As the pandemic hovers at the 3-year mark, it’s normal to reflect on how the COVID-19 has impacted our relationships with friends, family and especially in love. With everything we’ve had to endure, such as the pandemic lockdowns, extreme isolation, learning how to Zoom/video chat, physical distancing, trying to navigate wearing masks, heated debates over politics – of course there have been some big changes along the way. Even now, in our new normal, we are still feeling the effects of it all.
If you haven’t experienced changes in your relationships, you’re one of the lucky ones!
For the rest of us, it’s more likely that you’ve experienced or at least witnessed some shifts in your closest relationships due to the pandemic– and you’re not alone.
How the pandemic changed relationships
The pandemic shook up the rhythm of our daily lives. Sara Russell, a certified relationship coach in Santa Cruz, California said in a recent interview “Suddenly we were working from home, isolated from our larger communities, and navigating close quarters without being able to take our usual breaks from each other. This meant we had to get clear on our personal boundaries, which could help deepen intimacy or accelerate a relationship taking its natural course,” she explained.
You may have had to consider several big questions, which could pose significant changes to any relationship. Some of those questions might have been:
- How much personal time and space do we really need?
- Who’s responsible for which chores?
- How do we express when we need more or less of something?
- How do we navigate different expectations around safety?
- How do we manage our irritation, exhaustion, confusion, and worry?
Pandemic and relationships: The big picture
On the one hand, you may have had the chance to connect on a deeper level and spend more quality time together, says Jackie Tassiello, a licensed therapist in New York City.
Many people have experienced a deep restructuring of their priorities and needs, and have found new satisfaction in their relationships. But for many, there was a flip side, as well. The anxiety, unrest, and overall stress of the pandemic has affected all of us — and, inevitably, our relationships on many different levels. Whether it’s emotional, psychological, financial, or physical, if it affects us, it affects our relationships.
Research shows that your attachment style may have impacted your pandemic experience on the social front.
The four common attachment styles are:
- Secure attachment: You’re comfortable with both intimacy and space.
- Anxious-preoccupied: You feel emotionally safe with intimacy.
- Avoidant-dismissive: You feel emotionally safe with space.
- Fearful-avoidant: You oscillate between an intense desire to be intimate and an intense desire to have space.
In this study, researchers noted that those with secure attachments fared the best during the pandemic, while the quality of relationships may have reduced for those with insecure attachment styles.
Positives of the pandemic
Sometimes, dark times can bring us closer together. You may have been more forgiving in the early part of the pandemic, and research shows that the first few weeks may not have impacted your closest interpersonal connections all that much.
In fact, for those in a romantic relationship at that time, you may have been more forgiving and compassionate toward your partner, if you could avoid conflict and had positive coping skills.Your bond may have strengthened through ‘shared reality’
One study found that when frontline healthcare workers had supportive spouses with a “shared reality,” they performed higher on the relationship satisfaction survey.
In psychology, the term “shared reality” refers to establishing a common ground or perspective that the two of you honor together. In this case, it may have meant agreeing to sleep in separate spaces or limiting contact to only your “pod.”
One study found that people in all age groups, but particularly adolescents, relied more heavily on technology and social media to connect with friends.
Of those surveyed, many reported increased satisfaction with these platforms compared to how they usually felt, which reduced their risk of:
The more satisfied you felt with connecting remotely, the more likely you were to be emotionally protected, especially if you were living alone.
You may have become pickier about your partners
Research suggests that those who were single during the pandemic were more selective about who they dated, compared to the pre-pandemic era, even if you were afraid of being alone.
Negatives of the pandemic
A range of negative consequences has emerged in the research, from breakups to domestic violence.
Harmful relationship behaviors may have increased
A 2020 review of over 600 studies found that COVID-19 created unprecedented levels of stress and mental health concerns, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This suggests that the immense stress may have churned out more negative interpersonal behaviors, such as hostility, withdrawal, and reduced responsiveness or support toward your partner.
Researchers suggest this was more likely if you:
- lived with income insecurity
- had a minority status
- were younger in age
- had an insecure attachment style
- lived with depression
Breakups and divorces went up
According to data collected from a US legal contract-creation website, there was a 34% increase in the number of couples contemplating divorce in the early days of the pandemic compared to 2019. One 2020 commentary examining relationships in China found a similar pattern in the number of divorces.
A study involving LGBTQ+ couples found that the more ways that life was negatively impacted by COVID-19, and how threatened you felt by the virus, was in direct proportion to your level of anxiety, depression, and substance use.
In other words, the more stressed you were about the virus and the pandemic, the higher your levels of anxiety and depression.
Researchers believe these factors contributed to lower relationship satisfaction, an uptick in breakups, and more mental health challenges overall.
Division of labor may have been unequal
One study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2021 looked at gender differences and the impact of labor during the pandemic lockdown.
Researchers found that women were more likely to take on the brunt of the housework and child care during the lockdown compared to men who performed more paid work and took more personal downtime.
Domestic violence increased
In some cases, the quarantine forced people to cohabitate in unhealthy situations. Research from 2020 shows that domestic violence increased, particularly among women.
Domestic violence prevention
There’s no excuse for violence — period. If you’re in an abusive situation, you’re not alone, and help is available.
To get support right now, you can try these resources:
Tips to manage relationships
Provided that you’re not in an unhealthy situation, there are many ways to help you manage relationships in the pandemic and post-pandemic age.Communicate your needs
As pandemic restrictions shift, you may find it useful to shift your relationship along with them. Don’t be afraid to assert your boundaries with those you love.
If either of you withheld your needs for too long as a way to keep the peace, and now resentment is bubbling over, take some space, recenter, get clear on your requests, then negotiate with your partner. Create a safe space for each other’s vulnerability and truth.
Divvy up shared space
If you’re like the millions of us still working from home, create structure to allow for times when you’re together and apart. That reduces everyone’s stress and nurtures connection. Remember to check in with each other regularly about how it’s going for you both individually.
Keep the intimacy alive
Pandemic fatigue is real and so is the slump that can come with so much togetherness.
If you’d like more physical intimacy, focus on building desire instead of thinking of sexual frequency as a numbers game. Tips: Flirt! Notice your partner. Compliment your partner.
Work with a professional
It can be helpful to speak to a neutral third party about what you’re going through. A therapist can act as a sounding board as you try to work out relationship challenges.
If your relationship is really suffering and you’re experiencing difficulties, you might want to seek out a therapist to see remotely.
Telehealth can help you have an outlet to talk or express what’s inside and it’s really important to make that a focus right now.
There’s nothing like a pandemic to put things in perspective — for better or worse.
Multiple studies from around the world have confirmed widespread changes in our social interactions because of the pandemic. Some positive, some negative.
Be patient with yourself as you navigate all the changes to your personal world. Be sure to communicate your needs, carve out space and time to be alone, and work with a professional if your relationships are teetering on the edge.
Remember that we’re all in this together. You, and yours, are strong enough to get through this.
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