COVID's Effect on Couples
Has your relationship with your partner struggled to survive or has it flourished over the course pandemic? Noam Shpancer Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at Otterbein College shares interesting insights in an article he wrote for Psychology Today. Let's take a closer examination of what recent data indicates.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, among other things, had the paradoxical effect of forcing many people away from their casual social interactions while at the same time placing them in prolonged forced sequester with their intimate partners. While the effects of this sudden shift are bound to be considerable, they are unlikely to be straightforward.
One early, justified concern in this unprecedented situation focused on the safety of people (mostly women and children) in abusive relationships. Research has shown that family violence tends to increase during times of social turmoil, public health emergency, and large-scale disasters. The pandemic’s specific nature—forcing families indoors and isolating them from community relations and outside resources—presents- unique risks for those who were already at pre-pandemic risk for intimate partner violence.
Beyond this obvious concern, the picture was bound to become murkier. Indeed, it didn’t take long for media reports to predict skyrocketing divorce applications, increases in online searches for advice on breaking up, booming sales of divorce agreements, and spiking divorce rates.
These doomsday scenarios, alas, were contradicted in short order by preliminary data suggesting that divorces have gone down in 2020, and that most people experienced greater appreciation for their spouse and a deepened commitment to their relationships. The New York Times covering all bases, reported talk of oncoming waves of both “coronababies” and “covidivorces.”
So, which is it? Are intimate partners reigniting their flame or reading to torch each other? Will the pandemic steel or fray the bonds of intimacy? Who’s right, those who predict that couples will succumb or those who anticipate that they’ll overcome?
In the old joke, a quarreling couple seeks the rabbi’s marital counsel. The wife walks in first and produces a litany of complaints about her no-good husband, who’s definitely the cause for their troubles.
“You’re right,” the rabbi says. After she leaves, the husband walks in, relating his own myriad complaints about his no-good wife, who’s definitely to blame for their troubles.
“You’re right,” says the rabbi. After they both leave, the janitor, who was eavesdropping from the hallway, walks in to confront the rabbi: “Forgive my chutzpah,” he says, “but the wife said one thing and you told her she was right. The husband said the opposite and you told him he was right. That doesn’t make sense!”
“You’re also right,” says the rabbi.
A Study on the Pandemic's Impact on Couples
Relationships are complicated systems, and they respond to challenges in complicated ways. A useful glimpse into an aspect of this complexity may be found in a recent (2020) study from Hannah Williamson of The University of Texas at Austin, which examined the potential impact of the pandemic on couples’ relationships. Williamson collected data from 654 participants three separate times between December 2019 and April 2020.
Participants (60% female; 92% heterosexual; 82% white) were all partnered adults (in a relationship, engaged, or married) from varying socioeconomic circumstances, residing in the United States. Forty-one percent of participants had children living with them.
Williamson collected data on three outcome variables:
1) Relationship Satisfaction: Participants’ “global sentiment toward the relationship.”
2) Relationship Causal Attributions: The causes participants ascribed to negative partner behavior (example questionnaire item: “The reason my partner criticized me is not likely to change”).
3) Responsibility-Attribution: “The extent to which participants consider their partners’ behaviors as intentional, selfishly motivated, and blameworthy (i.e., 'My partner criticized me on purpose rather than unintentionally').”
Williamson also examined several potential “moderator variables”—factors that may impact the link between pandemic sequestering and couples’ outcomes. These included demographic measures such as household income, education, relationship length and status, and children in the home, and psychological variables including negative experiences of the pandemic (i.e.: “had a decrease in your salary or wages”), relationship coping (i.e.: “How well did you think you and your spouse worked together as a team?”), and relationship conflict (i.e.: “This section asks questions about how you and your partner have been doing since the-coronavirus pandemic started“).
Results showed moderate levels of negative experiences among participants related to the pandemic. The three most widely shared concerns related to worries about the health of family members, feeling isolated from other people, and difficulties obtaining preferred food items. However, average relationship satisfaction did not significantly change.
Demographic variables—income, education, relationship status, cohabitation status, relationship length, and the presence of children in the home—did not affect relationship satisfaction, causal attributions, or responsibility attributions; neither did the pandemic-related measures of negative experiences and stress level. However, levels of relationship coping and relationship conflict did moderate changes in the three outcome variables (relationship satisfaction, causal attributions, and responsibility attributions).
Specifically, “among individuals with higher levels of coping, relationship satisfaction increased and causal and responsibility attributions decreased, whereas among individuals with lower levels of coping, relationship satisfaction decreased, causal attributions increased, and responsibility attributions remained stable.”
Conversely, "among individuals with lower levels of conflict, relationship satisfaction increased and causal and responsibility attributions decreased, whereas among individuals with higher levels of conflict, relationship satisfaction decreased, causal attributions increased, and responsibility attributions remained stable.” showed moderate levels of negative experiences among participants related to the pandemic. The three most widely shared concerns related to worries about the health of family members, feeling isolated from other people, and difficulties obtaining preferred food items. However, average relationship satisfaction did not significantly change.
In other words, couples forced into sequester early in the pandemic did not experience a wholesale deterioration in their relationship satisfaction. In fact, the author notes, many participants became more forgiving and less blaming of their partner’s negative behaviors, attributing them to the pandemic rather than to their partner’s faults. Yet the picture is not uniform. The results amount to a variation of the “the rich get richer” phenomenon with regard to pandemic responses. Stronger couples benefitted, while weaker couples struggled more.
The author notes that further data are needed to clarify whether these observed patterns hold over the longer term and whether the differences between couples in their pandemic response may translate later into systematic differences in important life outcomes such as marriage, divorce, and procreation decisions.
But in the short term, it appears that the effects of the pandemic on couples’ relationships may go both ways, accentuating strengths and exacerbating weaknesses. Stronger couples tended to overcome, while troubled ones became perhaps more likely to succumb.
In a sense, then, everyone’s predictions were, well, right.