The Pandemic Among Couples: 3 Research Findings
What researchers are learning about how the pandemic is changing relationships
Posted Dec 29, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Spring 2020, relationships researchers began to study this unique time to try to understand how the pandemic was affecting couples. Six months later we're still in the midst of the pandemic and researchers are tracking couples over time to try to understand the long-term effects of this once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) experience. However, there are some initial findings on how couples fared during the early days of the pandemic that have now been published. Here are three of them:
1. Hannah Williamson at the University of Texas, Austin, looked at the relationship quality of 654 individuals in the U.S. in December 2019 and March and April 2020. Williamson found that, on average, relationship satisfaction did not change over time. However, this was because people who were coping well during the pandemic (e.g., not fighting as much, working as a team) reported increases in satisfaction whereas those who were not coping as well reported decreases in satisfaction. She also found that, overall, people tended to blame their partners less for their bad behavior. For example, if their partner criticized them, they were less likely to think that their partner did it on purpose during the pandemic compared to before the pandemic. Williamson suggests this may be because people had a clear external factor to explain bad behavior—the pandemic—in contrast to the smaller stressors that typically drive people’s behavior in daily life.
These findings are in line with early theorizing that the pandemic might magnify existing tendencies in relationships.
2. Lisa Schmid at GESIS, Leibniz-Institute for the Social Sciences and colleagues also looked at changes in relationship satisfaction from pre-pandemic to pandemic (May through June 2020) in a German sample of 781 individuals living with a romantic partner. Schmid and colleagues found a substantial minority of individuals (20%) did experience positive changes in satisfaction, but most experienced a negative change (40%) or no change (40%).
They examined whether those whose employment had changed were more likely to experience decreases in relationship satisfaction. Working from home or having work hours shortened predicted being less satisfied with one’s relationships. However, those without changes to employment also showed similar decreases in satisfaction, suggesting that the pandemic may be affecting relationship quality regardless of employment status. Interestingly, the negative effects of working from home and working fewer hours seemed to be stronger for individuals who did not have children living at home. The researchers speculate that this could be due in part to increases in conflict compared to pre-pandemic levels, particularly given that pre-pandemic those without children were more satisfied than those with children. I also wonder if perhaps people with children have had more experience dealing with scheduling and other everyday stressors and negotiations of time than those who did not have children.
These data were collected a bit farther into the pandemic than Williamson’s data. It will be interesting to see how relationship satisfaction changes over the course of the pandemic. Will those couples who experienced boosts in relationship quality initially maintain them over time? What will happen to those couples who experienced decreases initially?
3. Kevin Knoster at West Virginia University and colleagues examined how partners interfering with each other’s daily routines could affect the relationship in a sample of 165 married individuals assessed during April 2020. During transitional periods, such as the pandemic, there is increased emphasis on the disruption and maintenance of daily routines.
Changes in work and other factors can disrupt routines, but being able to maintain some sort of daily routine can be helpful for mental health. Knoster and colleagues found that the more people felt their partner disrupted their daily routine (e.g., interfering with plans they made), the more they saw their relationship as chaotic and turbulent.
They also found that this was partly explained by individuals whose partners disrupted their routines feeling more anger and sadness when they interacted with their partner. The researchers note that these findings fit into a larger body of research showing links between partner interference, emotional intensity, and feelings about the stability and turbulence of the relationship.
The pandemic forced changes in routines for many people. They also forced a new level of closeness and daily contact for many cohabiting couples. It’s hard not to get in each other’s way or interrupt each other’s plans when you are both at home all the time. These findings suggest that you may be a source of support if you can help facilitate each other’s daily routines. On the other hand, partners may also be a source of frustration and sadness if you interrupt each other’s plans and prevent the other person from being able to establish and maintain a daily routine.
Knoster, K., Howard, H. A., Goodboy, A. K., & Dillow, M. R. (2020). Spousal interference and relational turbulence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Communication Research Reports, 1-9.
Schmid, L., Wörn, J., Hank, K., Sawatzki, B., & Walper, S. (2020). Changes in employment and relationship satisfaction in times of the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence from the German family Panel. European Societies, 1-16.
Williamson, H. C. (2020). Early Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Relationship Satisfaction and Attributions. Psychological Science, 0956797620972688.