Relationships are complicated. For a start, they take many forms: They can be monogamous, polyamorous or long-distance; there are couples who live together, with or without children, patchwork families and so on and so forth.
Even if we just take the example of a committed partnership of two people living together, the range of possible relationship dynamics is endless.
"The average relationship doesn't exist," says psychologist and sex researcher Marieke Dewitte of Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Dewitte places particular emphasis on the seemingly banal reality that every partnership is extremely unique.
This individuality makes writing about relationships rather complicated. At the same time, it is a potential key to achieving tremendous satisfaction — even in lockdown.
1. Accept that the situation is hard
The coronavirus pandemic itself, along with the measures being taken to contain it, has put many people under extraordinary stress: Some might have lost their job or be working from home, while there are often increased childcare obligations and the loss of cherished social distractions.
It would be foolish and wishful thinking to assume that this exceptional situation could remain without an impact on a couple's relationship. Less quality time together quickly limits opportunities for intimacy, and the result can be more conflict, as well as less sex.
If you accept that your own definition of normality has just been turned upside down, you can lower the demands not only on yourself but also on your partnership. If "business as usual" no longer applies, the relationship must also find new approaches.
And there has been good news from Austria. Sociologist Barbara Rothmüller conducted surveys in Austria and Germany in the spring and fall that provided information about changes in intimacy and intimate relationships during the pandemic.
Seventy-four percent of couples who live in the same household said in April that they were having a lot of fun together and enjoying their time together. In Rothmüller's second survey in November, that figure was still 69%. How do they do it?
2. Create space for yourself
"A big problem for couples, but also for those living in shared apartments and larger households with children, is a lack of places to retreat to," Rothmüller says.
Of course, this is particularly noticeable when everyone is suddenly at home — all the time. In a living space that is too small, Rothmüller says, it is essential to consciously help each other find more space. For example, some people stated in the surveys that the solution was to go for a walk for a few hours so that other household members could also be alone in peace and quiet.
Those who can articulate their needs have an advantage. But to be able to express our own needs and desires, we must be aware of them ourselves first.
This is where the pandemic offers us a chance: The lack of social and cultural distractions, as well as countless canceled meetings and appointments, means that we are being forced to grapple with and come to terms with ourselves as we have possibly never done before. This can be extremely challenging, but it can also be an opportunity.
3. Try new things
It may also be that "business as usual" is simply no longer possible in our dealings with ourselves. We can handle this in a variety of ways: Permanent frustration would be one possibility. However, a perpetually negative climate will neither change the situation nor do the partnership any good.
"It's time to develop new interests," says psychologist Dewitte: reading, playing sports or cooking. At the very least, this can do no harm. And maybe something or other will end up actually being fun in the end.
Our sexuality is also strongly influenced by how we feel about ourselves. Drinking the umpteenth glass of wine while sitting around in sweatpants without makeup and being sad about all the things that aren't possible right now is totally okay. But doing sports, cooking something healthy and delicious and getting all dressed up for dinner at home are better ideas.
Sex is also much more likely to happen. And that can really help.
4. Use sex to counteract stress
Barbara Rothmüller's surveys showed that during the first lockdown, some couples' sexual desire decreased. For some people, however, sex was a means of distracting themselves from stress.
The issue can become a real test for a couple: Whether stress increases our sexual desire or makes it disappear is a highly individual matter.
Conflicts in the relationship, whether because of existential worries or overload from work and childcare, do their bit to put our sex lives on ice. On the other hand, physical intimacy can have a strong bond-building function, one that is too strong to simply neglect in a relationship.
Dewitte, who not only researches sex but also conducts sex workshops, likes to solve the problem of dormant sexual desire with the 10-minute rule: Ten minutes of cuddling and kissing can be enough to get you into a mood that previously seemed as distant as the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
And if it doesn't? "Then the couple has spent 10 minutes kissing and cuddling," Dewitte says. It's not the frequency of sexual encounters that matters, she says, but the quality.
5. Set new priorities
Since our idea of normalcy is already being flipped upside down, it's prime time to reorder our priority list. And the general consensus seems to be that health should be at the top of it.
Family and romantic partners are also high on the list, as these are the people who, in a crisis, would sit with us on a desert island or whom we sorely miss when a pandemic keeps us apart.
Monogamy, which some consider an outdated ideal left over from a hypocritical bourgeois society, has also experienced an unexpected comeback during the pandemic. Rothmüller, for example, speaks of a monogamization of relationships that has occurred partly because a lockdown makes noncommittal and open relationships more difficult.
According to Rothmüller's surveys, many couples have apparently used the break from public life to invest in themselves, deepening their relationship through more conversations, more intimacy and more togetherness. But will this practice continue once the pandemic is over?