Maintaining Physical Intimacy During COVID-19

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Amy Howard

Any way you look at it these days we’re under stress, be it with our health, our job, our finances, our extended family, homeschooling, or just missing our pre-COVID lives and routines.

Thanks to mental health awareness and our culture becoming more accepting of therapy, we are continuing to learn about how stress affects our thoughts and feelings.  There are many tried and true ways that research tells us are effective in helping us manage the effects that stress has on our bodies.  

One of those strategies is physical affection.  However, during this time of 24/7 together-ness, many couples are reporting that their sexual relationship is taking a hit.  After a long day of Zoom work calls, eating meals at home, and doing all the dishes (all the dishes!) many couples are having a hard time mustering any energy for sex. But sex doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There are many ways to express affection in ways that don’t require as much physical energy as sex.

So, here are a few simple ways to expand your repertoire of physical touch with your partner and relieve stress at the same time:

1. The 6 Second Kiss: That’s just enough time to be slightly awkward.  It’s more than the perfunctory hello/goodbye kiss that we often offer up to our partner.  Six seconds is a tad too long to kiss someone you aren’t fond of, you dislike, or you resent.  Kissing for six seconds requires some thought and some awareness. It requires that you like the person you’re kissing, that you trust this person, and that you feel affection for them.  By paying attention to those things, your body tells you that you are safe with your partner. And the physical connection through the kiss helps relieve stress built up in your body from the day.

2. Hug Until Relaxed:  Just like with quick peck-like kisses, we often hug in a perfunctory way and don’t give this act of affection any thought.  Hugging until relaxed requires that we pay attention to our bodies and the sensations we feel while hugging.

As you hug, notice the sensation of your arms around your partner.  Notice the feel of your partner in your arms. Take a deep breath. Notice your partner’s smell and the texture of their skin, hair, or clothing. Observe any feelings you may be having without judgment.  Where in your body do you notice these feelings? Observe any other physical sensations you may have in response to this hug. I encourage you to just notice your experience and then turn your attention back to the hug and to your partner.

Research tells us that a twenty-second hug can change our hormones, lower our blood pressure and heart rate, and improve our mood.  All of these physiological changes help us relieve stress.

3. Sensate Focus with Hands: I wrote about this in a recent blog here:

This exercise requires perhaps 10 minutes of your time.  It is a nice way to practice mindfully giving and receiving touch and noticing sensations in your body.

Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit such as a couch and minimize distractions.  This is a nonverbal exercise and a lot of couples choose to keep their eyes closed.  The person giving touch is to touch their partner’s hands one at a time from elbow to fingertips.  Focus on expressing positive sentiments like love, gratitude, and joy through touch.

As the receiver of touch, if you do not like the type of touch you are receiving or where the touch is being given, you may gently and non-verbally guide your partner’s hand to touch in a different way and/or place on your arm.

As both giver and receiver, focus on the thoughts and feelings that come up.  Also focus on and notice sensations. It is normal to feel some anxious or awkward feelings. Notice them and let them come and go.

Now, set a timer for three minutes and begin.

After the exercise, debrief with each other.  What thoughts and feelings did you notice during the exercise?  What sensations did you experience? Do you feel closer to your partner, further away from your partner, or about the same?  How did it feel to be the receiver of touch? How did it feel to be the giver?

After you debrief with each other you can switch roles of giver and receiver.

These are stressful times. You can do your body good and your relationship good by taking a few moments to relieve your stress and strengthen your physical connection with your partner at the same time. That’s what I’d call a win-win.

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Local Atlanta therapist community Abundance Collective hosted a sexual health panel.

Learn from three experts about sexual health across all ages. Panelists include: 

Amy Howard, Psychotherapist and Certified Sex Therapist
Donna Burkett, MD specializing in sexual health
Natalie Wilton, psychotherapist specializing in sexual health for caregivers of aging adults 

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