By Rosalie Harrison
How on earth do we mark Valentine’s day this year? It’s freezing, we’re in lockdown and we’ve already got more than a few plates spinning, frankly.
Our association of romance and spring is not a coincidence; a sustainable source of light, warmth, and nutrients are the core conditions for sustaining most species – including ours. And although humans have evolved in some ways from our neanderthal ancestors, when it comes to sexual desire, we’re still driven by some pretty basic needs.
In addition to these core conditions – a term from the Rogerian model of therapy which translates nicely when we’re thinking about what we need (and don’t need) before we even begin to think about sex – we all have conditions particular to ourselves. These may derive from our culture, faith and sexual identity – plus all our own fascinating idiosyncrasies and fantasies which distinguish us from everyone else we know.
The much debated idea of gender difference in cycles of arousal derives from the optimal social and environmental conditions our ancestors required for the survival of their progeny. If you think about our prehistoric gender roles it makes sense – cisgender women prioritised the physical and emotional security needed to raise a healthy child; cisgender men secured the survival of their line by profligate propagation of their genes. There has been a lot of interest in the impact of the pandemic on our sex lives. The theory of ‘The Great British Sex Drought’ (www.graziadaily.co.uk) is borne out by research from the Kinsey Institute which found all types of sexual activity fell during spring 2020. 43.5% of those interviewed reported a decline in the quality of their sex life during the pandemic.
When couples begin therapy, we routinely ask about sex. A couple recently told me, ‘sex is the barometer of our relationship.’* Noticing changes in libido and patterns of arousal tells us a lot about happening emotionally, physically and environmentally – in the relationship and in the individual.
Another couple told me, ‘sex isn’t a big deal – so long as you’re having the sex you want with the partner/s you want, when and where you want.’* This reminded me of sex at the start of a relationship – when desire and feeling desired are consuming – sometimes to the exclusion of all else (eating, sleeping, friends, work…) And then the transition from this initial phase as the other aspects of life are gradually reintroduced and the relationship progresses into a more settled phase.
US Psychotherapist Irvin Yalom described himself as ‘Love’s Executioner’ in his role of therapist working with patients consumed by passion. In his book of the same title, he explores his conflict of counselling them towards a more balanced view of themselves and the object of their desire to the detriment of the intense and ephemeral experience of new desire.
US Couple Therapist, Ester Perel, suggests that to connect again with our sexual desire we need first to engage with our own life source or eroticism. She invites us to:
- Connect with our own playfulness and curiosity
- Find ways of experiencing and expressing individual/personal freedoms
- Cultivate opportunities for pleasure for its own sake
- Capture and maintain our aliveness, vibrancy and vitality
- Connect with mystery and transcendence in our lives.
This made me think of a couple* whose relationship had suffered through periods of quarantine and lockdown and experiences of uncertainty and loss. They discovered great pleasure, connection and new energy in singing, loudly, for their own pleasure.
So for Valentines day 2021 and the year ahead, perhaps we might begin with something life affirming, creative and playful – alone, in a couple or as a group.
I’ll be writing more on this in the coming weeks for LGBTQ+ month, but in the meantime, for Valentines day this year, I’m going to have a snowball fight. In the dark. And I may even sing. I think that takes care of Ester’s list.
Perel, E. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Emotional Intelligence. Harper, 2006
Yalom, I. Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy. Penguin 2013
*couple stories anonymized and used with permission.