Love Sick: The Love Doctor

We’ve all heard it before — relationships take work, even in normal times. Throw in a global pandemic, an economic crisis and prolonged restrictions on what we can do and where we can go, and the lifting gets even heavier. And that’s whether you’re newly dating, in a long-term relationship or parenting kids who are suddenly always home. Are our relationships suffering or thriving? Has dating become impossible? Are we even having sex anyore?

Renée Burwell is the founder of Madison practice Pandora’s Awakening, where she specializes in sex, trauma and couples therapy. In addition to talk therapy, Pandora’s Awakening offers workshops about sexual health, support groups, kundalini yoga and more. Burwell spoke to the Scene by phone and by email, answering all of our questions about how the pandemic is impacting dating, relationships and sex. 

Early on in the pandemic, I was expecting my partner to supply all the things I usually would get from in-person interactions with friends and colleagues. Have you seen this trend?

That’s an interesting question, because I feel like that is a circumstance that isn’t new. I think a lot of people rely on their partners too much to be their everything … when really they still have to be an individual within that relationship and do their own work and find other resources. In previous time periods, people had knitting groups, they had other communities that they could go to. ... In our society, everyone’s kind of siloed. … [During the pandemic] it’s almost not unhealthy for people to rely on the people who are in their household because that’s what the CDC is recommending.

Have you seen relationships speeding up or ending unexpectedly as people are thinking about their mortality?

Are you familiar with the cuffing season? So the cuffing season is in the winter, around December or November, when it starts getting cold. Everybody’s rushing to be in a relationship. Usually around Valentine’s Day, those relationships end. I feel like we’re in more of an intense cuffing season right now, because like you said, we are having death in our face on a regular basis in a way that we haven’t before. We’re having all these restrictions that are just kind of making us go into reflection. [We’re] also just needing comfort. I think that definitely relationships are speeding up and people are reevaluating and being more self-reflective when you really can’t go anywhere.

I think people who were in relationships that weren’t serving them are having more time to reflect and decide to change those because they don’t want to [spend] the rest of the time that’s fragile with someone who’s not for them. Or they want to improve those relationships. Some people are coming to therapy more. I’m getting a whole lot more requests for couples therapy, and then some people are just skipping the couples therapy, and they know that they’re done. 

What is the pandemic doing to our sex lives?

I’ve seen a lot of different things. In the very beginning of the pandemic, everyone was really focused on building more [intimacy]. Physical intimacy and emotional intimacy are two different things. I always like to say that [upfront]. When people are doing online dating, now that they can’t really meet in person, people are taking their time to get to know each other a little bit more online or over the phone. ... Before, people could use sex almost like a vulnerability shield. People are becoming more open to getting to know each other and kind of depend and rely on each other more right now. What I’m seeing more so is the people who weren’t really taking care of their sexual health, they’re trying to do something about it now. … I’m not really seeing new people who [are] just now having sexual issues. I’m seeing people who’ve had sexual issues for a long time and now they are trying to work on it.

Right. All of my psychological issues seemed to come back full force around June.

[Before the pandemic] you could always go out and hang out and talk, listen to other people’s problems, and now you have to kind of sit still. And when you’re sitting still, that’s the time of actually going inward. So I think what a lot of people are doing right now is just [asking], “What are my areas of improvement?” ... I don’t know if these new relationships that people are getting into are going to be successful. I don’t know if there’s going to be other problems that happen once we get out of COVID, but it’s going to be interesting.

What about child care responsibilities? Have you seen that having an impact on relationships?

I’ve definitely had some couples come in and say that they haven’t had sex as much due to the pandemic, or they’re not able to prioritize date time as they have their kids always around. ... But even if it’s a decrease in some ways, there’s an increase in bonding. This is the only person you have that’s going through this with you. Sex and intimacy are different. People [are] feeling more connected to each other, but at the same time, people aren’t able to really prioritize the fun that they were able to before a pandemic. Couples just have to be more creative, but that’s hard to do sometimes, even if it’s just [trying] something new.

Research is showing that people of color are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in a variety of ways. Is this showing up in your practice?

Racial tension and added emphasis on Black mental health and racial trauma has given many people of color permission to access services that were once stigmatized within the community. People are seeing the benefit of seeking professional mental health treatment unlike anytime I’ve seen in the past.

Any last thoughts about love in the time of COVID?

It’s interesting because I just see both sides of it. I don’t see a common thread that everyone is hating each other. I don’t see a common thread that everyone is in this nostalgic, euphoric space with each other. It’s a combination of everything, but I think probably the common thing is just the self-reflection — this being a deeper, reflective time for people who are reprioritizing what’s important to them.

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