Skip to main content

Sign up for the weekly Parenting & Relationships newsletter for news and advice to help you be a better parent, partner, friend, family member or colleague.

Open this photo in gallery:

Many spouses are feeling trapped under one roof. Amid the strain, uncertainty and unending sameness of pandemic life, many couples find the bandwidth for intimacy is gone.Illustration by Chelsea Charles

The hot tub bubbled away behind Pebble Kranz and Daniel Rosen’s home through months of pandemic lockdowns.

After work, Dr. Kranz, a family physician, would wash off the day in the couple’s open-air shower, then text her husband to join her in the hot tub. Mr. Rosen, a psychotherapist, would hop in after his virtual appointments.

A gazebo with curtains sheltered the tub, so husband and wife could soak naked without scandalizing their neighbours.

“We needed to have a place and project to connect,” said Mr. Rosen, who also built a cedar sauna behind their Rochester, N.Y., home last fall. Here, the spouses talk and listen to music in the heat.

Though elaborate, their sauna and hot tub setups illustrate a concept Mr. Rosen, a certified sex therapist, and Dr. Kranz, a sexual medicine specialist, share with couples they counsel by video call – couples’ whose sex lives have been deprived during the pandemic. The idea, coined by San Diego sociologist Jennifer Gunsaullus, is “happy naked fun time” – partners hanging out nude without the pressure of sex. In these stress-loaded times, the laid-back approach is resonating with their couples.

“It’s hard to maintain an erotic environment when you’re locked down together,” Mr. Rosen said. “So how do you throw out the script on Groundhog Day?” Dr. Kranz added. “How do you be creative about shaking it up – somehow?”

Calls are up to couples’ therapists, with many spouses feeling trapped under one roof. Amid the strain, uncertainty and unending sameness of pandemic life, many couples find the bandwidth for intimacy is gone. So is privacy, with kids running underfoot. Chronic stress is triggering fights – toxic for sexuality. Another desire-dampener: spouses got overly familiar with each other just as personal dignity went out the window, with people living in sweatpants, forgoing grooming efforts, binging on Netflix and carbs. For some, it’s felt impossible to cultivate a sex life through this year of mandated domesticity.

Surveying 1,500 adults last spring just after the pandemic hit, researchers at the Kinsey Institute found nearly half said their sex lives were in decline. Though some had actually expanded their sexual repertoires through the global crisis, they tended to be younger people living alone, rather than long-married spouses quarantining together in homes piled high with homework and laundry.

“For most couples, it’s hell,” said Peggy Kleinplatz, a clinical psychologist who detected “a greater sense of claustrophobia and desperation” in phone calls with clients since the pandemic began.

“The vast majority of couples I’m seeing are finding it impossible to carve out time that’s uniquely for each other, without having to take care of work, children or cleaning the house,” said Dr. Kleinplatz, a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa.

That chronic stress is smothering libido and sexual frequency, notes Lori Brotto, a psychologist who is researching desire and behaviour through the pandemic as part of a longitudinal study from the Women’s Health Research Institute in Vancouver.

“None of us firmly grasped the toll homeschooling and taking care of children without any [help] would take on couples, relationships, privacy and intimacy,” said Dr. Brotto, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of British Columbia.

“Couples are home working together – you’re beside each other all day long. It has translated into a lot more emotional distance,” Dr. Brotto said. “Separation and a sense of separate identity are critical for desire and cultivating interest in sexual activity.”

She asks couples to consider work schedules that don’t overlap completely, as well as alternating time away from the house, alone.

Many spouses don’t have the luxury of extra space at home to sequester themselves away for a few hours, or the money and privacy required for virtual therapy sessions. As Mr. Rosen pointed out, the situation is exponentially worse for partners with fewer means, for those struggling with addiction or mental-health issues, as well as for sexual minorities.

A year into the pandemic, some are mistaking their partners’ exhaustion for sexual rejection, said sex educator Emily Nagoski.

“If your partner wants to engage intimately with you and you have spent all day either with them, or with a child, or in Zoom meetings, and you’ve had no time for yourself, it’s sort of like your partner saying, ‘Here, eat this huge chocolate cake I baked for you. I know you have been eating all day and have no interest in eating more, but please, you’ll be rejecting me unless you eat this cake.’ There’s nothing wrong with the cake. The person just needs to take a break,” said Ms. Nagoski, author of the book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.

For those whose marriages were already sexless before the pandemic, or where one partner has more desire than the other, months of lockdowns “magnify what’s not working in the relationship,” said Seattle marriage and family therapist Mindy McGovern.

“For couples who could distract from intimate-relationship distress by doing things outside of the home, they no longer have those options,” Ms. McGovern said. “Your partner now knows everything about your day – all of that time you have when you could be having sex.”

She and other experts ask spouses to try to practise compassion and kindness through this prolonged period of disruption.

Dr. Kleinplatz strongly advocates couples set aside 15 minutes two or three times a week to sit someplace comfortable and “check in with each other from the heart.” She recommends partners turn off their electronic devices and avoid talking about kids or work.

These moments of “emotional time” lower stress and allow partners to step outside their “enforced domesticity” to seed a more erotically charged atmosphere, said Dr. Kleinplatz, who co-wrote the 2020 book Magnificent Sex: Lessons from Extraordinary Lovers.

She also shares with her couples the concept of “simmering,” coined by American psychologist Carol Ellison: small, occasional gestures to stay sensually engaged, even if it doesn’t immediately lead to sex. For various couples, simmering can mean dancing to music they listened to when they dated, cooking together, putting on perfume or giving a massage. They are activities that engage the senses somehow – very different from building puzzles or playing Monopoly.

“We worked with a couple who created a facsimile of a favourite restaurant in the guest room,” said Dr. Kranz, whose sauna and hot tub romps with her husband would qualify as simmering.

Spouses have told Dr. Kleinplatz that simmering takes some of the pressure off sex. While she believes now is not the time for undue expectations, Dr. Kleinplatz cautioned partners not to completely neglect their sexual lives, lest they remain disengaged after the pandemic is over.

“What I’m saying to my couples is, don’t set the bar too high but … keep your relationship simmering until such time as a full boil becomes possible. This is the time to cultivate ‘maybe’ and little bits of flirtation – even if one knows there is no energy to act on it right now.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe