Social distancing and intimacy

Shacking up during lock down

Written by Jennifer Hanson

It’s no surprise that quarantine has put excess stress on our relationships. Every relationship is different, but we are all dealing with similar partner annoyances. Like most people, you’re probably used to seeing your partner when you’re both off-duty, so being around them constantly is a whole new ball game. If you’ve been feeling irritable you’re far from alone. Thankfully, being mindful and identifying your individual needs will go a long way towards keeping you both happy, healthy and still in a relationship when this whole thing is over. Below are some other basic strategies you can use to help both yourself and your partner.

Communicate more

Studies have shown that more frequent partner communication leads to higher sexual satisfaction regardless of gender,1 so it’s no surprise that communication during quarantine will assist you in many ways. There are going to be hiccups in getting used to each other’s habits especially if both of you are working from home. Make sure that you have constructive conversations when one or both of you inevitably gets frustrated. Think about your needs and the environment you do your best work in. Try making a list if you find yourself struggling. Adjusting to working in a new environment will probably be frustrating, but understanding your needs and what helps you work efficiently will make this transition easier.

These pieces of advice apply to emotional needs as well. Your partner is probably the only person you’re going to see every day for the next few weeks, so you both need to at least attempt to function from a place of support. Everyone is struggling in their own ways, meaning that there will inevitably be times that intention won’t be possible. Still, it’s important to move on and keep trying. Make a similar list for any emotional needs you’re struggling with and have your partner do the same. Think about what you need now that you don’t have as much outside physical or emotional support as you did a month ago. Compare notes about these issues and figure out how you can help each other during this time. It might be difficult, but this is an important step in your relationship. Affectionate communication from a partner is related to hormonal stress regulation, suggesting that more affection may be one way to ease the impacts of stress.2

Tempers are running higher now that passive stress is heightened. Initiating this conversation when both of you are feeling positive will probably be more beneficial than during an argument. Try not to focus on what your partner is doing wrong and instead frame it as what you need to be successful. This eliminates the blame game and puts things in simpler terms that might be easier to handle.

Make time for intimacy

Quarantine has changed a lot of basic things that make it difficult to have a normal date night. No one can go anywhere, there’s a level of stress that wasn’t a problem until recently and money might be tight. It’s easy to get wrapped up in things and not devote any time to each other especially with work or childcare. In spite of all of that, intimacy and quality time should still be priorities. Don’t be afraid to (literally) schedule quality time after you’re done working for the day.

Intimacy is the groundwork for open and honest sharing in a relationship,3 and bonding over something you both like will bring you closer in ways you may not expect. This can hopefully help you to understand each other a little better as well, especially if a challenge or problem-solving is involved. A 2013 study showed people who spent quality time with their partner at least once per week were almost four times as likely to rate themselves “very happy” compared to those who didn’t.4 Retreating emotionally is easy despite being forced into close quarters, but bonding breaks this cycle. Try binging a show together, working on a project or taking some time for a walk with your partner. Cook them a meal and set the mood at home, even if you know they’ve been in that room fifty times today. It’s the intention that counts and the thought of being closer together during quarantine that should matter.

Now might be a great time to get to know you and your partner's love languages as well. Although there isn’t much empirical testing on love languages, they are seen as relationship maintenance strategies that matter with regards to relationship quality. Understanding your partner's love languages and trying to communicate to them in these ways will most likely prove beneficial in making them feel more valued and cared for.16 Without this personalized support, they might feel more alone.

It’s normal to feel lonely in quarantine. Above all, you and your partner should be able to reassure each other that you are both supported. Assuming you both embrace emotional regulation and being a supportive partner, this should create enough difference among you that protects against desire-inhibiting boredom.5 There are still many creative ways to be thoughtful at home, and these shouldn’t just fly out the window because there’s some tension. Communicating also comes into play here, but hopefully you’ve started to tackle that already!

Have sex to bust stress

Quarantine bonding experiences can also extend to the bedroom. Numerous studies have shown the potential for a good mood the day after sex,6 so the endorphin rush should do you both right. You could always use this time to try some new things (but make sure they’re safe!) Obviously your options are limited somewhat but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. If one of you has always had an exhibitionist fantasy, you could consider being naughty in a certain part of the house? 84% of both men and women cited this as being a turn on,7 and you wouldn’t even have to put any strangers at risk! Since physical touch can lower anxiety8 and stress,9 there are numerous reasons having a roll in the hay might make you feel closer and happier.

There are a few different reasons busting stress is more important during quarantine. The most frequently stated factor in disturbing sexual desire is stress,10 not to mention that couples who are more stressed tend to have less relationship satisfaction11 and any stress can erode relationships if it’s not dealt with in a healthy way. Stressful experiences have also been shown to affect relationships both during the experience and afterwards, negatively impacting relationship perception and associated processing.12 Social distancing is one of the more stressful situations to hit humanity in the last fifty years, so it’s important to keep a positive outlook on your relationship as it unfolds. Stress is bad for your health and desire and is intensified by fatigue, which is particularly problematic for male desire.13 Low energy is more of a stress signal for women and there is a threshold of stress where stress goes from being productive for desire to diminishing it.14 There are myriad relationship rewards that come from great sex,15 so prioritizing the physical isn’t shallow.

If you’re having trouble getting in the mood, try taking some space for yourself. A popular theory is that active sexual desire needs room to breathe. The things you love make you who you are and that’s probably what attracted your partner to you in the first place! If your relationship is the fire, think of your individuality as the air that keeps it alive.17 Maybe you can’t take as much space as before quarantine, but even some time with a hobby or a drive by yourself could be inspiring. Maintaining a sense of self is important in order to preserve desire in long-term relationships.18

Schedule alone time

Communication and bonding will never completely negate the fact that everyone needs some alone time. This is yet another point that should be discussed when you think of your needs. Sanity is at stake when quarantine boredom strikes and the worst thing you can do is take it out on your partner. There is research indicating that maintaining autonomy is better for relationships than being completely intertwined,19 and that independence can lead to more adaptive relationship functioning.20 There is also evidence that more autonomy equates to less defensiveness, so partners can approach each other about conflict more openly.20 The old adage “distance makes the heart grow fonder” doesn’t just have to be for physical distance!

Try immersing yourself in a hobby you really enjoy. If you don’t have any solo hobbies, now’s a great time to find one. Insisting on solo time is important for both of you so that you’re able to each have your own lives and interests, which, spoiler alert, will also give you something to talk about and share when you meet back up.

It’s critical to keep reminding yourself that quarantine won’t last forever. While it might be challenging for a while to not have the space and routine you’re used to, the bright side is knowing you have this time to explore both you and your partners needs to more effectively handle the situation. Your mutual love brought you together and leaning on each other for support is what’s going to help both of you endure this strange time.

  1. Kristen P. Mark and Kristen N. Jozkowski (2012): The Mediating Role of Sexual and Nonsexual Communication Between Relationship and Sexual Satisfaction in a Sample of College-age Heterosexual Couples, Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, DOI:10.1080/0092623x.2011.644652
  2. Floyd, K., and Riforgiate, S. (2008). Affectionate Communication Received from Spouses Predicts Stress Hormone Levels in Healthy Adults. Communication Monographs, 75(4), 351-368.
  3. Prager and Roberts (2004). Deep Intimate Connection: Self and Intimacy in Couple Relationships. Handbook of Closeness and Intimacy.
  4. Wilcox, W. B., and Dew, J. (2013). No One Best Way: Work-family Strategies, the Gendered Division of Parenting, and the Contemporary Marriages of Mothers and Fathers. In W. B. Wilcox and K. Kovner Kline (eds.), Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives (p. 271–303). Columbia University Press.
  5. Ferreira, L. C., Narciso, I., Novo, R. F., and Pereira, C. R. (2016). Partners’ Similarity in Differentiation of Self is Associated with Higher Sexual Desire: A Quantitative Dyadic Study. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 42, 635–647. DOI:10.1080/0092623x.2015.1113584
  6. Ein-dor, T., and Hirschberger, G. (2012). Sexual Healing: Daily Diary Evidence That Sex Relieves Stress for Men and Women in Satisfying Relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 126-139.
  7. Mark and Kerner (2013). Valentine's Day Survey. Good In Bed.
  8. Eleonora C. V. Costa, Eva Castanheira, Litícia Moreira, Paulo Correia, Duarte Ribeiro and M. Graça Pereira (2017) Predictors of Emotional Distress in Pregnant Women: The Mediating Role of Relationship Intimacy, Journal of Mental Health, DOI: 10.1080/09638237.2017.1417545
  9. Justin A Lavner, Thomas N Bradbury, Protecting Relationships from Stress, Current Opinion in Psychology, Volume 13, 2017, Pages 11-14, Issn 2352-250x,
  10. Ferreira, L. C., Narciso, I., Novo, R. F., and Pereira, C. R. (2014). Predicting Couple Satisfaction: The Role of Differentiation of Self, Sexual Desire, and Intimacy in Heterosexual Individuals. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 29, 390–404. DOI:10.1080/14681994.2014.957498
  11. Falconier, M.K. et al. (2014). Stress from Daily Hassles in Couples: Its Effects on Intradyadic Stress, Relationship Satisfaction, and Physical and Psychological Well-being. J of Marital and Family Therapy, 41(2)).
  12. Neff, L. A., and Karney, B. R. (2004). How Does Context Affect Intimate Relationships? Linking External Stress and Cognitive Processes Within Marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(2), 134-148
  13. Murray, S., Milhausen, R., Graham, C. A., and Kuczynski, L. (2017). A Qualitative Exploration of Factors that Affect Sexual Desire Among Men Aged 30 to 65 in Long-term Relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 54, 319–330. DOI:10.1080/00224499.2016.1168352
  14. Rosenkrantz, D., and Mark, K. P. (2017). The Sociocultural Context of Sexually Diverse Women’s Sexual Desire. Sexuality and Culture 22, 240–242. DOI:10.1007/s12119-017-9462-6
  15. E. Sandra Byers (2005). Relationship Satisfaction and Sexual Satisfaction: A Longitudinal Study of Individuals in Long‐term Relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 42:2, 113-118, doi: 10.1080/00224490509552264
  16. Egbert, N., and Polk, D. (2006). Speaking the Language of Relational Maintenance: A Validity Test of Chapman’s Five Love Languages. Communication Research Reports, 23(1), 19-26. DOI: 10.1080/17464090500535822
  17. Perel, E. (2007). Mating in Captivity. Hodder and Stoughton General Div.
  18. Kristen P. Mark and Julie A. Lasslo (2018): Maintaining Sexual Desire in Long-term Relationships: A Systematic Review and Conceptual Model. The Journal of Sex Research, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2018.1437592
  19. Deci, E. L., and Ryan, R. M. (2000). The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268. DOI:10.1207/s15327965pli1104_01.
  20. Knee, C. R., Lonsbary, C., Canevello, A., and Patrick, H. (2005). Self-determination and Conflict in Romantic Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 997–1009. DOI:10.1037/0022-3514.89.6.997

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