Orders to stay at home mean our relationships are being put to the test. Psychotherapist Jean-Claude Chalmet shares his advice for couples
At a time like this — especially at a time like this — your love and sex life matter profoundly. Our attention has been abruptly drawn to what we often take for granted — food, employment, health — but also to what gives our existence meaning and joy: connection with those we love. Maintaining or restoring warmth and passion now is a challenge, but bonding with your partner in the bedroom, and elsewhere, will boost your wellbeing, soothe nerves and help you to cope. These are some issues that couples are speaking to me about.
I am exhausted with WFH and homeschooling. My partner wants a lot of sex, but I am really not in the mood
It’s no mystery that you don’t fancy sex. Resentment kills passion. My apologies to the considerate men out there, but for many women, having their husband at home is like having another child in their care. Tell him: “I feel taken for granted. I know you’d like more sex, but you have to help me to get in the mood.”
Negotiate. Assign a few school subjects to each parent and teach around your working hours. If you both listen and compromise, you’re likely to feel like a team — and more in the mood. I’ve noticed that men, in particular, could have more sex if they made more effort. They’ll slave long hours at work for a raise, but don’t always see that contributing wholeheartedly to their relationship brings greater rewards.
How do we have sex when the children are always at home?
It’s difficult, but not impossible; the real issue is how much effort you are prepared to make. Make a game of it and enjoy the thrill. Be inventive. Sneak into the bathroom to “have a shower”. Do it late in the evening when younger children are asleep and older ones are on their phones.
That said, it doesn’t have to be entirely cloak and dagger. Why not have a sign on your bedroom door saying “Do not disturb”? As adults, you have a right to private time — whether you’re playing Scrabble or otherwise engaged.
My partner is in sweatpants all day and already growing a paunch. I’m not much better. How on earth are we going to keep fancying each other?
In fundamentally sound relationships, no one objects to a few extra pounds. Also, might you be projecting dissatisfaction with yourself on to your partner? It’s easier to criticise others for tendencies you find hard to confront in yourself.
Set an example. No one needs to wear an inch of make-up or a suit at home, but maintaining basic levels of presentation is about self-respect and courtesy. You might say: “Let’s try to make this as nice as possible for each other.” Lockdown is exposing deficiencies that were already there, whether communication, compassion or understanding. Partners need to be able to say, kindly, what they do and don’t like. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to do some exercise together.
I love my partner, but I’m sure our relationship functioned well because I am away a lot. How can we make it work now?
Ensure you spend time apart in the house. Go out to exercise alone. And if you’re in the same room, you might sometimes create headspace by listening to music. But unless you’re very immature, you’ll limit such behaviours. Most people move on from this kind of relationship when they leave their teenage years behind.
You chose your partner to be with them, not apart from them. Relationships are not a pick’n’mix. You sign up for the good and the not so good. The scenario might work perfectly for you, but did your partner sign up for a part-time lover? If being together frustrates you so much, use that energy to improve the relationship by putting more of yourself into it.
We were quite good at “date nights”. Now we are “Mum and Dad” all the time, I worry we are already losing our identity
To lose one’s identity as a couple less than two weeks into lockdown is a surprisingly swift decline. And, dare I say, you are Mum and Dad. But if you were that good at date nights, you’ll adapt beautifully to the novelty and challenge of a date night at home. Enjoy dinner as a family, then the children can eat ice cream in front of a film while Mum and Dad have dessert in the bedroom. Or the children could eat earlier and you could cook for each other. What’s stopping you from flirting in the kitchen or bestowing a kiss on your partner’s neck as you surprise them with a coffee? For long-term lovebirds, this is a chance to up your game.
We are in a committed relationship, but in separate homes with our children from previous relationships. How will our love life survive?
As the French say, absence does to love what the wind does to fire — it extinguishes the small and fans the great. For now, resign yourself to the fact that for an indeterminate stretch your love life will be all about verbal intimacy and phone sex. (Which can be whatever you want it to be — talk, action — there are no rules. But it means being emotionally vulnerable, even if just expressing to someone what you love about them.) We’re spoilt. We’re used to instant gratification. It has made us lazy and, frankly, ungrateful. Once in a committed relationship, we rarely get the opportunity to yearn. In removing so much that we take for granted, this global emergency offers us the chance to appreciate it.
The chore wars are already causing huge problems. Help!
If one of you is feeling like a 1950s housewife, draw up a chore calendar and invite every family member to volunteer for duty; but I’d also ask why you haven’t talked about this already. You both know that the cleaner isn’t coming and that the toilet isn’t cleaned by fairies. It’s an issue to be solved, and that requires a conversation. By ignoring it, you shirk responsibility. You’re possibly implying that you expect your partner to do it. If we want our relationship to thrive — now or at any time — we need to compromise, adapt and muck in.
I’ve been thinking about it for years, but a couple of weeks into quarantine I am absolutely certain I want a divorce. How am I to negotiate this period?
Tough times don’t always bring out the best in people. If this lockdown confirms that you are truly incompatible, try to manage this time of enforced togetherness in a human and decent way or it will simply be unbearable and traumatic for all. It’s good to have clarity, but perhaps now isn’t the time to broach the divorce conversation, given that you’ll be spending the foreseeable in each other’s company 24/7. If you’ve been thinking about divorce for years, I’m sure you can manage a little more time of biting your tongue.
We usually get along well, but we are being a bit snappy with one another. How can we keep this in check?
In such a situation we must decide who we want to be. This is a tough, deeply anxious time. As I say to my clients, it’s easy to vent your frustrations and fears on your partner. But if you give in to bratty emotion, your time together will be purgatory when your relationship has the potential to offer sanctuary. Choose to act with compassion, to behave according to your values. If you start shouting now, you’ll likely be shouting for months.
Annoying habits I can normally tolerate are driving me nuts. I don’t want to feel this irritated
Even in the best of times, everyone has habits that enrage their partner. But when our nerves are frazzled, they grate a little more. If you’ve any sense you’ll approach these petty annoyances with humour. That doesn’t mean tolerating a habit if it’s driving you to distraction. Say something; just don’t be mean about it. Unless there are much deeper issues that are hurting you, the fact that he never shuts a cupboard door or she always leaves the teabag in the sink is not worth a fight. I hear that some couples are inventing a mythical third housemate — “Simon has left his socks under the sofa yet again! He is incorrigible!” Jokes and light-heartedness do help.
I’m so stressed I can’t even think about having sex. Our sex life was just about OK before all this. Will the lockdown kill it off completely?
We’re worried about what’s happening in the outside world, while unused to being in close proximity to our partner for an extended period. No wonder our nerves are jangling.
That said, let’s go back in time for a second. What was wrong with your sex life before coronavirus? Were you satisfied and happy, or not? Perhaps your nerves are jangling because you’re afraid of intimacy, as well as unable to talk about the practical issues that lockdown creates. My rules don’t change. For property, it’s location, location, location. For couples, it’s communication, communication, communication. This could be your opportunity to venture beyond your comfort zone and reset your relationship.
Our marriage was plodding happily, but almost sex-free. Reconnecting was on my to-do list. I have no idea where to start
Now is a great opportunity to fix a stale relationship, but as I say to my clients, both parties must be willing. Trying to reconnect is courageous because it requires taking an emotional risk. You don’t know how your partner will react. Common worries are: “Where do I start? Am I going to make a fool of myself? What if my partner ignores me?”
My advice is don’t rush it — now you have time, so use it. Broach the issue carefully and see if your partner is responsive. Say: “This has been on my mind. Could you think about it, then maybe we can discuss it on a walk or over dinner?” Don’t ambush them or push for instant answers.
You might say: “I’ve been missing what we used to have together. Have you been missing it too?” Or: “I know there’s a lot of love between us. I’d like more intimacy. Is that something you’d be up for?” From there, you talk and explore. Intimacy is created by communicating.
I’ve been with someone for just six months. Now we can’t see each other, should we just break it off ?
Six months? And? If you’re genuinely both keen, I can’t think of one good reason to break off a promising relationship. It’s not as if you can see other people. Meanwhile, you can video-call, message and email. You can tell each other what you’re doing, how you feel. You can flirt, share your fears and hopes, laugh, cry, you can be each other’s comfort and solace. If you’re prepared to take emotional risks, the relationship can still develop. If you can deepen your bond, despite being separated, one day you will return to a relationship of which intimacy is an integral part.