At the beginning of lockdown, I noticed there was a huge emphasis on everything you should be getting done while stuck at home. Get sick six-pack abs, uplevel—or start!—your online business, get 10K followers on your TikTok account, learn to make sourdough bread, and Kondo your entire home. Anyone with a partner better be having honeymoon-on-steriods sex with all this free time. No pressure.
Unsurprisingly, the extra stress, anxiety, and depression we’re experiencing in lockdown are not conducive to mind-blowing sex. Over 43% of participants in a study at Kinsey Institute at Indiana University reported a decline in the quality of their sex life since the pandemic began. Another study on female sexual behavior during COVID-19 showed that while frequency and desire increased, quality went down the drain.
If reading this has brought up a reality that you’ve been trying to avoid with yet another season of The Crown, fear not. There are many ways to reinvigorate your lovemaking, even in the midst of a pandemic. Spoiler alert: Pushing yourself (and your partner) to meet some imaginary expectation of what your sex should be like isn’t one of them. A “hustle” mentality doesn’t tend to lead to the connection, satisfaction, and fulfillment that we seek in our sexual lives.
Instead, things like mindfulness, savoring, intentional touch, gratitude, and good old communication are way more effective and more fun, too. Here are some of my favorite tips for bringing the passion and quality back into the bedroom (and wherever else you might find yourselves!).
Mindfulness and savoring
Our brain’s negativity bias wires us to look for problems and zero in on what doesn’t feel good. We are even more likely to focus on discomfort during a time of crisis. Negativity can cut us off from sensual and sexual pleasure and desire. Swimming around in negativity and painful emotions isn’t a turn-on for most folks.
But there are practices that can train your brain to notice and soak into pleasure and positive experiences.
My favorite exercise for jumpstarting sexual enjoyment is mindfulness of pleasure. To practice, focus on what feels best in your body for 12–15 minutes a day. Use pleasure as your object of focus in this meditation, the same way you would with your breath or a mantra. You might bring your physical awareness to a part of your body that is relaxed, or the feeling of being supported by whatever you are sitting on, or even a pleasant emotional sensation, like peace or joy. If you are having trouble finding a sensation that feels good, take a moment to relax your body and then focus on the relaxation, or bring to mind a past pleasurable experience and then notice and stay with the pleasant response in the body.
Studies suggest that practicing mindfulness can “significantly improve sexual desire and other indices of sexual response” in women, and is a “potentially promising treatment avenue for men with situational erectile dysfunction.” Mindfulness can also lower stress (a big libido killer for men and women) by increasing our sense of acceptance and equanimity.
If you’re not able to commit to a meditation practice right now, or just want to supercharge your pleasure awareness, give savoring pleasure a try. There are more pleasurable experiences on any given day than you might realize: those first few sips of coffee, the sun on your face, eating a nice meal, peeing when you really need to pee, to name a few. Pause and savor everyday pleasure when it arises, slowing down to really enjoy that caffeine hitting your bloodstream!
Here’s a simple way to incorporate savoring into your life, which I call “Savor 3 Pleasures.” Notice at least three moments of pleasure each day, from orgasmic to just slightly pleasant. Then before bed, write down three moments you remember and focus on savoring the pleasure again. Double the pleasure, double the fun.
These simple practices can potentially increase the pleasure and quality in your sexual experience by strengthening your ability to stay with the delightful sensations in your body during sex rather than getting lost in your thoughts. You may find that as you attune to pleasure more in your everyday life, you are more likely to want to share in that pleasure with your partner in a carnal way.
If you want to go all the way with mindfulness of pleasure, intentionally bring it into sex. One study found that sexual mindfulness may help you bring greater awareness and less judgment into sex, while potentially improving sexual well-being, relational well-being, and self-esteem. Sounds like the ingredients for some great sex, doesn’t it?
In his work on the science of touch, GGSC founding director Dacher Keltner says, “We’re wired to—we need to—connect with other people on a basic physical level. To deny that is to deprive ourselves of some of life’s greatest joys and deepest comforts.”
Cuddling on the couch with Netflix, a good spooning session before falling to sleep, and holding hands while walking the dog can lower stress levels, give us a boost of oxytocin, and possibly increase compassion. Additionally, holding your partner’s hand could lower your response to threat, and that’s something we could all use right about now.
If you find that your affection always falls on the more platonic side of the street, or if the only time you touch for extended periods is during sex, sex can feel awkward and disconnected. If, on the other hand, you get intentional about sensual affection, you may find more sparks flying when you make love.
This is something that can be practiced daily, just like anything else you want to cultivate. The suggestions I’m going to make may be new for you, and that can feel uncomfortable, but here’s some good news: In one study, participants who explored new sexual territory reported that their sex life had actually improved since the pandemic began, unlike those who stuck with the same routine. So, consider stepping out of your comfort zone.
You can start by just bringing a bit more sensuality into your normal daily physical interactions. Slow down that morning goodbye (or “I’m going into my home office”) kiss. Let your lips linger. Look into each other’s eyes and then go back in for one more smooch. Instead of just placing a hand on your partner’s leg while watching a show, stroke from knee to inner upper thigh. Rather than a quick hug and pat on the back, take the time to really feel your partner’s body against yours. Take a few deep breaths together. Allow your hands to explore a bit as you embrace. Have a friendly contest to see who can make the other get goosebumps and blush first each day. Make turning each other on outside of the bedroom a daily occurrence.
Next, build on the mutual sensual expression by scheduling a biweekly make-out session. Twenty minutes of heavy petting, like you are teenagers, twice a week can certainly turn up the heat. I know that scheduling time to be intimate can feel less exciting than being swept into spontaneous desire, but this way you can be sure it happens. During these sessions, take sex off the table and focus only on kissing and foreplay. If at the end of your 20 minutes in heaven, you want to move into sex, great. If not, that’s great, too. You can take that wonderful sexual energy and connection into the rest of your day or evening. This time set aside for kissing can really pay off. In one study, couples who frequently kissed had higher relationship satisfaction.
If you find that even non-sexual touch has waned, I suggest scheduling a 20-minute cuddle session every day for a week. This period of time is not about sex or even making out; it’s about becoming reacquainted with each other’s bodies in a no-pressure way. I encourage you to keep talking to a minimum, other than communicating what feels good and offering appreciation. Bring mindfulness to the experience and remember to breathe and relax. You may find that after a week of this you feel more connected and that my previous suggestions are a bit more in reach.
Communication and gratitude
There’s a quote from the Queen of Pop, Madonna, that encapsulates a major roadblock to quality sex: “A lot of people are afraid to say what they want. That’s why they don’t get what they want.”
A simple lack of communication can limit the pleasure, intimacy, satisfaction, and fun in sex that might otherwise be abundantly available. Expressing what you want sexually and getting interested in what your partner wants are surefire ways to move toward a higher-quality sex life.
Of course, talking about sex isn’t easy for most of us. While sex is a fundamental aspect of being human, most of us didn’t get a truly comprehensive sexual education, and there can be a huge amount of shame and insecurity that arises when attempting to give voice to our sexual needs and desires. Giving your sex life a boost requires cultivating the ability to communicate.
When we are able to dialog about what turns us on, as well as what doesn’t, the pleasant possibilities expand exponentially. We start to receive and give more of what is wanted. The skill of clear (and kind) communication can serve you throughout your relationship and the many changes you and your partner will inevitably go through. Plus, if you are dealing with depression (COVID-related or otherwise), just talking about sex could actually help make the sex (and the relationship) more satisfying.
It can be a good idea to talk about sex when you aren’t in the middle of having it, especially if sharing your desires is new for you. Plan a time for what I call a “Sex Talk Date,” when you can either sit down next to each other or take a walk. Don’t feel that you need to discuss every detail of your sex life in the first conversation. Exploring sex and your sexuality is a lifelong marathon, not a one-time sprint. Allow for spaciousness, breath, and moment-to-moment attunement with your partner.
You might start with the prompt: What I love about our sex life is… Spend some time connecting about what is working. Then move into: What I’d love to explore with you sexually is… or What would really turn me on is… These prompts are just invitations. You’ll find the most effective and supportive ways of communicating as you experiment. The more you can accentuate the positive and be curious and invitational with your language, the better. Remember that you are on the same team, and the goal is fantastic sex. If you find that these conversations are leading to conflict and less connection, a good therapist or coach, who is knowledgeable about sex, could be a great addition to the evolution of your relationship.
Communicating gratitude for your partner might also help. According to one study, feeling and receiving gratitude in your relationship may lead to greater sexual satisfaction. Being appreciated for what you are doing well, and appreciating what your partner is doing well, creates positive motivation to continue prioritizing the emotional and sexual health of the relationship.
To inspire more gratitude between you and your partner, you might consider offering each other a daily appreciation. Sit across from each other, close your eyes, and take a few moments to breathe and relax. Then bring to mind one thing you love or appreciate about your partner. Or something that they did that made you laugh or turned you on. Choose something that is not involved with any conflicts. As you think about this, feel it in your body, too. When you are ready, open your eyes and take turns sharing what you were reflecting on. Pause after each share to really take in the experience. Finish with some kind of physical touch, if that feels good to both of you.
When it comes to upping the quality of your sexual relationship, it’s important to be compassionate and patient with yourself and your partner. A new and improved sexual connection won’t happen overnight. Bring curiosity and a gentle and safe sense of adventure into the process, and let go of the idea that there is a “right” way to have sex. We are all unique individuals and one size certainly does not fit all.
Also keep in mind that this is an unprecedented time. Many of us are challenged in multiple ways on a daily basis. It’s normal to feel exhausted and prefer scrolling on your phone to improving your sex life. Instead of attempting a massive sexual overhaul and going into hustle mode, take small, doable actions each day. It will add up.