- Under intense stress, partners can lose the capacity to discern whether problems arise from their relationship or from elsewhere.
- Feeling that one's partner hears, validates, and responds to one's needs is critical to a relationship's well-being.
- A willingness to avoid blaming one's partner can increase relationship satisfaction for both parties.
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged even the strongest of relationships. Between stay-at-home orders that crammed many partners a little too close for comfort, chronic uncertainty around our own and our loved ones’ physical health, safety, and financial security, plus a massive upending of how we socialize, work, commute, and co-exist, there has been no shortage of stressors for couples to weather. Research shows (and anyone who has ever been in a relationship will likely agree) that everything from personal health issues and work-related stress to bereavement and natural disasters can either make or break a relationship. The past 18 months are no exception. But a few new studies examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on relationships suggests a few key factors predict who stays together and who goes their separate ways.
Stress’s Effects on Relationships
Research underscores what most couples already know: Stress outside of and unrelated to a relationship (think: pressure at work, financial strain, or personal health concerns) can incline partners to be more withdrawn and prone to arguments, more apt to report lower relationship satisfaction. This is because stress, no matter its origin, can alter how we think about others, interpret their behavior, and respond or react to them.
Some psychologists argue that under moderate stress levels, most partners can discern between non-relationship-related stress (e.g., from work) and relationship-related stress (e.g., disagreements over fundamental values or suspicions a partner is cheating). Such discernment helps prevent partners from erroneously blaming their significant other for their distress. When stress levels become too high or intense this capacity for discernment becomes overwhelmed, however, leaving partners vulnerable to viewing their partner as a primary source of their anguish—a phenomenon known as stress spillover.
Decreased satisfaction and increased conflict in relationships where one or both partners are highly stressed could also result from the more stressed partner acting less lovingly (and being less physically intimate) than they might be under calmer conditions. This itself could reduce satisfaction and trigger fights. Consider also that being in a stressed-out state primes our nervous systems to enact the fight-flight-freeze response, a series of biochemical reactions that have the net effect of heightening our attention to threats (real or perceived) and making us more likely to emotionally overreact. None of this sets the stage for quality bonding or positive shared experiences with our mates.
What Kept Couples Together During the Pandemic?
Two new studies published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships shed light on what helped some couples maintain their relationship satisfaction and intimacy (and, in some cases, emerge from lockdown experiencing their relationships as stronger) despite the chronic and relentless stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One, spearheaded by Swiss researcher Laura M. Vowels, surveyed 200 individuals several times throughout early 2020 about the pandemic's effects on their relationship quality. Another, led by University of Missouri's Matthew Ogan, surveyed 117 couples several times throughout 2020 about how often each partner thought about ending their relationship, how stressed they felt, how responsive they perceived their partners to be to their needs and concerns, and how willing to collaboratively problem-solve they experienced their partners to be.
Three behaviors emerged as critical to couples' maintenance of satisfaction, sense of closeness and connection, and stability throughout the pandemic.
Avoiding Blame. Partners who were able to give their partners the benefit of the doubt and peg the origin of their stress to external factors (think: job changes, financial insecurities, the threat of a deadly virus) were more likely to report greater relationship satisfaction and connectedness than those who considered their partner the origin of their woes.
Responding. Partners who felt that their significant others responded to their concerns and needs with care, validation, and understanding were also more likely to feel better about their relationships than those whose partners ignored, belittled, or discounted these issues' importance.
Collaborative Coping. When partners can communicate openly (without fearing judgment or shame) with each other about their stressors and engage in collaborative problem solving to reduce their individual or shared suffering, they typically feel closer, report more relationship satisfaction, and are less likely to file for divorce. In Ogan's study women in particular who perceived their partners as willing to collaboratively cope reported increased relationship satisfaction over the study's course.
Being able to forgive our partners, overlook minor transgressions, and give our partners the benefit of the doubt help keep a relationship satisfying for all parties involved. So too does open and honest communication, reservation of judgment and blame, and a willingness to problem-solve rather than stonewall or pull away. Couples who weathered the pandemic together and came out stronger know this—and they've given researchers additional evidence to support the value of these crucial relationship skills.
This isn't to say we should never confront a partner when we feel we've been wronged. Nor is to argue that we should always minimize our needs in order to be more responsive and attentive to our partners'. The healthiest relationships rest on the ability not only to listen but to openly share our thoughts and feelings with our partner without fear of condemnation, shaming, or judgment.
Whether you're in the same relationship you were in at the pandemic's start, beginning a new one, or contemplating partnering up, consider asking yourself how you can be more forgiving, open to listening, and open to collaboratively problem solving with a current or future mate. And pay attention to your partner's willingness to do the same. If they can't or won't and aren't willing to try, this could be a signal that long-term satisfaction and connectedness may not be easy. If they can (or they're at least willing to try) you may already be feeling the glow of increased relationship satisfaction.