your bond and create intimate moments with each other. Text, voice notes, handwritten notes are all ways that you can stay connected and let your partner know that you are thinking about him/her.

SO: Now that most couples are home for long stretches of the day, how can they give each other space?

MH: This is a very important challenge to resolve. It can be incredibly overwhelming to live with and work with your partner all in the same space. I would suggest that you have a designated area/space for each person to have their work station and separate that from the 'couple' area. You will need some alone/individual time away from work and your partner, so create a 'me' space within the home that is agreed to be used just for alone time. Couples will have to be very intentional about dedicating spaces within their home that they have decided not to share for some part of the day.

SO: What can parents do to add a bit of spark this Valentine's Day?

MH: Parents need to get away from being parents and focus on being a spouse this Valentine's Day. It would be great if you can go on a date outside of the house. If you cannot, I suggest having a kids-free zone between set hours, creating an enticing date night at home. Surprise your partner with an unexpected treat that is just for them (nothing for the household or the kids).

SO: What acts of radical self-care can couples do together?

MH: I believe in radical self-care that is intentional and unapologetic. I suggest taking a break from social media, putting your phones on 'do not disturb' and take turns giving each other a sensual massage. If you or your partner is not excited by touch, I suggest making a meal together or hiring a personal chef to make your favourite meal at home. Take walks together either at sunrise or at sunset or take a long shower together without rushing.


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