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Loneliness

How Social Isolation Affects Intimate Couples

Love in the time of lockdown.

Key points

  • Intimate couples can’t meet all their partner’s needs, so they have to rely on support from extended social networks.
  • Intimate relationships without friends in common or acceptance from in-laws are far more likely to fail.
  • East Asian collectivistic cultures come with built-in social networks that are often lacking in Western individualistic cultures.

The COVID pandemic, with its ensuing lockdowns and social distancing, has taken its toll on the physical and psychological health of many people. This is especially true for those who live alone, even if they haven't gotten sick from the virus. We’re highly social creatures by nature, and social isolation has a profound negative impact on our well-being.

The effects of pandemic-induced social isolation on individuals have been widely studied since the outbreak of the corona virus. In contrast, researchers have assumed that intimate couples living together would manage the lockdowns and social distancing better that those without a significant other. After all, they have each other to provide social and emotional support.

However, UCLA psychologist Benjamin Haggerty and his colleagues challenge this received wisdom in an article they recently published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology.

Intimate Couples Need More Than Just Each Other

According to Haggerty and colleagues, intimate couples are just as in need of wider social networks as are those who live alone. While a weekend getaway can be a romantic experience that strengthens the bonds of an intimate couple, weeks and months of seclusion together can create significant stresses in a relationship. This is especially true when the couple is facing financial problems, work-related worries, or the burdens of childcare.

Larger social networks provide individuals with both material and emotional support. Friends, coworkers, and family members not only provide us with companionship, they also help us out in times of need. Furthermore, our relationships with others help validate our sense of self-worth, since we learn from them that there really are people out there who want us to be a part of their lives.

The same is true for couples. Intimate relationships that friends or family members disapprove of are far more likely to fail than those that get approval from the partners’ social networks. Moreover, intimate couples usually need lots of help from friends and family as they establish their relationship. Friends help with the move-in together, parents and siblings provide assistance with childcare, and both give material and emotional support, especially during the early years of the relationship when the two are learning how to live with one another.

Even before the pandemic, research showed that couples who are socially isolated fare worse than those who are well integrated into their social networks. Partners that have sufficient social connections can turn to these in times of stress, but isolated couples end up venting their frustrations against each other. Furthermore, socially isolated couples are more likely to break up than those who are socially connected.

Shared Social Networks: Friends and In-Laws

Shared social networks are especially important. Husbands and wives with few friends in common often experience decreased relationship satisfaction, and they’re more likely to divorce as well. They’re also more likely to experience infidelity. In other words, it’s important for the couple as a unit to be accepted within a particular social network.

Support and approval from a network of friends and family members is especially important in the early years of a relationship, as the two partners are learning their identity as a couple. Likewise, the first years also tend to be the most financially precarious, especially for young couples, so material and moral support from a social network are especially important. Without these, the new relationship is likely to break from the stress.

Older couples, especially when they’re financially secure, may be in a better position to make it through extended periods of isolation unscathed. However, many older couples drift apart over the years, and while they remain committed to the relationship, they get most of their social validation from friends and family rather than their partners. In such a case, spending a lockdown period together can be a painful experience.

Social isolation is also difficult for couples with children. Even in happy families, members can get on each other’s nerves after endless days stuck in the house together. In dysfunctional families, the overwhelming stresses of social isolation can even lead to violence.

The Role of Culture

Haggerty and colleagues point out that culture also plays a role in how well couples can tolerate pandemic lockdowns and social distancing. For example, East Asian cultures tend to be highly collectivistic. Social networks, especially extended family structures, are far stronger. Furthermore, individuals try to choose mates that their families approve of, rather than marrying whoever they want to.

Because these relationships already come with built-in social networks, married couples in these cultures already have the support they need to make it through periods of social isolation. This aspect of collectivistic cultures revealed its strength as the pandemic unfolded in early 2020. In East Asian countries, people abided by government regulations mandating masks and lockdowns, with the result that the spread of the virus was curtailed far better than it was in Western countries with their individualistic cultures.

Four hundred years ago, the English poet John Donne wrote these memorable words: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Even in individualistic Western society, we just can’t go it alone. We need strong social networks, not just to survive, but also to thrive.

This is also true of intimate couples. In recent decades, the idea of spouse as soulmate has taken hold in our culture. It may be romantic to tell your lover that they’re the only one you’ll ever need. But in reality, intimate relationships can only thrive when they’re embedded within supportive social networks of family and friends.

References

Haggerty, B. B., Bradbury, T. N., & Karney, B. R. (2022). The disconnected couple: intimate relationships in the context of social isolation. Current Opinion in Psychology, 43, 24-29. Advance online publication: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.06.002

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