How to navigate relationship issues during quarantine.

by Svetlana Mesa, LMFT

It’s easy to find articles  about couples getting sick of each other or how divorce rates are on the go. New research has found that some people feel pressure on relationships while being quarantined. Some people doubt their relationships or find a partner annoying these days. Certainly, the situation is challenging for most of us, but we have no real data to confirm it.

The Kinsey Institute is in the process of conducting a study on how the pandemic is affecting our sex lives and relationships. So far the findings are: 44% said sex life declined and 30% said romantic life declined. However, it’s not all that bad in the bedroom. At the same time 14% said their sex life has actually improved and 23 % said their relationship was in a better place. Given the information, while the situation is certainly difficult, it also creates new opportunities to work on our romantic and intimate lives.

Its normal to feel stressed, anxious, or irritable right now. We are living in a period of extended isolation, worries about financial security, negative news and uncertainty in the world. We also tend to rely on our partners more now when we are not able to spend time with friends or relatives as much. We also are not able to cope with stress the way we used to by going shopping or working out at the gym. If you feel like there are problems in your relationship, there are steps you can take.

1. Making your relationship better starts with taking care of yourself. What are your favorite forms of self-care? There are many different types of self care, mental or physical that include but not limited to journaling, cooking healthy food, getting a good night sleep, meditation, taking a long bath, reading a book, exercising, learning something new, the list is endless. The productive thing is to start with you. You want to change the other? You change yourself first.

2. A good thing to do is to understand what bothers you. Then, you have to communicate to your partner what you are feeling. No one can read your mind. Only by talking about it, you can start to understand what really worries you. Remember that it may not be about your partner but about you and your personal feelings and problems.

3. Its important to talk specifically what you are upset about or what you want to change. Stay focused on the task. If there is a problem, communicate precisely about it. Don’t start bringing up five different things. Work on problem solving for a specific matter. Doing things strategically helps resolve conflicts.

4. Conflict is an inevitable part of any romantic relationship. It is the way you handle conflict what counts. Avoid putting your partner down, don’t curse, yell or call him or her names. Express your feelings with words. Talk turns talking. Try to paraphrase what your partner is communicating so that you are able to understand better. Set aside an hour in the evening to talk about your day and frustrations, current fears and worries, plans for the next day, dreams and aspirations. Consider your partner’s feeling as well. Ask about your partner’s day or anything you can do to make his or her day better.

5. Respect each other’s space and time. Give each other space. It is normal to need alone space. Be creative about it too. If you both work from home, set aside an area where you can work alone. It may be that you have to stay with your partner at home most days. It’s important to create a routine of contact that is consistent but not constant. The element of mystery that provokes excitement may be lost if we continuously talk, text or call each other. Try to share the news or projects at the end of the day instead.

6. Practice appreciation and gratitude. None of us are perfect partners. Do your best and thank each other. Notice little moments to appreciate daily whether it is picking up after a meal, putting kids to sleep or making coffee. It is the little things that partners do for each other and that hold your relationship together. Try to notice them and be grateful.

7. Now more than ever we need a routine that creates structure that brings a certain sense of order to a world that feels so chaotic and so unsure. Show your partner how routine can put everything in place and keep everyone free of stress and boredom. Explain to your partner how scheduling conversations, our time, meals or family activities can benefit your relationship. Resuming or inventing couple rituals is always a good thing to do no matter how long you have been together. Are you eating meals together? Do you have a goodbye and greeting rituals? What about date nights? Sticking to or starting a date night practice can bring excitement and joy to your relationship. There are many things available even during the quarantine: you can visit a museum online, read a book together, learn cooking a new meal, take a bath together, drinks and a movie together or play a board game.

8. In terms of improving sexual connection, consider doing subtle things throughout the day like holding hands or rubbing each other’s backs to create a continued physical connection. Having make-out sessions or teasing each other during the day may get you in the mood and build anticipation for the evening. It may also be a good time to try new bedroom activities or have a discussion on how to spice things up in the bedroom. Finally, don’t forget that the most important unit in the family is the couple unit. Your family can’t continue being strong if the couple unit is weak. Dedicate time and effort to create a united front and the best relationship you can model to your children. Start expecting less and giving more and you will see the results of your efforts in no time.

Lastly, life is not going to be flawless all the time. The importance of a relationship is that you stick by each other for better or for worse. The pandemic is not permanent. Try to focus on good things that are already happening, and develop new connection habits that will strengthen your relationship in the long haul.


Sex Education for children, adolescents, lgbtq youth.

by Svetlana Mesa, LMFT

I come from a family with a doctor. My mother worked many years as an ob-gyn before she became the head of the hospital in a small town in Russia. She was also a sex educator. While she took me to local schools to attend and listen to her lectures on sex education for children, she never openly spoke to me about it and I felt uncomfortable asking. Even though I managed to educate myself by reading books on sexual anatomy and contraception, I had many questions unanswered growing up and I
was very confused about sexuality.

When and how do we talk to kids about sex?

In my work with clients I often hear parents barely attempt to talk about romantic and sexual relationships to their children. Many of these clients have sexual trauma, body image issues, or child sexual abuse in the past. I would like to guide you though my thoughts and ideas on sex education for children and its importance.

So when is the right time to start talking to your child about sex? Right away! Even a toddler needs to understand information about bodily functions, parts and genitals. Why so? Because if a toddler learns to be ashamed or confused about the body, it can present later in life as shame about sexuality or lead to body image issues.

How can you help your toddler learn about sexuality? You can start with using correct terminology for body parts and use them every time. Don’t use nicknames to refer to the genitals. It will help to understand and embrace the body without reservations or shame.

Another thing you can do is to be positive about bodily functions and praise them. For example, when changing a diaper, don’t say: “That stinks!” Instead say:” What a healthy bowel movement!” It may feel silly at first, but it’s just a part of life.
The next thing you can do is to normalize self-stimulation. Self-exploration and curiosity is normal and healthy, it is not something to be ashamed of.

When your child is 2 to 3 years old, he or she will start noticing differences between men and women and ask you questions about the differences. It makes sense now to explain to your child that while it may feel good to touch penis or vulva, touching private parts should only occur in private. It can also be a good time to enlighten your children that their private parts are their own and no one else should touch them. Let them know that other people’s private parts are off limits too.

Clarify the meaning of a “good touch” and a “bad touch” at this age. Good touching is wanted and feels ok while bad touching is when they don’t want to be touched. Teach your child that if someone is touching them the way they don’t like, they should say something to the person, you or a teacher. You can also model good touching when your child is playing with a friend or siblings.

2nd to 4th grades.

This is the phase when your child may start asking a lot of questions.

-Where do babies come from?
-I heard kids in school were talking about erection. What is it?
-How do you get pregnant?

These questions may indeed feel overwhelming and many parents feel intimidated or inadequate to answer them. Providing basic answers to your child’s first questions about sex sets the stage for an ongoing discussion about it. By providing short and
honest answers, you can help your child to develop healthy feelings about their bodies and sexuality. For example:

-Where do babies come from?
-From a specific place in woman’s body. It’s called uterus.
-How does the baby get there?

You can say that when a man and a woman love each other, they like to be close to one another. The man’s sperm joins the woman’s egg and then the baby begins to grow. If you respond to the question in a straightforward manner, your child will
probably be satisfied with just a little information at a time.
-How does the sperm get into a woman’s body?
-When a man and a woman are in a relationship, they want to be close. The man puts his penis inside the woman’s vagina and the sperm comes out of his penis in a fluid called semen. The sperm then travels to the uterus and meets an egg there. If your child doesn’t ask questions about sex, don’t just ignore the subject. When your child is about age 5, you can initiate conversations yourself or provide books that approach sexuality on a developmentally appropriate level. 

Parents often have trouble finding the right words, but many excellent books are available to help. This is also the time to talk about menstruation. This is an area of intense curiosity to girls. You can share your personal experiences and also make sure to explain how it feels and what they need to do when it starts. Here you can mention ovulation and the use of tampons or pads. It is also an occasion to bring up nocturnal emissions or wet dreams and explain that it is not something to be ashamed of. A good approach is to start with easier topics like sweat production, hair growth, deepening voice, growing breasts to start and work up wet dreams and other sex-related topics from there. Reassure your child that they can come to you if they are scared or have any questions.

5th to 6th Grades.

If you have not done it already, it is time to do an anatomy lesson. You can use drawings or other visuals; you can also let them watch an educational video on it. It is important to say that girls are starting puberty earlier and earlier these days. Many girls are starting puberty as early as 9 years old; this is the time when their hormones are starting to kick in. It is in your best interests to start discussions about safe sex and anatomy before it begins and before they say they don’t want to hear about anything.

Remember, that even if you are talking to your child about sex, you are not giving them permission to have it. Masturbation can be explained as body exploration and something very natural and done in private. It is a comforting, soothing and a feel-good sensation. You can also say it is an intense contraction of the muscles in the private area that feels like a beautiful release. Inform your child that it is a good and safe way to release their sexual thoughts and feelings. Based on your child’s questions, you may start talking about mechanics of sex, such as how ejaculation occurs or oral sex. It is best to use simple terms and ask for their opinion as well. Receive your child’s ideas without judgment but with interest and openness. You can still tell them about the risks and introduce sexually transmitted diseases. When you talk to them about mechanics of sex, consider that you are also telling them about your hopes and dreams for their sex lives.

It is also good idea to consider informing your child about the dangers of using social media and adult-oriented websites. Keep the parental controls on all devices. Those children, who are questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation, need encouragement, information, and understanding from their parents. You need to emphasize the need for protection during sex for people of all identities and allow making choices and expressing themselves through behaviors, choice of clothing, or a preferred name. For many LGBTQ youth, breaking the news to mom and dad is the scariest part of coming out. Learn the facts and inspire your parenting with what experts recognize:

 It’s not “just a phase.” Embrace — don’t reject — their evolving sense of self.

 There is no “cure.” It’s not something that needs to be fixed. 

 Don’t look for blame. Instead, praise your child and all that they are.

Remember, that if you are struggling, you can always reach out for help and team up with a school counselor, close family member, or a community organization such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

7th to 9th Grades.

When your child is a teenager, they are having sexual feelings and thoughts. They are likely to communicate with friends who may be well into intimacy and romantic relationships. Now it is very important to reinforce what you have taught them before,
since that information may be processed in a different way at different stages of development. Hormones and personal experiences also play a part in how your child will accept and process this information.

You might think that you and the media are in an opposition when it comes to negative or confusing sexual messaging. However, you can use it as an advantage and make it a teachable moment and turn situations like teen pregnancy into discussions. Another good way to facilitate discussions is to watch a movie or TV together. If a sexual scene or reference occurs, use it as a conversation starter. It is also time to start encouraging a healthy self-esteem and self-respect. You can clarify to your child that their sexuality is something to be valued and proud of. Explain to your child that sexuality is a gift and a pleasure, not something to be used or abused by others. Let them know that sex feels great but only with the right person and under the right circumstances. Tell them that if it’s not the right time or person, intimacy may feel sad or painful. Explain to your child that sex can feel amazing and beautiful when the body is respected and valued.

It is important to remind your teen about the dangers of the Internet; risks associated with sexting, and let them know that once there’s something on the Internet, it is there forever. You may also want to introduce or reinforce social media use rules.

9th to 12th Grades.

It is now time to be open to questions and concerns more than ever. You want to be that parent who answers questions in a nonjudgmental way and invites for an open and trusting discussion. It is time to revisit safe sex options, birth control and condom negotiation. Ask your child for opinions on different sex subjects and remind that sexual pleasure goes both ways. Sex is about giving and receiving pleasure, in a respectful and meaningful way.

Finally, educating your child about sexual health and development is an important part of parenting. When you teach them an understanding of love, sex, intimacy and their sexuality, you are molding their values, behaviors and self-image. Parents who
are uncomfortable talking about sexual health may find it helpful to plan what they will say and how they might answer their child’s questions. Remember, that you want your child to come to you for answers, not learn from friends or social media. If you
embrace the questions and invite for further discussions, you may be avoiding many mistakes, unhealthy behaviors, and body image issues.


5 Communication skills every couple should develop.

by Svetlana Mesa, LMFT

In my experience, almost all couples come to counseling with a set of difficulties, communication problem is a big one. Most couples tend to have a basic misconception of what the purpose of communication is. Communication involves the partnership of two people as they share and discuss their feelings, ideas and thoughts about a problem they are having with the goal of coming to a mutual understanding of what is happening.

Many people have never learned how to communicate. Without the skill, an individual is disabled in a personal relationship. It is hard to achieve intimacy and understanding when you are not able to express yourself or listen to your partner. Moreover, without establishing and developing communication skills, it is hard to preserve a loving and respectful relationship.
You may think it is so easy to do because it is just listening and talking, right? However, communication involves certain skills and abilities you or your partner may not have. I’d like to share 5 recommendations for better communication:

1. It is hard to start or continue arguing when you are holding hands or physically close to each other. It’s understandable that the last thing you want is to be touched by your partner when you are fighting. When we are in tune with each other, we know that we are safe and that we love each other.

2. Scheduling a conversation is important just because your partner may not be ready to talk when you approach him or her. We are all busy with our lives, projects, responsibilities, and our internal monologues. It would be wise of you to request a time to talk from your partner. This way, you can look forward to discussing a problem and can both focus on listening to each other, be thoughtful, mindful and without interrupting. I highly recommend scheduling your conversation especially when you haven’t had a good one in a long time.

3. Remember that your partner cannot read your mind. You might think your partner should already know what is going on with you without you having to say anything. But if you communicate honestly, you can save yourself a great deal of disappointment and confused looks from your partner. No one understands silent treatment or mood swings, and yet we so often ignore or distance ourselves from the person and the problem. The person you are in a relationship with does not understand what you are thinking unless you speak up.

4. Try to keep discussions as calm as possible.  If things start to accelerate, take a break and re-visit when the two of you feel less emotional. It is not effective if you start a conversation when you are irritated or infuriated because it can lead to a blown up conflict. Also, be aware of your inner voice; are you saying things to yourself that keep you somewhat peaceful or are you increasing your emotional distress?

5. Humor can be a real salvation when used at the right time.  If you find yourself stuck in a cycle of negativity, try to lighten things up with some wittiness or silly behavior. This can sometimes get a couple out of an angry interaction.  Like other strategies, it’s important to be considerate about how and when to use humor, so that your partner doesn’t feel that their concerns are being belittled.

I am a big fan of Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen L. Hunt, the founders of Imago Relationship Therapy. Please check out the Imago Dialogue they have created, which is a perfect template for an intimate but difficult conversation. Imago dialogue is a great communication tool that teaches how to use active listening, reflection, and validation: 

Imago Dialogue: Building Great Communication

There are so many recommendations for better communication, not each one can be suitable for you. But mostly in my work with couples, I come across partners having a high conflict harming relationship or a quiet unhappy one when things are not discussed and problems pile up. Learn from Drs. John and Julie Gottman about the 4 Horsemen of Apocalypse and how to deal with them. Gottman Institute has great resources for couples, please check them out to learn to communicate in healthier ways: