Disrupted routines; time cooped up in close quarters; financial uncertainty. Stress and anxiety have a way not only of affecting libido but also that less tangible, but arguably more important, spiritual desire for genuine human intimacy and attachment.
And with COVID-19 still spreading and schools and workplaces in flux, today’s acute stressors are unlikely to subside. Those who have been homeschooling have faced the new challenge of transitioning to occupying kids in summer months; those furloughed or laid off are still looking for work or once again reentering an uncertain workforce.
New research, however, suggests that mindfulness generally, and mindful sex specifically improves marital relationships and self-esteem. For frazzled parents and couples transitioning out of quarantine, this may be helpful assistance in recovering intimacy during these unique times.
The impact of stress on couples—and families—is wide-reaching, but one area that is too often overlooked in these discussions is how chronic stress affects intimacy. Despite many couples still spending increased time in close-quarters, physical closeness doesn’t equate to relational closeness.
More sexually mindful adults were more satisfied with their relationships, had better self-esteem, and for women in particular, experienced greater sexual satisfaction.
Even with shared suffering, partners may feel more isolated in their stress.
Studies consistently link stress to lower sexual functioning, particularly with regard to chronic stress and stress-related to finances or socio-economic status. These effects are particularly acute among women, although men are also impacted.
Throughout the adjustment into pandemic life, couples have had mixed results navigating these novel stressors. Early reports of increasing divorce filings from China led to rocky predictions for US couples entering quarantine. But, in at least one study, more than half of US couples report that their sheltering together has strengthened their relationship. Others point to possible increases in domestic violence as evidence of potential negative impacts on relationships.
Even as stress modulates the desire for intimacy, sex can also be an important mechanism for coping with stress. For those feeling renewed relational stress from reopening, intimacy research may offer promising findings. One of us, Dr. Leavitt, conducted research with colleagues Eva S. Lefkowitz and Emily A. Waterman published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy on the power that sexual mindfulness can have in improving relational and sexual factors.
More sexually mindful adults were more satisfied with their relationships, had better self-esteem, and for women in particular, experienced greater sexual satisfaction. These findings may provide good news for couples stuck in uncertain transition as states reopen. Mindfulness, or maintaining in the moment non-judgmental awareness, is familiar to many for its benefits for slowing down day-to-day life. However, fewer are mindful during intimacy, and the research identifies that sexually mindful partners benefit beyond those who are generally mindful.
In a separate study, nearly 7 in 10 couples since COVID began say they want to prioritize increasing their emotional connection, up from only 55% of couples pre-pandemic. Sexual mindfulness can have potential benefits in improving the emotional bonding and relationship strengthening potential of sex. Clearing away thoughts allows for more connection with a partner. For mindful couples, sex can mean more compassion, patience, and awareness in the moment that spills over into other aspects of the relationship. And greater satisfaction with sex can translate to an increase in sex, and an increase in attachment bonds that reduce stress and boost emotional and relational connection.
Mindful partners also look for small moments of joy and celebrate them fully.
We’ve observed how workshops that teach couples how to practice general mindfulness result in a range of benefits. Partners report an increased feeling of closeness, greater trust and affection, and more comfort in each other. It helps many to identify negative emotions in the relationship and provides opportunity to address them. Even when only one partner is mindful, that person still receives the individual benefits of greater satisfaction and self-esteem.
This news is empowering for those who feel the stress of a reduced control over outside factors. For couples with healthy sex-lives, intimacy seems to be one area in which partners can actively make a difference for themselves and their feelings toward the relationship.
The economic and societal reopening in an uncertain world is a certain catalyst for heightened stress, but it doesn’t have to affect sexual relationships. Couples can make their time together an opportunity for deepened emotional connection by increasing emotional and mental presence. Mindfulness practice invites an unhurried approach to experiences and fuller attention to each moment with one’s partner, observing sensations, emotions, and thoughts, and attuning to responses. By recognizing that distraction is natural, mindful individuals acknowledge their drifting thoughts, bring focus back to the present, and approach their thoughts and feelings with curiosity rather than judgment.
Mindful partners also look for small moments of joy and celebrate them fully. This is something we can all benefit from during our contemporary challenges. Indeed, even during this uncertain transitory period that often introduces new stress and offers little comfort, those who are mindful in their intimacy and relationship may see new opportunities for relational growth. Sexual mindfulness can be a key to buffer against strain and help partners to slow down and be fully emotionally and mentally present during sex and in life. This is true even during, and perhaps especially during, a time of pandemic. As mindfulness expert Thich Nhat Hahn puts it, “When you love someone, the best thing you can offer him or her is your presence”.