Couples Therapy In the Time of COVID – Sex and Relationship Coach Speaks [Interview Series]

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Couples Therapy In the Time of Covid with Polly Hemphill-Duchen
Couples Therapy In the Time of Covid with Polly Hemphill-Duchen

The lockdowns and work-from-home (WFH) mandates forced many couples to stay together for extended periods of time. Before the pandemic, most couples had their space thanks to being able to go to work.

However, lockdowns and WFM mandates forced couples to be with each other 24 x 7. This had unintended effects. Observers noticed an increase in domestic violence, a reduction in intimacy, and in many cases, a seething sense of resentment.

To understand how these dynamics play out among couples even today, we spoke to Polly Hemphill-Duchen.

Polly Hemphill-Duchen is a Couples Therapist / Sex and Relationship Coach in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. She works online with clients across Australia and in the US. In addition, she also takes up private sessions and holds intensive couples therapy sessions in small groups for 2 and 3-days.

Being a sex and relationship coach as well as a couples therapist allows Polly to help couples dig deeper into areas where they experience difficulties in intimacy and sexuality.

Couples Sitting Together

1. What sort of problems/challenges are you seeing today with married couples?

There are 2 main challenges which couples bring to my therapy room as we re-engage with our workplaces, friends, hobbies and communities.

  • Navigating differing needs of independence in a relationship

For example, one partner wants to go out every weekend, stay out all night and recover with their friends or community. The other is left feeling lonely, confused and rejected after spending so many months in lockdown together.

Although couples were forced to be together 24 x 7, many noticed a decreased need to communicate, negotiate and understand their partners’ need for independence during lockdowns. Couples who didn’t talk about this felt the most alienated and rejected. 

  • A longing for deep intimacy and connection within the relationship.

“I loved lockdown with my partner. I felt so close to them and learnt so much more about them”, said one client in their first session. Going through the shared experience of lockdown brought many couples closer together.

They spent more time together than they would ever have, which created the space to find out things we would not normally have known. Couples talked more, shared more detail on hopes and dreams and created far more shared meaning.

2. How do you tackle these challenges?

The challenge is to reestablish the balance between interdependence and secure attachment. For a couple to successfully navigate the differing needs of each partner, it is essential to  first establish a relatively secure attachment.

My work with couples around this is focused on re-learning how to communicate the needs of one partner to the other in a way they can hear and understand why they want to go out, see other people, and spend time away from the relationship. 

There is also a need to re-learn how to recognise our boundaries and communicate them lovingly to our partner. Clear boundaries within relationships are essential to the intimacy and longevity of the relationship as they create trust and prevent resentment.

3. You spoke about intimacy and connection within the relationship. Can you elaborate?

As I said, the pandemic enhanced the  level of intimacy and closeness, leading to greater exploration of their sexual fantasies and desires together. They had more sex, spent longer time in foreplay and often went beyond their usual sexual format.

Rather than dishonestly outsourcing their sexual needs, keeping porn and toy activity secret, couples talked more about what porn they liked, what toys turn them on and engaged in it together.

Post lockdown, as couples spend more time apart, interacting with people at work, friends and communities, they are losing the deep level of intimacy and connection they felt during the lockdowns. 

Sexual desires and needs are back to being outsourced as more people watch porn or use toys while their partner is not at home. They don’t share intimate details of their thoughts and feelings like they did during lockdowns, nor do they engage in as many shared experiences as they have less time together.

4. How do you address these issues related to loss of intimacy?

The work I do with couples is on finding new ways to deepen intimacy and create a connection that sustains relationships. It is important to recognise what developed during lockdown and decide on what they want to hang onto.

There is also a need to acknowledge the loss they are experiencing as they settle into a post lockdown life.

The fastest and most effective way to deepen intimacy is to create shared rituals and stick to them. By recognising the activities and experiences they had during lockdown that brought them together, they can create rituals to continue those experiences. 

The key is to keep communicating. The experiences will not be the same as they were during the lockdown. Consequently, it is important to talk about why and how they are different, what they like or didn’t like about the experience post lockdown.

I would urge couples to be open to adapting to new experiences to see what their needs are now.

Couple Being Intimate after Couples Therapy

5. What is the most important thing that couples must do to enhance intimacy?

Most importantly, they must continue the conversation around sex, sexual needs and desires. However, they must also set boundaries so that each partner is comfortable with outsourcing their pleasure when alone or with others.

6. Do you think these problems have substantially changed after the pandemic?

The issues outlined above were absolutely prevalent pre-pandemic. They just presented in a different way and were focused on different situations. Couples had not experienced the intensity of the shared experience that lockdowns created.

They were completely oblivious to the level of intimacy and connection that lockdowns could create. 

Pre-pandemic, outsourcing sexual desires and needs through private porn or toy activity was, to a point, accepted by partners as the norm. “It is normal for my partner to watch porn, use toys and engage in online sex when I am out, right?”

Post-pandemic, having shared a lot of those experiences together and hearing what turns our partner on, it is almost impossible for some couples to go back to “turning a blind eye to it”.

Because of this, the work I do with couples around the expansion of intimacy and sexuality post-pandemic is quite different.

Honesty, setting boundaries, and communication are key to enhancing intimacy

Most couples therapists would agree that the lockdowns created two kinds of situations. They either erased preferred boundaries, or enhanced levels of intimacy.

Both created challenges for couples, who immediately had to switch to living “normal lives” after the pandemic. While some miss the intimacy levels during the pandemic, others feel their partners are becoming distant again. 

As a result, it is important to focus on honestly communicating with your partner, and ensure that your needs are being met. In addition, it is also important to set boundaries so that nobody feels they are being asked too much when life is just getting back to normal.

As always, it is important to seek professional couples or sex therapy when required. This can greatly improve pathological attachment issues that often creep into relationships.

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