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A Relationship Researcher’s Perspective on the Pandemic

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting our relationships?

Source: pxhere

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every aspect of our lives. As a relationships researcher, I can’t help but wonder about all the ways this global event is impacting our relationships. From my relationships with my husband and daughter, whom I now spend 24 hours a day with, to my parents whom I now can’t see at all, to the stranger on the street, every relationship is a little different than it used to be. What has changed? And what does it mean for the future of our relationships?

Relationships with those we live with

At one point, over 90 percent of Americans were estimated to be under some sort of stay-at-home order. And countries all over the globe have similar orders in place. Suddenly the people we live with became our only non-virtual company, and that company was constant. When I read that divorce requests had increased in China, I couldn’t resist running a study to try to understand how couples who live together are coping during the COVID-19 pandemic (Want to participate? Here’s the link. We’ll post results in May!). From initial survey results and anecdotes, it seems that for many people, being together all the time is magnifying all aspects of their relationships—there is more irritation, but also more satisfaction. This ambivalence may feel a little like being on a roller coaster as emotions shift from day-to-day (and possibly minute-to-minute).

For some couples, the experience has been mostly positive; the pandemic has gotten rid of commutes and outside obligations, creating a chance to spend quality time together and reconnect. For many others, juggling too many responsibilities along with financial and health concerns make this an incredibly stressful time. Because stress spills over, these external stressors are likely to add stress to the relationship as well.

What are couples, families, and roommates living in close quarters to do? Although this is a clearly unique situation, prior research provides some general guidance. Try to magnify the good, express gratitude, avoid unnecessary conflict, and make it healthy when you do fight. Recognize that if you hate your partner some days, you're not alone. Also, get enough sleep.

For people who are living alone, the story is quite different. We are social creatures, and social isolation can be quite stressful. With all the social events in their lives stripped away, people who are living alone must actively seek out social connections. For those wanting more social connection, implementation intentions might help: Don’t just say you’re going to call someone; figure out who you are going to call, and when and how you are going to do it. Try linking it to another daily event, like doing the dishes or taking a walk.

Although not a substitute for real relationships, people appear to be able to satisfy some of their social needs through relationships with fictional characters (what researchers call “parasocial relationships”). Have you ever felt like you were losing a friend when you finished a really good book or TV series? If you connect with fictional characters, then books, movies, or TV shows with relatable characters might help you feel not quite so alone.

Relationships with friends and family we don’t live with

Suddenly our close friends and family are no longer part of our everyday lives. Some people have simply moved those relationships online, scheduling online trivia nights and three-way dates. I’ve heard people say they’ve connected with people they hadn’t spoken to for years as a result of the pandemic. But for others, it may feel overwhelming or difficult to maintain those relationships on top of everything else going on in their lives.

Watching family and friends get sick or suffer other hardships from a distance may also create a sense of uncertainty and lack of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness. For those with older parents nearby, you may be experiencing stress over the decision about whether it is better for their parents’ health to visit them or stay away. And whichever decision you make, you’re likely to look back and wonder if you made the right one.

What can you do for these relationships? We aren’t great at predicting how events will actually make us feel (called “affective forecasting”). If you are often feeling a bit down and not in the mood to call or talk to anyone, take a moment to question yourself. Like exercise, when you don’t feel like socializing might be the moment when you need it the most.

Try giving friends and family who aren’t joining your trivia nights the benefit of the doubt. They may be one of those people who are feeling overwhelmed or depressed and don’t have time or energy to reach out. On the other hand, if you know someone living alone, consider reaching out to them first, so they don’t always have to initiate the call.

Relationships with strangers

When I’m walking in my neighborhood, there’s a sense of community as everyone crosses the street to get out of each other’s way. In some ways, thanks to our shared experience, we are more connected with the people around us than we’ve ever been. When talking to neighbors or strangers, the pandemic is a common topic that is on everyone’s mind. This creates a sense of common humanity, which is generally a good thing.

On the other hand, will this new normal of maintaining at least six feet of distance change the way we interact when we can be close again? People have speculated that the handshake is over. I wonder whether we will feel uncomfortable getting close to people outside our families. Do you think you will feel a visceral reaction when someone brushes past you in a grocery store for a while after social distancing rules are lifted?

Relationships at the national and global level

I’ve always thought a minor alien attack would be good for the globe—a way to bring everyone together and help us shift perspective. This global pandemic serves that same purpose—uniting us against a common enemy. And it has brought people around the world together. There are lots of stories of good coming from all corners of the globe. People donating money, supplies, and time. Countries helping each other out.

But I must admit, it’s not the overwhelmingly positive experience I’d imagined would come from an alien invasion. Instead, we have people fighting over supplies and blaming each other for not handling the problem correctly. On the global stage, just as in our homes, this pandemic seems to be bringing out both the good and the bad.

The political polarization already rife in the United States has been magnified by the pandemic. Hostility, defensiveness, criticism, and stonewalling, those four horsemen that every relationship therapist will urge couples to avoid, appear to be increasingly common modes of communication between public figures. Will the pandemic ultimately have positive effects on national and international relations? Or will it take something more for us to truly get on the same team?

Only time will tell whether and how the pandemic changes our relationships over the long term. Will the changes we’ve experienced stick around? Or, given our tendency to adapt (for better and for worse), will we just go back to our pre-pandemic ways and forget all the lessons we learned? My lab is tracking couples over time to find out what happens. What do you think the answer will be?


More on the pandemic:

How psychological biases shaped my response

How not to kill your family during a lockdown

Inducing awe at home

Want to see how the pandemic is affecting relationships? Results from our study on cohabiting couples will be posted here in May!

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