Aoife Drury works as a psychosexual and relationship therapist and says Covid-19 has had a big impact on Irish people’s sex lives
“I work with individuals and couples who may need support with sexual issues, conflict or connection with their partner or with themselves.
The pandemic is taking a toll on relationships, but what I’m seeing, and what a lot of other relationship therapists are seeing, are couples who may have been struggling already.
There’s a lot of tension around household chores and who does what. That was happening already but it has been magnified under the pandemic. Covid has amplified or perpetuated some of the problems — it’s almost been fuel to the fire.
In my work as a sex therapist, I’ve noticed a discrepancy between those who are using sex in an unhealthy way to cope with the pandemic — perhaps using masturbation or porn, or even sex itself, to try to gain some control over their anxiety.
There’s a lot of out-of-control behaviours or compulsive sexual behaviours happening. The more colloquial term for that is sex addiction or porn addiction, although science hasn’t defined it as an addiction as such.
Then, on the other hand, you’ve got situations where anxiety has dampened sex drive or put a brake on it, which is perhaps causing discord within the relationship.
Loads of couple have stopped having sex altogether. They’re trying to homeschool their children and sex is just way down the pecking order.
That’s OK if both parties are happy and understanding. But if there is stress or upset about it, then it maybe needs to be spoken about and worked through.
The important thing is just to recognise that it’s OK to feel stressed and overwhelmed right now. It’s about bringing it back to the simplest forms of communication, connecting through simple touch, and building up trust to help attune to one another.
But sometimes it can become this big elephant in the room. It becomes this big, scary thing to talk about. And sometimes our partner can be one of the most daunting people to talk to about sex.
There can be a lot of isolation and loneliness when there are sexual difficulties in a relationship. So it’s important to know that these challenges are valid and important, particularly when you consider the historical attitudes towards pleasure in this country, and the idea that pleasure is sinful, wrong and dirty.
So a lot of the time I help people with that confidence in communicating how they feel, what they need and what their desires are, and I help them take baby steps into that.
Think about it like a dance. Maybe you haven’t danced as a couple for a while. One of you got an injury or got a bit stiff or just got a bit bored or distracted. So it’s about learning how to dance again, and in that process you’re going to step on each other’s toes, you’re going to trip and you’re going to find that you’re out of rhythm. And that’s OK. It takes a bit of time and a bit of practice.
When people who come to me haven’t had sex in a very long time, we may work through a nine-week programme that I use called Sensate Focus. It was developed by Masters and Johnson in the 1960s and I tailor it to the couples I work with as it needs to be modernised!
The nine weeks is a build up to intercourse and penetration, if that’s even wanted or needed. And in those nine weeks, for three nights a week on average, you’re doing touch-based and communication exercises to build connection and trust.
Ultimately it’s about reconnecting intimacy. While it might seem like anxiety and stress has caused your sex life to halt, that doesn’t mean that intimacy has to stop. So it’s about reconnecting with each other during this difficult time to reignite that intimacy and, therefore, rekindle your sex life.
A lot of the work I do with couples is all about negotiating and compromising. It’s about empathising and getting into more of an attuned understanding of each other, but equally being able to effectively communicate your needs, wants and desires, so you can come up with a plan together.
I use a great communication exercise, which is based on paraphrasing, so both parties feel heard and understood. You’ve got a listener and a speaker. The person who is speaking will talk about the issue that they are having and then the listener will paraphrase — not parrot — what they hear and say, ‘Do you feel like I have heard you?’ or, ‘Do you feel that I have understood what you are saying?’
When the speaker feels that the listener has heard — and thoroughly heard — what they have said, only then do they move on and swap roles.
So often we listen to respond, not to understand, and that’s what this exercise is about. Most of us actually have to be trained to listen.
Some couples are thinking of splitting up in lockdown. The most important thing in this situation is to communicate if this is an ongoing, core issue and something you have been thinking about beforehand, or is this part of Covid itself and almost a symptom of it?
Some people are splitting up because the support systems they used to have aren’t necessarily in place. Their family and friends aren’t around and they’re stressed and overwhelmed.
I’m also working with a lot of single people who are really struggling with grief and loss. They feel like time is passing them by — whether that’s being able to meet someone, settling down, having children or just being able to enjoy the life they lived previously.
There’s actually a real loss there. And that’s really tough. And then of course there can be a sense of time being of the essence in terms of starting a family, which is a struggle too.
We can see from online sex shops how there has been a spike in people wanting to spend time on themselves and their sexual wellness and enjoyment. But equally, there are people out there who are struggling with bereavement and a feeling of time passing them by.
Most therapists are operating on a waiting list at the moment and that’s a challenge for people who are in crisis and who aren’t able to get support. We need more therapists — and we also need better sex education because a lot of the people who may appear at our doors don’t need long-term therapy.
They just need a bit of redefining and understanding. Sex education is about communication and the ability to relate. It isn’t just isolated to the biological component.
As for couples who are arguing more during lockdown, it’s important to turn towards each other rather than away from each other, as we’re all seeking reassurance and support.”