Georgie*, 21, was “unbelievably excited” to meet up with her Hinge match Jason*, 29, next week. The sales assistant was drawn to his “goofy smile and curly hair” as she scrolled through photos of him and his friends laughing together on his profile, and the voice notes he left made her “crack up straight away”. After two or three conversations on the app, she was smitten. The pair arranged to go for a mini-golf session, some cocktails and then “see where the night takes them.”
But a few days ago, Georgie’s heart dropped when she checked her bank account. Since the cost of living crisis began, her energy bills have gone up by 100 per cent and, after this month’s payment, she knew she wouldn’t be able to fork out for the date.
“I was too ashamed to admit I couldn’t afford it,” Georgie tells THE FACE. “So I told him I wasn’t really looking for a relationship right now instead. I still feel horrible about it.”
It’s no surprise that people like Georgie have had the wind knocked out of their sexual sails by the cost of living crisis. Whenever Britain finds itself in the midst of financial inequality (which seems to be all the time lately), relationships – and by extension, sex – tend to go haywire. And while it’s not the most pressing issue surrounding the cost of living crisis, good sex is an integral part of our well-being and happiness. Without it, we suffer psychologically.
Newly single writer Laura has also had trouble affording dates since the cost of living crisis came into full force. The 28-year-old was “really interested” in a guy she’d met on a dating app, but ended up cancelling on him “about four times” so far this year.
“I was excited to meet him because we’d built a great rapport,” she says. “We liked all the same stuff. I could see from his profile, and it was clear from our conversations, that he was big into indie and live music, and I want to date someone who’s into the same sort of music as me so we can go to gigs together. He was really cute, exactly my type on paper.”
Their original date “wasn’t going to be anything too extravagant, just drinks at a pub.” Yet Laura still found herself unable to afford it. They rearranged for a later date, but as the days blurred into one, she found herself without enough money and rain-checked again. And again. And again…
The lasting effects of the cost of living crisis won’t be clear for a couple of years (research takes time, you know), but we can learn from the recession of 2008. The biggest takeaways in relation to our love lives? Mass debt, falling incomes and rising prices of household expenses are very bad news for sex and relationships.
A research study from relationship therapy company Relate tells us that couples who were insulated from the fallout of the 2008 recession (like those who owned homes, didn’t lose their jobs and had high salaries) saw a breakup rate of 2 per cent. Meanwhile, those who lived on or around the poverty line and were severely impacted by the recession were eight times as likely to break up. And although long-term relationships are a little easier to research compared to single people who are dating, singles suffer breakups and lost connections over financial stress too. Josh Smith, a counsellor from Relate, tells THE FACE that we can expect the current crisis to have a similar effect.
Most of the time, people have been kind to Laura about her lack of finances. After all, many young people have been affected by the still-hiking cost of living in one way or another. “I recently arranged a date with another guy and, this time, I told him I was broke in advance,” she says. “He suggested sitting in the park with a bottle of wine. But I had to cancel that because after I paid my rent and bills, I didn’t even have enough money for the tube fare. Cancelling on such a cheap date over money was horrifically embarrassing.”
Men have also offered to front the money for Laura, showing plenty of empathy towards her given the ongoing crisis. But a lack of financial control can sometimes put women in a dangerous situation on blind dates. Laura knows this feeling first-hand. “I didn’t want him to pay for the date or any drinks for me, because I was worried I might feel I owed him something,” she explains.
Smith points out that in these situations, traditional gender roles in dating make financial pressures significantly worse. While they might seem trivial, ideas we have around who should pay the bill, initiate sex and organise dates, including where the date will take place, can result in unequal power dynamics – especially in heterosexual dating.
To combat this issue, he recommends booting all those preconceived notions of romance out of the window. “Dates don’t have to involve a lot of money and you don’t have to wait for someone else to plan the date and think of fake excuses to get out of it if you can’t afford it,” he says. “You could go for a walk together. You could go for a cheap coffee together.”
And if you can’t afford the bus fare or Pret bill? Be upfront and say, “Look, I’m skint. Let’s have a date on Zoom instead?” Smith notes that many of his single clients gave Zoom dating a go during the pandemic and have ended up continuing with it, because it’s free and feels less pressured compared with face-to-face dating. Considering most of us are getting shafted by the cost of living crisis, you’re unlikely to be judged. They might even be relieved that you were the one to say it first.
But the crisis isn’t only impacting Hinge hook-ups and first dates. Even folks who have been having sex with the same person for years are having difficulties talking about money. 29-year-old Amy* says that, although she’s in a long-term relationship, she and her partner of six years have had sex “only a handful of times” in the last three years, primarily because of financial stress.
Amy is a stay-at-home mum, while her partner George* provides for her and their child. “First it was the stress of the pandemic stifling our sex life and now it’s the stress of the cost of living. It’s hard to feel horny when your energy bills have come up three times the amount they were last year, national insurance payments have gone up, but both of your salaries have stayed the same,” she says. “We also can’t afford childcare right now, so when are we even supposed to have sex?”
To make matters worse, speaking about money, whether they’re discussing budgeting or taking on extra work, is difficult for both parties. “My partner just goes quiet whenever that stuff is mentioned,” she says. “He’s very traditional and I know he’s ashamed of not bringing in enough money for us.”
This is a prime example of traditional gender roles adding an additional strain on relationships. For most of us, sex is tied to self-esteem. And guess what can contribute to low self-esteem? A low income, particularly for straight men.
“A loss of money in a relationship can feel like a loss of power, and sex often comes from a place of feeling powerful,” explains Smith, detailing how the money problems to sexual stress pipeline is a bit of a catch-22. “The more stressed we become about sex, the harder it is to get going again. Some couples build up the worry around sex and have anxiety that money trouble will pop into their heads mid-sex.”
So how can couples make sure a low income doesn’t turn into a low libido?
“We should share our feelings about money worries as much as possible, so people can be reassured that a lack of sex is not personal,” says Smith. “It’s also important that, even in relationships where there’s a clear provider and dependent, money and sex troubles are handled as a joint problem rather than something one party must take on by themselves.”
“Communication” can be a bit of a throwaway catch-all for relationship problems, but real conversations about feelings, stresses, needs, wants and desires, which involve genuine effort on all sides and active listening, are relationship-savers.
“Life is just quite hard when it comes to money and sex, isn’t it?” Smith concludes. “We have to talk through the difficulties so we know the real source of the stress and don’t blame each other.”
*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity