The romance reboot: How to refresh your relationship and sex life

Whether you’re single or in a long-term relationship, Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to recalibrate

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching but for many people, Cupid isn’t hitting his target this year. Covid impacted us all in so many ways, but we still underestimate the effects the pandemic had on our romantic relationships. Anxiety, stress and depression rates soared as we all struggled to cope with the fear, loss and isolation, and this strain impacted couples as well as individuals. And while Covid may not have outright killed romance, it certainly made it more complicated.

Couples who lived together during the pandemic struggled to maintain romance and intimacy as they suddenly found themselves living on top each other in their combined home-office-school-creche. Meanwhile, single people were left isolated, overlooked and ignored, with restrictions making it difficult for them to enjoy sex and intimacy, forge new connections, or simply meet anyone new.

Zoom dates, socially distanced outdoor dates and endless app swiping provided some distraction, but it also left many single people feeling drained, unfulfilled and dehumanised by the very technology that was supposed to be connecting them.

The reason new relationships can feel so intoxicating and thrilling is the process of getting to know someone new

But a new year is upon us, and with life returning to normal – or at least etching out a new version of it – it’s time to reignite our relationship with romance itself. For many people, Covid offered up an opportunity to re-evaluate what is truly important in life, and to prioritise what makes us feel alive, and joyful and invigorated – and we can do the same for romance.


In 2023, we are combating relationship ruts and dating app fatigue by embracing intentional romance. Intentional romance refuses to let apps, cultural trends or mere circumstance decide the outcome of our romantic lives, and instead lets us lead with mindfulness, consideration, and value-driven action. If love is one of the most important forces in our lives, we should at least take responsibility for nudging it in the direction we want.

Long-term relationships

While single people trying to find love are faced with a whole host of challenges both emotional and algorithmic, many people in long-term relationships need help reigniting their romance from the more analogue the traps of routine. For couples who lived together during Covid or simply people struggling to keep the passion alive when the honeymoon period ends, thinking intentionally about romance is vital to ensure that your relationship keeps growing, evolving and progressing.

1. Schedule intimacy

For many people in long-term relationships, particularly couples with children, it can be easy to let the demands of work, childcare and daily stressors take up all your energy, leaving little time or reserves to have sex, enjoy some romance, or even simply connect about anything other than the grocery list, house maintenance, and kids’ dentists appointments.

When life’s routines begin eating away at your romantic relationship, it’s time to get intentional about your time and energy, and ensuring that you’re prioritising what is important to you and brings you joy. Specifically scheduling time for intimacy, connection and even sex may sound deeply unromantic, flying in the face of the pop culture myth that sex and romance is always spontaneous, but in fact, the opposite is true. Scheduling time for date nights, meaningful conversations and even sex is simply an acknowledgment that life is busy and complicated, and sometimes you deliberately carve out time for intimacy in the same way you save time for other activities that are important to us, from gym sessions, therapy, meeting friends and watching an hour of our favourite television show. Why shouldn’t we prioritise romance, sex and intimacy as much as we prioritise the latest episode of The White Lotus?

Decide what is necessary and feasible for your relationship. Some couples may find that weekly or fortnightly dates are important, some lovers may value having regular romantic weekends away where they can unwind and connect, and for some couples or young parents, it may simply involve going to bed together half an hour earlier than planned so that you can cuddle, chat, or have sex without being interrupted by kids or a wave of tiredness.

Intentional romance means factoring your relationship into your schedule and not letting romance get completely pushed off your calendar by daily stressors.

2. The need for novelty

The reason new relationships can feel so intoxicating and thrilling is the process of getting to know someone new; the excitement and surprise, and novelty of hearing how someone thinks and feels, seeing how they react in different situations, and learning everything about them. What makes a new partner so desirable is how unknown they are, and how awe-inspiring it is to begin to know them.

But when you’re been with someone a long time, when you move in together, when you get married, when you begin to do everything together (whether by choice or by a worldwide pandemic), this novelty can begin to fade.

According to psychotherapist and world-renowned relationship expert Esther Perel, novelty is vital to maintaining romance, passion and desire over time.

In her viral TED Talk, “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship”, Perel says that “at the heart of sustaining desire in a committed relationship is the reconciliation of two fundamental human needs. On the one hand, our need for security, for predictability, for safety, for dependability, for reliability, for permanence. All these anchoring, grounding experiences of our lives that we call home. But we also have an equally strong need – men and women – for adventure, for novelty, for mystery, for risk, for danger, for the unknown, for the unexpected, surprise.”

Perel explains many couples in long-term relationship find themselves most drawn to each other in three particular states or circumstances. One is when they are separated and return to each other; one is when they surprise each other; and the other is when they witness each other as individuals who are distinct or separate from them. This could look like seeing your partner pursue their own talents and passions, or simply witnessing them talking to other people at a party, where you can see them across a room interacting with the world in their own way.

All of these ideas are rooted in the idea of novelty, of creating a balance of connection and separation so you can continue to be surprised, excited and engaged by your partner – and yourself. Self-expansion is also associated with higher levels of desire and connection, as we feel more excited about ourselves and life when exploring new facets of ourselves – which can in turn bring excitement and desire into our relationships. This important quality can be harnessed in relationships by thinking about the ways in which you maintain your own distinct personalities, and recognising the impact of some space, independence and privacy can have on how you view and desire each other. Socialising separately, pursuing separate hobbies, and even something as simple as getting ready for a date night separately can create some of that sense of novelty, as you continue to see your partner in new ways.

3. New experiences

As well as cultivating some mystery and novelty around each other as individuals, experiencing new things together can be a powerful way to reignite some excitement, romance and connection in a relationship.

Research from writer Claudia Hammond shows that we perceive time differently when we are enjoying new experiences, and we form new memories more readily when in new places or trying new things. In her book Time Warped, Hammond explains that when we are doing something new and interesting, such as when we are on holiday, time appears to go more quickly than when we are bored or anxious. But when we look back retrospectively, our assessment of time is based on how many individual new memories we built up during that period – and new memories are formed with new experiences. Think about the amount of time you have completed your daily commute and have no memory of it, compared to the amount of memories you form walking around a new city. New experiences heighten our senses, our awareness and make a more lasting impact than repeated experiences, making time fly by and feel more precious.

This energy, excitement and awareness can be used to make relationships feel fuller and more meaningful. Trying something new with a partner such a as a dance or cookery class; going to a new city; or simply switching up your routine and going for a walk at sunrise or sunset will make your time together feel more heightened, and will help you form lasting memories together, both of which are vital to long-lasting romance.

4. Curiosity

One major reason that couples can drift apart and begin to feel disconnected is when complacency overtakes curiosity when it comes to knowing and understanding each other. Most adults grow, change and evolve in their priorities, ambitions, and emotional maturity over time, gaining self-awareness or even undergoing large personal transformations – but sometimes the people closest to us don’t seem to notice. In the initial stages of relationships, couples are often so eager to learn everything about each other, asking each other about their histories, their opinions, their feelings, their hopes and dreams – but at a certain point, some couples stop asking each other, assuming they already know the answer. This complacency can lead to couples growing apart without noticing, or feeling increasingly misunderstood by their partner. It a long-term relationship, it’s vital to remain curious about and invested in each other – and luckily, there are many tools available to make sure you keep asking those important questions and remain connected.

The New York Times’ famous 36 Questions questionnaire is a gorgeous list of questions that couples can ask each other on first dates, on 40th wedding anniversaries, and literally any day in between – and noticing which answers change over time can be illuminating. Esther Perel has also released a new game for couples called Where Should We Begin? which also features conversation-sparking questions such as “The person that taught me the most about love is ...” and “The part of my parents that I am most afraid of becoming is ...”. Perel notes for long time couples, particularly those who lived together during Covid, they may feel that the last thing they need is to talk to each other more. But Perel argues, “The pandemic left us missing intimacy and play. The game is designed to help us connect and reconnect in a time of social atrophy”.

For tech-lovers, apps like Agape can also nudge couples towards curiosity and connection. Agape allows couples to use their phones to answer a daily question such as “Describe a time your partner truly surprised you in a good way” or “Share one way that this relationship has helped you heal or reconnect with yourself”. The twist is that couples can only see their partner’s answer after they have answered themselves. The daily prompt allows couples to carve out a few minutes thinking about each other in a meaningful way, to learn something new about each other, and to prompt meaningful conversations.

5. Maintenance

Sometimes being intentional about romance is something we do for ourselves as individuals, sometimes we do it with our partners, and sometimes calling in a bit of professional support can help, too. We regularly schedule time to maintain our gardens, our hair, our teeth, our physical health – why wouldn’t we schedule time to take care of the health and needs of our relationship?

There’s a common perception that couples’ counsellors are only useful to couples who are on the verge of splitting up, but visiting a therapist together can be an act of maintenance, connection and growth. Couples counsellors can help open up dialogue, improve communication, learn new easy of connecting, supporting and understanding each other, and can be a lovely way to commit to each other on the regular.

Just like attending therapy isn’t just for those in a mental health crisis and can be an important way for individuals to heal, frown and explore new facets of themselves over time, so too can couples counselling improve the health of your relationship.


There’s no denying that dating apps have rapidly altered the way we meet new people. Research from Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld has found that straight couples are now more likely to meet a romantic partner online than through personal contacts and connections. And there have never been as many apps and online dating sites to choose from – but sometimes having so many options can be overwhelming and exhausting, rather than empowering.

A recent survey from UK-based dating app Badoo showed that more than three-quarters of singles felt burnt out by unrewarding interactions and incompatible matches form platforms and apps – and these findings were consistent across the board. Research from Hinge found 61 per cent of its users found modern dating overwhelming, and a study from The Singles Report, a data analytics company that’s studies online dating, found that four in five single adults “experienced some degree of emotional fatigue or burnout from dating”.

But dating burnout can be combated. While having an active social life, emotional support from family friends and mental health supports from a therapist are all vital components of battling anxiety, stress and burnout generally, there are also actions that single people can take to give them a sense of empowerment in their dating life, and ensure that they are preserving their time, emotional energy, and most importantly, their hope.

1. Be clear on your intentions

Before you start swiping for hours on end, ask yourself what you want from dating right now. Are you looking for casual connections, adventurous dates, or are you looking for a serious relationship? Of course, your needs may change over time, but like setting an intention for any area of your life, remaining clear and focused on what you want long term will help use your time more wisely, bring more pleasure in dating, and increases the chances of finding someone with compatible goals and values.

And be upfront about what you want! If you are looking for a serious relationship, put that in your profile. Too many users of dating apps are afraid of stating clearly what they want, for fear of being judged or being perceived as being “needy” or “desperate”. But looking for love and connection is an almost universal goal, and being open about that desire is beautiful, human and necessary. If clearly stating what you’re looking for turns some people off, good. You have immediately eliminated incompatible partners and saved yourself time, energy, and potential heartbreak. Intentional romance requires the bravery to be clear on what you want, and to embrace that desire proudly.

2. Be mindful about what is actually important in a partner

Many people have a list of qualities that they would like in their dream partner, and having an idea of what you want can be incredibly helpful – but be clear that this list will actually help you get you the love life you want in real life. Loving the idea of someone tall, dark, and handsome is all well and good, but if you’re looking for long-term love, what is actually going to bring you more joy, fulfilment and connection – the person’s height, or a shared sense of humour? Their hair colour, or how kind they are and how they manage conflict? An impressive job title, or a shared value system around finances and future planning?

Thinking about what you want from a relationship isn’t thinking about a dream person in isolation, but what kind of relationship will genuinely work for you. Social worker and tarot reader Jessica Dore writes that all lovers bring lessons, and suggests picking lovers based on things you want to learn in life. “What if instead of making a list of qualities we want a future lover to have, we made a list of the ways we want to learn and grow in love – to receive, to be vulnerable, to be steadfast, to put the needs of the collective over the ego, and so on,” she writes. “I also enjoy thinking about it this way because then when we choose lovers who teach us things we really don’t want to learn – like about our bad boundaries, our flimsy senses of self, our compulsive overextending, and so on – we don’t have to see it as a reflection of our brokenness or inadequacy in love but instead a testament to our ability to intuitively find the exact teachers we need at the precise time we need them. That feels better and more empowering, I think.”

3. Craft a profile

Swiping through profiles on dating apps can feel tedious and repetitive for one very particular reason: dating profiles themselves can be tedious and repetitive. The hashtag #BeigeFlags currently has over 2.4 million views on TikTok, after user Caitlin MacPhail used the phrase to describe a series of generic phrases and photos that appear in literally thousands of dating profiles and indicate a lack of originality or effort. Common examples including phrases like “the way to my heart is through food”, listing “travel” or “banter” interests, or referencing very mainstream, popular sitcoms such as The Office as a particular passion. These overused phrases are bland, don’t reveal anything important or unique, and imply a lack of effort in trying to let potential matches know who you are or what you value.

Not putting effort into your profile is not only robbing yourself of the opportunity of conveying what is interesting or unique about you, meaning that it’s harder for potential matches to gauge whether you could be compatible – but it also implies a lazy approach to romance overall.

If you are asking people to take time to swipe on you, message with you and possibly meet up with you, the least you can do is take some time to craft a profile that gives a sense of your unique personality, interests and intentions.

4. Respect your time

Burnout often occurs when our time and energy begin to feel both dominated and drained by an unfulfilling activity – and in the case of dating burnout, the very nature of apps means that they can insidiously start to take over your free time as you mindlessly scroll and swipe while watching television, on the bus, or while trying to rest.

To combat burnout, setting time limits on the amount of time you spend on apps is important, as well as thinking mindfully about how you actually want to use the time you are active online.

Instead of swiping and scrolling through endless apps all day, every day, pick one or two apps to focus on, and pick a time of day where you spend no longer than 20 minutes swiping – remembering your dating intentions are you choose matches. Then try to focus on the matches you make that week, messaging those you are interested in instead of letting endless matches pile up without making contact.

If you begin messaging with someone, also set limits on how long you want to want to message without meeting up in person. While it is of course important to message and even try have a short call to make sure that you would feel safe and comfortable meeting your match in person, if messaging begins stretching past a couple of weeks without a date, you may be setting yourself up for failure. So much of connection is gauged in person, from physical attraction to tone and humour, to how they navigate personal space, boundaries, and touching. Spending weeks messaging without meeting may prove to be a waste of time and emotional investment if you don’t click in person.

Having short first dates over coffee or a walk will let you discern if you have enough attraction, interest and connection to plan a longer second date, and won’t feel like you’ve wasted a precious evening if it ends up being a bit of a flop.

If you do find yourself getting burned out on the apps, take a break. Bumble has a feature where users can “snooze” their activity and alert matches that they’re doing so, so users can rest, recharge and recalibrate without losing matches. Taking some time away can make sure that you don’t lose the optimism and joy required for successful dating and will help you return to your swiping in an intentional, sustainable and hopefully successful way.

5. Find people in other ways

While dating apps might be the new norm, that doesn’t mean that the old ways are dead and gone! It’s still possible to meet wonderful new people in real life, and trying to do so may enrich your social sphere in a myriad of other ways, too. Taking up new hobbies, joining groups and investing in expanding your social circle is an important act of building community and expanding your social bubble, which is something we should all be aiming to do, particularly while emerging from the isolation and disconnection of Covid, and while using social media platforms that can encourage connection, but just as often stoke divisiveness and keep many relationships purely online. But intentionally expanding your social circle, whether by committing to your passions or simply asking friends to introduce you to new people, increases your chances of meeting someone compatible in real life. Even if these pursuits don’t result in a budding relationship, pursing new fun and creative interests will give you a plethora of things to talk about on your dates, and bring you comfort and support on the days when you need a break from the apps.

Dating is a glorious, frustrating, exhausting, exhilarating adventure – remain intentional, mind yourself and don’t let the algorithms get you down.

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes a weekly column in the Magazine answering readers' queries about sex and relationships