As is often the way, when Tamsin Hewitt and her partner Simon’s first child arrived five years ago, their sex life took a back seat.
Even so, at least once a month when daughter Tessa was tucked up in bed, they’d make time for each other.
‘After six years, things like work and children get in the way of sex, but it was still important to both of us,’ says Tamsin, a 44-year-old writer from South London. ‘Quality was more important to us than quantity, and that worked perfectly well.’
Working from home and spending all day every day together can impact a relationship
But this all changed when the first lockdown hit last year. Tamsin says: ‘Simon was furloughed, and I work from home, so we were suddenly in each other’s pockets all the time.
‘We quickly began to grate on each other. I resented the fact he was sitting around doing nothing while I worked, and he lost his temper quickly. We started fighting constantly. Then we lost interest in each other physically.’
By the summer, the couple were down to having sex once every two months, and by September not at all.
She adds: ‘I tried to get us to reconnect emotionally by encouraging physical intimacy, even though I wasn’t in the mood. Neither of us particularly enjoyed it – we didn’t feel connected. He tried a couple of times but I felt no attraction to him any more. It was heartbreaking. We wouldn’t even cuddle in bed, sticking to our opposite sides.’
It’s a trend that’s playing out in bedrooms across the country, say relationship experts.
Recent data collected by the long-running National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found physical intimacy between British couples halved during the first lockdown. Other studies of the under-35s have found that during the three lockdowns, a third of couples were having less sex with their partner and a quarter none at all.
Recent data collected by the long-running National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found physical intimacy between British couples halved during the first lockdown
American polls noted a drop in sex drive in half of respondents there too, with similar results in Italy and India.
Which begs the question: with millions of couples suddenly given ample opportunity to dive into the bedroom together, why aren’t they? Some of the explanation is not surprising.
With couples locked in one space together for so long, the exposure to irritating, unattractive habits increases, reducing the desire for your significant other. But there’s a biological reason why seeing too much of one another kills the mood – studies have shown that familiarity is one of the biggest drivers of lapsed sexual desire.
‘Humans have evolved to be attracted to new things,’ says Dr Anna Machin, evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Oxford. ‘The brain releases a hit of dopamine – one of the reward and pleasure hormones involved in sexual attraction – when we see or do something different to our normal routine.’
While scientists aren’t entirely sure why this is, Dr Machin suggests it’s an evolutionary tool that has helped humans innovate new methods of survival in ever-changing adverse conditions. Another theory is that once couples have been together for a number of years, they begin to adopt each other’s traits, such as mannerisms.
While this connects them emotionally, studies show it can reduce feelings of attraction because we are biologically programmed to seek out a partner with traits that complement ours but are not identical.
Psychosexual therapist Murray Blacket, who is seeing more couples than he was pre-pandemic, says: ‘You stop recognising the unique qualities in your partner that made you attracted to them in the first place.’
Other specialists say the mundane routine of lockdown made it hard to connect with sexual feelings.
‘Sexuality is often seen as something different and extra to our everyday lives,’ says sex therapist Marian O’Connor from the relationship counselling charity Tavistock Relationships. ‘The routine of lockdown has meant that many couples find it hard to get into that sense of otherness or specialness.’
With couples locked in one space together for so long, the exposure to irritating, unattractive habits increases, reducing the desire for your significant other
While women are twice as likely to lose sexual interest in their partner compared with men, according to a study by University College London, other researchers lay the blame for the lack of lockdown libido on that mood-killer – stress.
‘All of the polls during lockdowns have shown that women bear the brunt of domestic stress by leading the home schooling or doing the endless cooking,’ says Dr Machin.
Researchers from Texas State University used surveys to track sexual desire in Americans during the first peak of the pandemic, and found that as Covid-related ‘stressors’ increased – job losses, illness or childcare worries – sexual attraction to partners decreased.
Experts say the cascade of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline disrupt the production of other hormones involved in sexual arousal – testosterone, dopamine and oestrogen. Studies also show anxious feelings inhibit sexual performance and enjoyment. If the brain perceives a threat, it sends signals to divert oxygenated blood towards the arms and legs in preparation for escape or attack, diverting it away from the genitals where it is crucial for feeling aroused.
So can you relight the fire – and if so, how?
Dr Machin says taking a gym class together could help. Endorphins, the stress-relieving chemicals released during exercise, also play a role in helping us bond to other people, as does the hormone oxytocin which has a similar effect and also peaks after exercise.
But all the experts say the most useful activity is touch.
Blacket recommends an exercise called sensate focus whereby couples take turns placing one hand on each other, working their way down from head to toe but avoiding intimate body parts.
‘It helps couples relax into the sensation of touching and being touched without the pressure of having sex,’ he says.
Experts say the cascade of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline disrupt the production of other hormones involved in sexual arousal – testosterone, dopamine and oestrogen
‘They are encouraged to talk about what feels nice, which boosts confidence and increases physical connection. Often people have to feel desired to want sex.’
Blacket says in roughly nine in ten of the couples he treats, this technique leads to increasing the frequency – and enjoyment – of sex.
O’Connor suggests talking about the lack of intimacy – but pick your moment carefully. ‘Do not start the conversation late at night in the bedroom,’ she advises.
Instead she suggests bringing up the subject during a shared activity, such as cooking, so the sole focus is not on the conversation. She also suggests carving out time for a date night or making sure you’re both alone in the house one evening. For the more adventurous, experimenting with sex toys or role-play can also help, as can massage.
Thankfully, with the country slowly returning to normal, experts believe our collective libido will soon be back up and running.
O’Connor says even recounting gossip that you might pick up in the office about other people’s relationships will inject excitement into your own.
‘People will start to go out again and come home to their partner, which will feel novel and they’ll be pleased to see them,’ says Blacket.
She adds: ‘Some people have less sex than others, and that is perfectly healthy. It becomes a problem when one partner is unhappy with the quantity – or quality.’
The experts’ tips come too late for Tamsin and Simon, who have called time on their six-year relationship.
‘If the physical connection was still there, I would have been hopeful that there was something to salvage,’ says Tamsin. ‘But we didn’t want to touch each other at all and had no interest in changing that.
‘It was a clear sign we just didn’t want to be together any more.’