“When this is all over, divorce lawyers are going to be busy.” Many of us have heard some version of this sentiment. When others predict COVID-19’s impact on relationships, many predict that “relationships problems will skyrocket.” A bit cynical? Perhaps.
Then again, previous research suggests it may have some merit. COVID’s rise has created turmoil in nearly everyone’s life and disrupted couples’ established routines. That can have consequences. When Ohio State University researchers studied long-distance relationships, despite spending a lot of time apart, those relationships were happy. However, when their relationship changed and they started spending a lot more time together, their relationships tended to suffer. Sound familiar?
Like it or not, a global pandemic and the coinciding social distancing has shifted many relationships’ dynamics. On one hand that sounds ideal (who doesn’t want more closeness?), but many people also value their “me time.” As Amy Muise, York University’s director of the SHaRe (Sexual Health and Relationships) lab, suggests: “Add to that the fact that couples can’t do many of the activities they used to do to connect, and we can begin to see why relationships may struggle.”
Though it’s logical that global pandemic-induced stress may negatively impact relationships, I wanted to see how couples across the United States were doing. To do that, I enlisted the help of Monmouth University Polling Institute to poll a national random sample of 808 adults by telephone from April 30 to May 4, 2020 (roughly 6-8 weeks into the large scale “stay at home” guidelines). Our analyses here focused on the 556 respondents who were currently in a romantic relationship (results have a +/– 4.2 percent margin of error).
Has the Virus Changed Your Relationship?
In spite of doom and gloom predictions of deteriorating relationships, when we asked if their relationship changed since the coronavirus outbreak, the vast majority felt their relationship was largely unchanged (74%). There were more people (17%) who indicated that their relationship had gotten “a little” or “a lot” better than there were respondents who felt it got worse (5%).
Of course, the fact that they didn’t notice any change doesn't mean things didn’t change. It’s possible that the good and the bad are balancing each other out. That is, getting to spend more time with the people we love may counterbalance many of the strains created during a global pandemic. A large-scale longitudinal study of more than 1,500 adults primarily in their mid-30s found that 57% felt too distant in their relationship and wanted more closeness with their partner. In other words, when couples endure hardships together, their relationship may take a few steps backward. But, the benefit of each other’s support and companionship allows them to take a few steps forward and may leave us close to where we started.
Has the Virus Changed How Much You Argue?
Couples are spending more time together, which increases the potential for conflict. Whether it’s about how to properly load the dishwasher, differing views on social distancing’s importance, or negotiating work-life balance with kids, arguments would seem like a natural by-product of sheltering in place. In fact, a just-published study found that during the Great Recession, married individuals who experienced greater adversity also reported more disagreements with their partner.
Yet, in our sample, the majority of respondents (70%) indicated that they got into “about the same” number of arguments as they did before the outbreak. Only 10% said they were arguing more, while 18% said they argued less. Differences between married and non-married respondents were negligible. It’s possible that by spending more time together couples are forced to communicate more. That can help, because it allows them to deal with issues as they arise, rather than letting problems and animosity build up and explode into major fights. Previous research supports this, and shows that those who strive to become closer are more likely to seek support and to discuss issues rather than ignore problems and exhibit a greater willingness to compromise. 
Has the Virus Changed Your Sex Life?
After predictions of virus-inspired divorces, the next most common prediction seems to be a corona baby boom. In our poll, rather than focus on potential increases in sexual frequency, we asked generally about respondents’ sex life. That’s because, when it comes to sex, quantity isn’t nearly as important as quality. Most of the Americans we polled felt their sex life was “about the same.” However, more people reported their sex life was better (9%), than those who thought it was worse (5%). Of those who thought it improved, unmarried respondents were much more likely to note gains (17%) compared to married respondents (5%).
As other researchers note, the interrelation of time spent together, stress, and intimacy is complex, and different combinations of stress and time together may increase or decrease intimacy. Consider that when couples experience more stress from daily hassles, partners report lower sexual satisfaction. Though that sounds bad, sheltering in place can promote closeness, and relationships with greater closeness report higher sexual satisfaction.
The current situation is uncharted territory that introduces a lot of novelty. That can have collateral benefits because new and challenging experiences can promote self-growth, which research shows can promote sexual desire and increase the likelihood of having sex and satisfaction with those encounters. Regardless of the pandemic’s impact on your sex life so far, as Justin Lehmiller points out, when people in happy relationships had sex after a particularly stressful day, they reported lower stress the next day.
Is Your Relationship Helping or Hurting Your Stress Level?
With everything going on, life has become increasingly stressful. We know from previous research that over time, external stress undermines marriage quality. Of course, when we experience stress, our relationship can help us cope and make things better, or it could make us feel even worse. Although most (59%) of our sample felt their relationship didn’t impact their daily stress level, more than 1 in 4 (26%) felt their relationship increased their daily stress level. The others (14%) felt their relationship decreased their stress level in light of everything else they had to deal with. This was a more common sentiment among non-married respondents (22%) compared to married respondents (12%).
Among our respondents, women were more likely to report that the relationship increased their stress (29%) than men (23%). Similarly, men were more likely to report that the relationship didn’t impact their stress level (64%) than women (54%). Clearly this is bad for women experiencing more stress, but their male partners should care too because previous research finds that when women were more stressed, their male partner’s heart rate was higher (by 1.5 to 3 beats per minute) overnight.
Recent data from the large “Love in the Time of COVID” project from a teach of researchers, including Rich Slatcher, found evidence that greater stress from COVID increased conflict and negatively impacted relationship quality. However, having a responsive partner (i.e., someone who listens to you, cares what you think, and sees things from your perspective) helps mitigate the damage. As study author Rhonda Balzarini of Texas State University explains, “In short, we found that perceived partner responsiveness may confer protective 'armor' against the spillover of COVID-related stressors into one’s relationship.”
What’s the Pandemic’s Long-Term Impact on Your Relationship?
Finally, we asked, “After the outbreak is over, do you think your relationship will have gotten stronger or gotten weaker, or will it not have changed?” A slight majority of Americans (51%) believe their relationship will emerge from the pandemic stronger (28% believe it will be a lot stronger, while 23% believe it will be a little stronger). Another 46% believe their relationship will be unchanged, leaving just 1% who believe it will have gotten worse. Men were more optimistic than women (55% to 46% thought the relationship will improve).
Of course, it’s entirely possible that these responses are wildly inaccurate and hopelessly overconfident. Even so, research shows that optimism benefits relationships. In fact, as long as couples have at least one optimist, both partners enjoy higher relationship satisfaction, even when one partner is less hopeful. Why? Optimists tend to handle life’s rough patches better by working more constructively to resolve conflict. In times like these, looking on the bright side is just one way a relationship can help you cope.
Overall, these results show that even when we’re threatened by events beyond our control, our relationships can be amazingly resilient. A few negatives don't mean a relationship is heading toward ruin. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Relationships aren’t about perfection. Even in the best of times, rough patches are inevitable. When times get tough, we need to remember that our partner is our rock, and most of us (about 4 out of 5, or 83%) consider our partner to be our best friend. Going through this viral outbreak with your best friend by your side makes it all a little easier and can strengthen the bond you already share.
Want to learn more about the science of relationships? Check out my new book Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship...and How to See Past Them
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