Privacy Please: How Couples Who Share Small Spaces With Other People Make Time for Intimacy

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Bela Fishbeyn

When Gabrielle*, a 20-something New Yorker, and her boyfriend of two years wanted to hook up before the pandemic, they had to make a tough decision: Go to her boyfriend’s family’s apartment, where he shares a bedroom with his twin brother; or go to her apartment in Queens where she lived with two roommates. Then, the pandemic hit, and she moved back to her parents’ house. 

Her options were shrinking, not only for hooking up, but also for romance in general. Because of the small amount of physical space and clear proximity of roommates and family members, there was “zero morning time intimacy” at any of their apartments, she told Apartment Therapy. A few months later, she and her boyfriend broke up, and she is now navigating pandemic life and attempting to find safe ways to date, with her parents and sister right down the hall.

This dilemma — how to share a small space with other people, including friends and family members, while still being intimate with a significant other — is one more and more people all over the nation are facing as both the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession rage on. A report by TD Ameritrade released in August 2020 found that 39 percent of younger millennials have moved back home with their parents in recent months. As a result, many people are finding creative ways to be intimate in their small spaces, especially now that so many are stuck in those four walls all day long.

A Common Obstacle for Many Households

Multigenerational households aren’t new, and were on the rise even before the pandemic. Sixty-four million Americans (20 percent of the U.S. population) lived in a multigenerational home in 2016 — a record high at the time, according to the Pew Research Center. Asian, Black, and Latinx people are far more likely than white people to live in multigenerational homes, as are immigrants. These groups have also been more likely to experience upheaval as a result of the pandemic: 7 percent of Asian adults, 6 percent of Latinx adults, and 4 percent of Black adults said they moved or experienced a change in their housing situation, compared with just 2 percent of white adults, according to the Pew Research Center.

Sarah Epstein, a marriage and family therapist in Pennsylvania, told Apartment Therapy that while people moving back in with their families has “happened so much more since the pandemic,” navigating intimacy in a multigenerational household is “definitely something that people have been dealing with for generations,” noting that it may be especially prevalent in immigrant communities and communities of color.

“It’s a balance between having those expectations and boundaries around privacy and private time without full transparency, [which] can feel weird if you’re talking about other people’s intimate lives,” Epstein said. “That might not be appropriate between different generations or even between roommates. So the balance comes in honoring one another’s privacy while still negotiating the realities of the small space.” 

Credit: Minette Hand

Conversations Complicated by the Pandemic

Intimacy, in this context, can include a wide range of activities — from at-home dates to sex, and everything in between. And now, inviting someone over to spend the night often requires a discussion about whether both the invitee and the people within the household are being actively safe with regards to how they handle the pandemic. 

“We might be okay having safer sex conversations with our intimate partners, but now we’re having to have those conversations with our platonic partners, our roommates and our friends [and our families], because we have to talk about how my choices affect your body and that’s new for a lot of people,” Allison Moon, a sex educator and the author of “Getting It: A Guide to Hot, Healthy Hookups and Shame-Free Sex,” told Apartment Therapy.

That means opening up and having vulnerable conversations about what makes you feel safe at home. Asher*, a 20-something in Brooklyn who shares a wall with his roommate, has decided to not hook up at all during the pandemic for emotional and physical safety. But his roommate didn’t make that same decision — in fact, she started dating someone new. 

That relegated Asher to his apartment more-or-less all day, every day. Together, he and his roommate not only had to unpack what they were comfortable with as far as COVID-19 safety goes, they also had to tackle something else: how to find ways to get privacy when you’re sharing just a few hundred square feet. So, they talked about how his roommate could be intimate with her new partner without being overheard, and how Asher could have moments of privacy of his own — particularly during conversations with his therapists. 

As a result, they invested in three white noise machines, added Spotify to an additional speaker which now also plays music or white noise, and each try to leave the apartment for a full hour every day to give the other person space.

According to Moon, having conversations about how best to have personal time alone or with a partner without disturbing the people you live with are conversations you’ll have no matter your living situation. “The best part is, the better we get at these conversations, the better we get at really understanding […] how we can be more responsible as friends, as roommates, as lovers,” she said.

Credit: Minette Hand

Investing in Privacy

Taking steps to ensure your alone time doesn’t disturb anyone doesn’t stop at white noise machines. No matter who you live with, Moon recommends fixing any mattress squeaks, bolting your headboard to the wall so it doesn’t knock around, and finding sex toys, for both masturbation and partnered sex, that are suction-based so they aren’t too loud. It’s also worth putting up physical barriers, including walls or just a simple curtain, no matter how small of a space you’re working with; and finding ways to use heavy blankets and pillows to muffle voices. (She also recommends trying shower sex, which can “disguise all sorts of sounds, although the sloshy bodies on bodies can get loud sometimes, so just be aware of that.”)

As for don’ts: Unless you’ve made an agreement with your family members or roommates, don’t have sex in shared spaces like living rooms, and keep quiet during late night hours if your roommates are sleeping. And, now that so many people are working from home, make sure you aren’t disturbing your roommates during a Zoom meeting.

Making Time for Yourself When Children Are Around

Of course, it’s one thing to navigate being considerate when you share a space with people who understand what is going on, and respect your need for privacy. This can be complicated if you’re sharing your space with small children. Take it from Bela Fishbeyn and Spencer Wright, who have been living in tiny houses and vans for the better part of a decade, and currently live in about 800 square feet in Asheville, North Carolina, with their toddler.

When Fishbeyn and Wright want to get intimate — whether that’s just some one-on-one time or having sex — they have to get creative. So, every day, their daughter has alone time, during which they go outside for a short walk and use their cellphones as monitors. They’ve found a rhythm and balance they love so much, they say they can’t imagine ever not living in a tiny home.

“We really prefer small spaces, both for the intimacy, the family intimacy, and also for the design challenge of it,” Fishbeyn told Apartment Therapy, adding that she believes having a large house can cause you to “accidentally distance yourself from your family.”

Wright says that living in a small space has “promoted a lot of positivity and made us lean into each other.” 

But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Moon advises parents who live in small spaces with their kids to “be really frank about how sex is a thing that we do together because we love each other.” She said it is important to talk about sex in an age-appropriate way, so that parents’ personal time is destigmatized and respected. “A lot of times, good parents will teach their children that it’s fine to explore one’s own body, but there are places in the house where it’s more appropriate than others,” she noted. That conversation can help serve as a baseline for parents to establish their own boundaries. 

For Fishbeyn and Wright, the challenges are similar to other people with small children who live in larger homes — kids will wake up in the middle of the night and need something, no matter the size of their living space. 

While the couple haven’t had to address intimacy specifically with their daughter, they plan to discuss it openly when the time comes. “There’s nothing you can do except to just talk about it openly and appreciate that your kid is only going to be awkward if you make it awkward,” Wright said. “I think at least that’s our experience and the more open we are about it, the more she seems to just kind of accept as normal and move on. Which it is.”

Making the Most of the Space and Time You Have Together

No matter your living situation, the logistics of how you create and respect each other’s privacy will vary. Whether through the use of white-noise machines and staggered schedules, covert shower sex, or planning alone time, it’s possible to explore your needs and desires without disrupting the people around you. But one thing that’s still important, no matter the size of your space, is what you do with it.

Wright and Fishbeyn recommend designing your bedroom with intimacy in mind: lots of natural light; a good, comfortable mattress; modest decorations; and dried flowers all do the trick for them. “We were building our tiny house, we were initially thinking about having our bedroom lofted, Fishbeyn noted. “But [our] builder brought up like, ‘Hey, when you want to be intimate, you’re not going to want to do that in a lofted space.’”

Just because sharing a small space with friends and family members, while still being intimate with a significant other, can present its own unique challenges, doesn’t mean it’s not possible. And, as more and more people all over the nation begin facing the dilemma, creative solutions abound. 

Romance is just “the vibe that we’ve always tried to create,” Wright says, something that’s necessary when you’re trying to be intimate while living in a small space with family.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.