When I was three or four years old, I walked in on my parents making love. I’m unclear on the precise time frame because traumatic memory is hard to pinpoint. I only know it was before my younger sister was born. My mother, who had explained to me where babies came from in general terms, called out to me as I stood in their bedroom doorway, “Your father and I are trying to make you a younger brother or sister. Go back to bed, sweetheart.”
It was a long time before I knocked on my parents’ bedroom door again. Even watching a triple feature of Nightmare on Elm Street at a friend’s sleepover wasn’t enough to overpower my disgust.
“But why disgust?” a friend asked recently when I recalled to her the incident. “I mean, what are people supposed to do when they have kids? Just stop having sex?”
Yes! I thought, but then I remembered that my marriage had ended in divorce. Maybe? I revised.
My friend and I are both mothers, and we were conjecturing about the ways that parenthood impacts married women’s sex lives, and also about ways in which the pandemic complicated an already complicated subject further. What confused my friend, and spurred my curiosity, was that COVID-19’s impact on intimacy with her husband had been anything but straight-forward. There had been moments when she and her husband felt more connected, both physically and emotionally, than ever before. There had been other moments where she wasn’t sure she wanted to even share a mailing address with him anymore, much less a bed. And most confusing of all was the fact that now, as everyone seemed to be learning to live with the virus while returning to something like normal life, her sex drive wasn’t revving back up in tandem.
I, for one, could empathize.
A few weeks earlier, my partner and I had flopped down in bed beside each other. My kids had just returned to their father’s house across the street (we share time with them), and this was the moment when we typically shifted from grilled-cheese-sandwich-making mode to we-can-walk-around-in-our-underwear mode. Only this week, we both just lay in bed, sighing.
“What’s going on with us?” I asked. “I feel like we’re not having as much sex.”
My partner, considered, then offered this observation: “I’m fat.”
I looked at him with sympathy. I still find him adorable, as I had when I met him four years before, but it was true that over the course of the pandemic, of staying home, working remote, replacing our social lives with a lot of TV and muffin baking, he’d definitely put on the COVID 19… or 25, or 30. I’d done about the same. We were also paler than we’d been before the pandemic, slower-moving, less social. Our old clothes didn’t fit, and the new clothes we bought mostly fell into that gray area of lounge/athletic/sleepwear.
We weren’t unhappy with our relationship, exactly. In a lot of ways, I felt closer to him emotionally than I ever had before, having learned that I could be stranded with this person and my children on the desert island of our home and still feel in love with him even after the rescue ships arrived. Still, there are different forms of closeness, and COVID-19 hadn’t affected all of them in the same way.
My friend had felt something similar. She commented on how even before COVID-19, it’s easy for marriages to become claustrophobic inside the confines of a traditional nuclear family structure: “There’s the closeness of the house, and then there’s the closeness of the marriage, and the problem is that the kids are always in the house but the kids are also always in the marriage.” She explained how the pandemic had been incredibly hard on both kids and parents, and even when the parents were doing okay, there was the constant stress and worry about how the kids were doing. “All through it we’re wondering, is my kid super-depressed? Are they actually learning anything in remote schooling? Are they going to forget how to look people in the eye or catch up socially?” My friend had read somewhere that penguins can be monogamous. However, if two penguins mate and something goes wrong with one of the baby penguins, they part ways and never interact again. More and more, she could relate. Like many parents, when her kids were unhappy, she felt stressed out, and that was affecting her sex life. Now that her kids were doing better, she and her husband weren’t sure how to rebound.
I reached out to the social psychologist Rhonda Balzarini, an associate professor at Texas State University and a member of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. Balzarinihad been working with a group of social psychologists from around the country on a far-reaching research initiative called Love in the Time of Covid. The researchers began studying the impact of the pandemic on relationships in March of 2020, shortly after the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, and continued to follow trends as they progressed. They now have published several important papers on the subject and have fourteen more under review.
I asked Balzarini if she could summarize some of the studies’ most important or surprising findings for me. She explained how it was a bit difficult because the impact had changed over time. “In the early months of Covid,” she explained, “there was a lot of strain on our day-to-day social lives. Parents are doing all their kids’ meals, we’re with our partners all the time. External relationships are threatened. Couples are quarantined at home together. Many people are asking is this going to be a time when couples have sex more frequently with people cooped up at home together. Some speculated there might be a baby boom nine months after the lock down, but what we’re seeing now is a baby bust. There are 500,000 fewer births in the US alone. So this has not been the most romantic time for people.”
She described what marriage psychologists refer to as “stress spillover.” When people experience stressors that are external to the relationship, it spills over into the relationships. When people feel socially disconnected, financial strain, worry about their kids, these all lead to lower relationship quality. All of these stressors create the potential for more conflict and that can impact our sexual desire for our partner.”
Also, she went on, even now with people adjusting to the new normal, there was still the issue of the lingering bodily neglect that my partner had noticed. “You just feel too schlubby,” Balzarini offered. Apparently, she and her friend Nicole had recently discussed this epidemic of schlubbiness sweeping the country, and Balzarini’s friend had even written about it for The Wall Street Journal. If stress had sent many married people’s sex drives into hibernation, the capitulation to schlubbiness was now pushing us further into deep freeze.
So what can we do now?
In Balzarini’s view, the most important thing is to find a way to take time away from the kids to engage in novel, exciting, and self-expanding activities together. The reason, she argued, that affairs are so sexy is largely that they’re new. In the beginning of a relationship, we’re self-expanding. We’re learning about our partners. Then, over time, we sort of stop having these opportunities because we have responsibilities, which are not sexy. It’s great for commitment, but it's not good for our sex lives.
The key then, coming out of COVID-19, is for couples to find a way to be new for each other. “Reminiscing. Going back to your first kiss. Planning a trip even if you can’t take one right now. Planning date nights. Being outdoors in nature together. Disclosing stories to each other about work or friends.” And to fight the desire-killing boredom and schlubbiness in one swoop, she recommends getting out of your head with things like exercise, yoga, or meditation. “A lot of people don’t feel desire until they start engaging in physical acts. Sometimes it’s a matter of letting your body override your worried mind.”
Knowing this, my partner and I resolved that each day we’d make the time to go for a jog together, or at least a walk, or at the very least a stroll… maybe to the coffee shop. The key, I figured, was to start slow. When you’ve spent two years thinking and worrying about avoiding sickness, it can be easy to forget that health, including sexual health, are shaped as much by what we do as by what we avoid.
Kim Brooks is the author of Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear. She lives in Chicago.