Beasley warns that there are certain cases where these nicely packaged therapy quick-fixes definitely should not be used, like cases of pandemic cheating. “If there was infidelity, then there’s a breach in the attachment that absolutely cannot be fixed in an eight-hour block,” she says. “If we were ready to forgive our partners in eight hours, perhaps we wouldn’t need therapy.” (The Fuentes don’t enroll these couples in their intensives, they say. They speak to each couple beforehand and in cases of infidelity or domestic violence, recommend a different course of action.)
Despite the spike in coronavirus couples intensives hitting the market, many couples are opting for more traditional weekly therapy sessions via Zoom. John and Ava, for example, are doing bi-monthly sessions with Wiley, seeking help for their relationship issues that preceded the pandemic but are now magnified by 24/7 intimacy. “With our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter home since March and both of us working from home, it’s definitely heightened tension throughout the year,” John said. “A homework assignment that Dr. Wiley gave us is to just kiss and hug more,” Ava said. “We don’t leave the house to go to work. So we’re not kissing and hugging goodbye.”
Kerry Lusignan, a licensed mental health counselor and the founder of Northampton Couples Therapy, treats couples facing similar issues. “COVID is just a big domestic cesspool,” she said. “It’s not sexy to know what somebody’s doing 24/7. Novelty gets us going. And then you add to that children, and you’re homeschooling the kids and then you’re exhausted. It’s a mess.” She thinks COVID has caused people to rethink their relationships because they are also contemplating their mortality. “Couples start to think, ‘What the hell are we really doing if we could die tomorrow?’ And it’s like, ‘Wait, I’m not gonna do 20 more years with you,’” she says.
Ultimately, therapists say that the “don’t sweat the small stuff” mantra that sustains many healthy relationships is crumbling in the face of the pandemic. With COVID, the small stuff is no longer small: Choosing to eat outdoors instead of indoors could be the difference between life and death; squirting your palm with Purell after opening a door could save you from hospitalization; taking off your mask for a few minutes during a Trader Joe’s run for babka could turn you into a super spreader. It’s no wonder that over a third of couples in a recent study said they’d felt increasing stress in their marriage, or that a Kinsey Institute study found that frequency of sex is down. Divorce rates spiked early in the pandemic, but many have stuck it out, sometimes because they have literally nowhere else to go.
Women with children, like Ava, have arguably borne the brunt of the pandemic domestic shake-up. On top of the extra child-rearing duties that often fall on them, they’re also playing epidemiological hall monitor. “Women in cisgendered heterosexual couples are tending to be the ones who are like, ‘Hey, these are the CDC protocols. I want to follow these,’” says Lusignan.
The normalization of virtual sessions has made therapy significantly more accessible (though there’s still a glaring affordability issue for many). It’s also helped give therapists a new perspective on their clients. “It’s kind of given us a new window into their lives because we’re actually going into their home, essentially. So there is a more realistic view of what is really happening,” says Chelsea Fuentes. That’s not always comfortable; she’s seen partners throw phones and storm out during Zoom sessions. “In our office that happens rarely,” she says. Lusignan once had a client kick the laptop off the table mid-session.
For some, couples therapy during the pandemic has helped provide clarity that their relationship is over. Kurt* a 43-year-old man who I met in an online forum devoted to people in low-sex relationships, said he had spent 21 years in a low-sex relationship, sometimes going for six months without sex. And when they did manage to have sex, it felt like “duty” sex, he said. The added stresses of the pandemic finally drove him and his wife into therapy. Counseling helped reveal their differing attitudes towards sex. “She kept saying it was X reason [we weren’t having sex], and once that was taken care of it then became Y reason and then Z reason. All the while saying sex was important to her until the first couples session when she said it was never important,” he says. Couples counseling didn’t fix his relationship, but it did give him clarity. He plans on filing for divorce later this year.
But the experience for Ava and John was positive. “We’ve had more sex from the time that we’ve been working with Dr. Wiley than we probably did since our daughter’s birth,” Ava said, averaging about once a week. “It probably doesn’t sound like very much to most people,” she said, “but that is probably all I have the energy for.”
*Names have been changed for privacy.
Hallie Lieberman is a sex historian and journalist. She’s the author of Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy and is currently working on a book about gigolos.