Turn Your Sex Life Around

With all its stress and uncertainty, this year hasn’t exactly been a banner year for intimacy. But that can change.

Melissa Petro is a 40-year-old writer who lives in New York with her husband of four years and two children. She and her husband switch off between working and kid duty. According to Ms. Petro, the always-on nature of parenting a 12-month-old and a 3-year old in a pandemic has been “relentless, exhausting and not sexy.” Recently her husband has been sleeping on the family room couch.

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” she said, “It’s just that there’s so many things to do besides have sex with my partner, who I do hypothetically find attractive and theoretically want to have sex with. It feels pretty — at times — hopeless, our sex life.”

Ms. Petro is not alone. A Kinsey Institute study on the impact of Covid-19 on marital quality found that 24 percent of married people reported having less frequent sex than they did before the pandemic, and 17 percent of women reported a decrease in both sexual and emotional satisfaction since the pandemic began. Another study from the spring suggested that a third of couples were experiencing pandemic-related conflict and that many of their sex lives were suffering.

“We are missing out on many parts of our former lives,” Maya Luetke, a researcher at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University who led the study, wrote in an email. “Just as this is the lost year in other ways, it may also be the lost year in terms of sex.”

Likewise, Emily Nagoski was not surprised by the data. A sex educator, researcher and author of “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life,” Dr. Nagoski describes sexual desire and inhibition like the accelerator and brake in a car. And while right now there are more factors in couples’ lives hitting their brakes than their accelerators, all hope is not lost. There is still a lot you can do to take your foot off the brake and hit the sexuality accelerator.

Self-criticism and judgment of your partner are classic ways to dampen sexual desire. More than half of women report that stress, depression and anxiety decrease their interest in sex, as well as their sexual arousal and ability to orgasm. Dr. Nagoski said it’s normal to feel less desire during a crisis, like a pandemic. “You feel like the entire world, literally the air you breathe, is a potential threat to yourself and your family. That’s going to hit the brake.”

The first step to improving your sex life might be a shift in attitude rather than behavior. “If you have sex because you have to or you feel like you’re supposed to, you won’t have much sex and you probably won’t enjoy it,” Dr. Nagoski wrote in her book. “Don’t just decide to have sex, try on the identity of a person who loves sex.”

Ms. Petro said she and her husband still make time for sex, even if it’s just, say, every third Sunday. “I shove thoughts of chores undone out of my mind and just try to relax into my body and be present for my partner,” she said. Afterward, they take each other less seriously. “We’re lighter.”

“People get very wrapped up in the idea of spontaneously desiring sex,” Dr. Nagoski said, but, especially in women, it’s fairly rare. Based on a wide body of research on gender and sexual desire, Dr. Nagoski estimates that roughly 15 percent of women experience spontaneous desire, whereas most experience responsive desire — wanting sex when something erotic is happening.

“When we study people who have great sex over the long-term in a relationship, they do not describe spontaneous desire as a characteristic,” she said.

So what do they describe? When the clinical psychologists Peggy Kleinplatz and A. Dana Menard conducted a study for their book “Magnificent Sex: Lessons from Extraordinary Lovers,” they found that the components of great sex were consistent across gender, sexuality and a host of other descriptors and tastes. They included things like communication, empathy, vulnerability, connection and being present in the moment. They stressed ignoring notions of romantic spontaneity and, instead, embracing deliberateness and making a plan.

Great sex, they found, doesn’t just happen. It requires intentionality. Don’t be afraid to put it in your calendar if you have to. Because while you can’t plan on great sex, you can, as Dr. Kleinplatz and Dr. Menard put it in their book, “intentionally create the conditions in which the magic might occur.”

While experiencing low sexual desire during a pandemic might be normal and understandable, there are things you can do to increase desire in a relationship. One thing that science says increases arousal is a novel experience. Not just the sexual kind, but anything to get your heart rate up.

This might be a good time for people to “open a dialogue with their partner(s) about their relationship overall as well as their personal desires, fantasies, needs, etc.,” Dr. Luetke, who studies the link between conflict and sexual intimacy at Indiana University, wrote in an email. If these conversations are awkward for you, she recommended engaging a therapist specializing in sex.

Or find another way to raise your heart rate. You might not be able to ride a roller coaster or dance at a crowded concert, but you could still do a YouTube workout, go for a hike with your partner or watch a scary movie together after the kids are in bed. Some research suggests that being excited around your partner makes that person seem more novel and thus more sexually attractive, by association.

When your brain senses a threat (a lion, say, chasing you), your body activates the sympathetic nervous system, which sends chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to help you run faster or fight harder. Once the threat is gone (you ran away; you killed the lion), the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, taking you out of fight-or-flight mode and returning your body to a calm state.

That calm state activated by the parasympathetic nervous system is also responsible for sexual arousal. In other words, your brain knows that when the lion is chasing you, you won’t want sex.

Modern-day stressors, however, are more ambiguous than a lion. It’s less clear to your brain when the threat has passed — when your paycheck has been deposited or your child’s remote school day is over. So Dr. Nagoski recommended “completing the stress cycle,” or doing things that will signal to the body that the danger has passed. When you go for a run after a long day of work, you’re moving through fight-or-flight mode by jogging away from the figurative lion, and telling your body that the stress is over, at least until tomorrow.

And even if you still don’t feel safe enough to experience desire, you can still touch your partner and intimately connect. Lying in the dark watching a movie with your partner, going for a walk, exercising, practicing self-acceptance — these things all have their own benefits, even when they don’t lead to sex.

Meaghan O’Connell is a freelance writer and the author of “And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready.”

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