More conflict but more sex: Relationship advice for couples living together amid coronavirus

Many people are staying home to curb the spread of coronavirus. We’re working, exercising, educating little ones, and caring for our partners and other family members – all under one roof. This increased personal time can be stressful. How do you manage that, especially when you’re listening to dire news? 

We get advice from Britney Blair, clinical psychologist and sleep consultant at Stanford University’s Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. She also specializes in sexual health.

Clinical psychologist Britney Blair. Photo courtesy of Blair

“For all of us, this time is quite stressful. And I think when we're stressed out, our coping skills are taxed. And so the normal kind of frustrations that come up in relationships, and with children, and with taking care of a home … they're exacerbated by this kind of underlying stress we have about what's happening in the world,” Blair says. 

With couples, the differences they can typically navigate in a healthy way are “coming to the fore,” she notes. 

Many people are also in smaller spaces with children, and they’re trying to work. Maybe one person is out of a job, and the other is still working full time. “It's just a recipe for both frustration, irritation, as well as resentment,” Blair says. 

Giving compassion -- and space 

“The first thing I would recommend is for all of us to hold ourselves and our partners with compassion. I think it's important, even in really small spaces, to create separateness and distance. Every partnership needs a certain amount of connection and closeness, and needs a certain amount of distance,” she says. 

People can designate a specific spot in the home as their private area, where they can spend alone time, Blair advises. If you don’t have the space, then do a solo activity for a bit, and give your partner that freedom as well. 

You can designate other spots for specific activities. “If you're working from home, one spot in the kitchen or dining room table, that is your office. And you do not take your office into your bedroom or into the kids’ room. … I think this helps us demarcate -- now is work time, versus family time, versus play time, versus sleep time, or connecting with your partner time.” Blair says. 

You should also split child care responsibilities. Blair suggests that Partner A could take care of the kids in the morning while the other works or enjoys their own space, then Partner B could take the kids in the afternoon, and everyone has family time in the evening. 

Conflict and risks of domestic violence

For those who’ve lost their jobs, that stress could increase ratchet up stress, and increase the potential for abuse.

China saw a rise in domestic violence cases after the COVID-19 outbreak there. In the U.S., the National Domestic Violence Hotline is receiving high volumes of calls.

1-800-799-SAFE: National Domestic Violence Hotline

How can people mitigate that risk of abuse? Or if they’re in a potentially violent situation, what can they do?  

“An underlying feeling of helplessness and impotence … is a delicate trigger for shame. And what often happens when people feel helpless or shame or incompetent or impotent -- is they get angry,” explains Blair. “And I think that's when we can see an increased rate in both high conflict between partners, as well as unfortunately, domestic violence,” Blair says.

She says if people feel an escalation of frustration, sadness or anxiety, they should give each other space, and maybe listen to some music with headlines and exercise.

“Cardio burn is great -- to give yourself a little bit of time for that emotion to dissipate and calm down. And I think that's when you can kind of go back and have a productive conversation. And certainly if things escalate, calling the authorities and doing what it takes to protect yourself and your family,” she says.  

Desire and eroticism

On the other side of it -- couples have a lot more time now to reconnect physically. 

“One great way to get out of your mind … and the stress with the current state of affairs is to actually engage with yourself and your partner erotically. … For 85% of people, stress actually causes their libido to go through the floor like this. They really have a lack of libido. And for 15% of people, it increases libido. But for 100% of people, sex can be a great way to reduce stress,” Blair says. 

Her advice for the 85% of people: “Start engaging with your partner … see if that kind of desire follows. We call this responsive desire. Engaging, making out, maybe cuddling a bit, and then see if you can tune into any kind of sexual desire there.” 

Regular sleep

Don’t forget to keep a stable sleep schedule. “When we don't have work and school schedules, it's easy for folks to get off with their sleep schedule. But getting up at the same time every day is going to be by far the best thing you can do for your sleep. And it’ll also help structure your day,” Blair says. 

-- Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson



  • Britney Blair - licensed clinical psychologist, and board certified in behavioral sleep medicine, specializes in sexual health