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The Pandemic Is Harming Relationships. Is Yours at Risk?

Some traits make couples more susceptible to pandemic-induced instability.

Remember life before the pandemic? For many romantic couples, it felt quite different from now. At the top of the list: less stress.

With the onset of the pandemic, couples found themselves pulled from their social worlds, with usual leisure activities and socializing no longer encouraged. Going to work became a health risk; businesses closed and jobs were lost, children came home from college and schools closed. Supporting children's health and wellness took on new dimensions.

As time goes on, economic hardships persist and those who are working remotely are doing so without the in-person connections they are accustomed to. People feel isolated from their support systems. Parents are juggling work with child-care obligations, fears tied to in-person school, or the added stress of monitoring virtual school. All this and people are grieving the loss of loved ones, feeling the effects of hurricanes, wildfires, and feeling the civil unrest in our nation. It has not been an easy time, to say the least.

How Does the Pandemic Affect Relationship Health?

While we often think relationship happiness and stability follow from aspects of the individual (e.g., personalities, goals), we often fail to recognize the role of external stressors. Scientists define an external stressor as any threat imposed upon the relationship by events outside of the relationship. External stressors produce conflict, anxiety, a lack of alone time for couples, less intimacy, more loneliness, and for many couples, less relationship stability.

We know the pandemic has affected couples differently. Think of the couples you know who seem like they're thriving — as happy as ever — versus the couples who are barely keeping it together. As the saying goes, while we're all in the same storm, we're clearly not in the same boats. Why are some boats sinking and others staying afloat?

Relationship researchers look to the Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation model (Karney & Bradbury, 1995) to understand how the current pandemic is impacting romantic couples (Pietromonaco & Overall, 2020). This model has us think about pre-existing vulnerabilities that were already present for couples prior to the pandemic: vulnerabilities tied both to social context (e.g., low SES, belonging to a marginalized group) and to the individual (e.g., attachment insecurity, mental health, self-regulatory skills, trauma history). These vulnerabilities are proposed to interact with external stressors brought about by the pandemic to affect relationship functioning.

In other words, couples enter the pandemic with different degrees of susceptibility to the impact of stress, and then they experience different levels of stress. This all then influences the quality of couples' interactions, which can then affect the relationship's stability.

Take a good day. On a good day, partners have the energy, time, and attention to engage in healthy relationship processes. They laugh, they listen, they show affection. These adaptive relationship processes have a direct effect on perceptions of relationship quality, which can then translate into relationship stability.

The pandemic, however, has introduced incredible stress for some couples. Work stress, financial concern, unemployment, worry about parents or children... this can all create stress spillover into the couple dynamic. These stressors can reduce individuals' ability to enact healthy behaviors. They're just "done" at the end of the day, with no reserves left. They feel overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious, and distracted. That's not the frame of mind that allows for adaptive relationship behaviors. It's the frame of mind that leads to arguments, hostility, withdrawal, and ultimately, poor partner support and reduced feelings of support. Not a good outcome.

Is Your Relationship Vulnerable?

Scholars have identified a set of contextual and individual vulnerabilities that can make some relationships at risk for difficulty during the pandemic (Pietromonaco & Overall, 2020).

In terms of contextual factors, these include:

  • Socioeconomic difficulties. Economic stress introduces conflict and depletes people's resources to engage in healthy interactions.
  • Race/ethnicity. People who belong to historically marginalized groups are over-represented in jobs that involve higher exposure and are contracting COVID-19 at higher rates and may be at risk for higher COVID-19 related stress.
  • Parenting status. Parents, you know this already: you are more stressed than non-parents. Parents are managing children's heightened psychological and social needs, are working and caring for children or working and schooling their children, and those parents who are of lower SES are having a particularly difficult time.
  • Age. Older adults are experiencing more pandemic-related stress, in part because of their age-related risk of having COVID-19 complications. Social isolation is also harming more older adults than younger people. However, many older couples have better relationship quality than younger couples, which is a potential protective factor.

Individual risk factors that can make place relationships at risk include:

  • Attachment insecurity. People with attachment insecurity prior to COVID-19 may have relationships that are suffering more right now than those individuals who hold secure views of themselves and others. Attachment anxiety involves hypervigilance for signs of abandonment and they approach their partners for support, often excessively, which can be difficult in times of stress. People with avoidance tendencies may be detaching, without the reserves needed to connect with their partner.
  • Depression. Mental health impacts how people relate to their romantic partner, and depression is associated with more negative, less supportive interactions.

Whether you're a dating couple or long-term couple, these contextual and individual vulnerabilities interact with the external stressors brought about by the pandemic to shape relationship interactions, which then translate to quality and stability.

What Can Help?

Scientists recognize that some standard relationship interventions can be useful during stressful times, but not for all couples (Pietromonaco & Overall, 2020). Couples with economic and financial challenges — including unemployment or low-SES — do not benefit from interventions geared towards supporting communication. The couple dynamic, however, does benefit from support specifically geared at improving their economic situation.

Couples who are not seriously concerned about their financial situation, but still under major stress, may benefit from interventions designed to prevent this stress from affecting their relationship quality. Efforts to support enhanced communication, for example, can make a big difference. Beyond reducing hostility and increasing positivity, couples can work on open communication. Conflicts, for example, are not problematic if approached well; indeed, avoiding tough discussions is worse. Constructive conversations involve recognizing each partner's effort and stress. Responsive support is a second suggestion offered by researchers as a way to mitigate the burdens of the pandemic. This type of support — tailored to the recipient — helps reduce distress.

Until events change and lighten the burden, couples will be walking through their day-to-day bearing the weight of uncertainty and stress. Knowing your vulnerabilities is a good starting place for thinking about how your stressors are translating into the ways you and your partner interact with each other. As hard as it might be, if you can find opportunities to build and strengthen the adaptive processes (and reduce the maladaptive processes) that color your relationship dynamic, you may be in a stronger position moving forward.

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Pietromonaco, P. R., & Overall, N. C. (2020). Applying relationship science to evaluate how the COVID-19 pandemic may impact couples’ relationships. American Psychologist. Advance online publication.