The COVID-19 pandemic has done more than just affect people’s physical health. It could also have major effects on our relationships. The pandemic has brought stress about our health and finances, both of which can strain relationships. There is also the opportunity for the restlessness brought on by lockdown and constant contact with live-in partners that could increase interpersonal stress and conflict. On the other hand, couples could find themselves bonding over dealing with shared adversity. And lockdowns have given couples an opportunity to spend more time together and to really appreciate what their partners do for them. This could increase feelings of closeness and appreciation of one’s partner.
So, has the pandemic helped or harmed the health of our romantic relationships? Recent data on divorce rates and a new study on relationship satisfaction can help answer that question.
Data on increasing divorce rates during the pandemic was widely covered by the popular media. However, the data cited in the media was actually from a website that sells legal agreements, reporting a 34% increase in people purchasing an online divorce agreement from their website.
While that could be due to increased interest in divorce, it's also possible that divorcing couples were more likely to turn to a fully online service rather than visit a lawyer because of the pandemic. Or because of the financial hardship caused by the pandemic, couples looking to divorce may have been more likely to go for this kind of inexpensive divorce method rather than hiring an expensive lawyer.
Data collected on actual divorce rates shows a very different picture. The Institute for Family Studies examined divorce filings in five states from January to August of 2020. As you can see in the graph to the left, there was a sharp decrease in divorce filings during the peak of the pandemic lockdowns (March-April). For states that had data going through August, the divorce rate did climb again, once people emerged from lockdown, but did not reach the levels seen in January. Of course, people may be delaying divorce filings due to the pandemic, but nonetheless, this data shows that the pandemic is not causing its own divorce epidemic.
Examining divorce rates is certainly not the only way to study relationship quality, especially when studying the effects of a recent event. It takes time for couples to make decisions to separate and to ultimately file for divorce. So pandemic-related relationship problems might not be that apparent if you’re only looking at divorce rates. Data on relationship satisfaction and coping may provide a better picture of how relationships are faring during the pandemic.
In a new study just published in Psychological Science, Hannah Williamson, from the University of Texas Austin, was able to track changes in relationship satisfaction before and during the pandemic. Williamson was conducting a survey on relationship satisfaction right before the effects of the pandemic were felt in the US (December 2019). This enabled her to track her participants throughout the pandemic by following up with 654 respondents in both late March and late April of 2020, during the heart of the lockdowns.
So, how did participants' relationships change? The results showed that overall, there was no consistent trend for relationship satisfaction to either increase or decrease from pre-pandemic to the spring lockdowns. However, one change that did occur over time, is that participants became less likely to blame their partners for intentionally engaging in bad behavior. That is, they were more like to attribute their partners' bad behavior or criticisms to carelessness rather than malice. Perhaps people understood their partners' bad moods better when they were constantly together and coping with the same negative events, and this allowed them to be more forgiving of their partners' occasional inconsiderate behavior.
While relationship satisfaction didn't change for the entire sample on average, that doesn't mean that every participant had a steady level of satisfaction. Some saw an increase, some saw a decrease, and some experienced no change. So, Williamson examined multiple factors that could predict who got happier and who got less happy once the pandemic hit. Surprisingly, these effects were similar across demographic groups (high vs. low income, married vs. nonmarried). Even more surprising, experiencing negative effects of the pandemic in the form of material consequences (e.g., a salary decrease, feeling isolated from others) or pandemic-related stress also did not relate to satisfaction.
Instead, what mattered was how much conflict couples experienced during the pandemic and how much they helped each other cope with stress (e.g., helping each other relax with pleasant activities, sharing household chores fairly, working together as a team).
Couples that worked together to cope and experienced fewer conflicts had increases in relationship satisfaction and decreases in how much they made causal attributions for partners’ bad behavior (i.e., blaming the behavior on factors that are internal, stable/consistent, global/wide-ranging rather than seeing it as situational, a rare instance of negative behavior, and specific to a context or event). Those who were especially high in conflict or low in these positive coping behaviors experienced a decline in satisfaction and an increase in blaming their partners.
Notably, these participants who had high levels of conflict had started out with very low levels of satisfaction back in December. So things went from bad to worse over the course of the pandemic. Unfortunately, participants' levels of coping and conflict weren’t measured during the pre-pandemic survey, so we don’t know if these were pre-existing poor coping strategies and high rates of conflict or new patterns that emerged during the pandemic.
So there is truth to both stories: The pandemic has both helped and harmed our romantic relationships. The constant togetherness of lockdown spelled trouble for couples that were already unhappy in their relationships, but gave happy couples a chance to increase their appreciation for each other and become closer.
While divorce rates are down for now, it's hard to know how the delayed effects of pandemic-related conflict could continue to affect divorce rates, particularly for those distressed couples that experienced declines in satisfaction during the pandemic. For now, the data suggest that the saying "the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer" applies to how the pandemic has affected our romantic relationships.