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A Surprise Twist: The Pandemic Brings Some Couples Closer

Stress notwithstanding, the pandemic may be promoting healthier relationships.

If you paid attention this summer, a flurry of news reports suggested we should anticipate an uptick in divorce on account of the pandemic. News outlets picked up on a reported increase in divorce inquiries (see discussion here), a finding consistent with the heightened vulnerability brought about by the pandemic for many couples (see discussion here).

The anticipated spike in divorce post-pandemic makes sense from a "last straw" perspective in which already struggling couples are pushed to the brink by pandemic-related stress. Consider the confession of one father of three: “My marriage had preexisting conditions, and COVID killed it.”

Yet new evidence suggests we still do not know the full story of how the pandemic will affect marriages. At least for some couples, the pandemic may be promoting relationship stability.

Couples Report Feeling Closer and Stronger

New data from the American Family Survey, which assessed family functioning across 3000 individuals, offers some interesting insight. On the concerning side, for the first time since the survey begin in 2015, more couples indicated their romantic relationship "stayed the same" compared to "became stronger." However, at the same time, more Americans reported greater commitment to their relationship and more appreciation for their partners than indicated uncertainty about their relationship's strength. This is a favorable forecast for relationship stability.

Some relationship scientists are considering these indicators as favorable, and suggest we might anticipate a decline in divorce in response to the pandemic. The pandemic may be reorienting people toward their partners. They may be depending on each other in new ways, which may increase intimacy, closeness, and stability.

Think about the way the pandemic has changed couples' everyday experiences. They might be present at home together more and while this might pose challenges, it also poses opportunities for partner responsiveness. Couples may be sharing chores in new ways, sharing child care responsibilities in new ways, and having more opportunities to provide tangible support for each other's professional or personal goals. If people are experiencing heightened stress as first responders or are in occupations marked by heightened risk (e.g., in schools or stores), their partners have ready opportunity to show emotional support in ways that were not there previously.

Enduring a pandemic together may give some couples a new sense that they are a "team," and a resilient one at that.

Settling for Safety in Tumultuous Times

Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia offers another perspective: He suggests we may discover that the pandemic lowers the divorce rate because people value the safety of home when the world seems uncertain. They appreciate their families and seek stability in tough times, even if this means sustaining a potentially less-than-deal relationship. We have seen this before. Following the Great Depression, divorce rates declined; they then rose in the late 1940s, when life was a little easier again.

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