By forcing us to live closer to some people and further away from others, the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped our personal relationships in an unprecedented way. Daily routines were completely altered and the structure we took for granted has almost evaporated overnight.
This new reality, which in many includes the challenge of working at home while educating children, combined with the financial stress caused by economic uncertainty, creates a high-pressure environment that tests couple relationships and fosters an increase in marital conflict.
The rules of social distancing applied during the pandemic have seen couples spend long periods of time together, mostly indoors, and there is evidence that not all couples have been able to manage this situation well.
It is known that after the relaxation of the restrictions, there was a substantial increase in the number of married couples filing for divorce in China, with a worrying increase in incidents of domestic abuse.
Long periods of close contact can act as a stressor that intensifies negative relationship behaviors and dissatisfaction, particularly for couples with existing personal vulnerabilities.
Stressors and vulnerabilities increase negative behaviors (such as criticism and insensitivity) and, in turn, increase negative relationship outcomes (relationship dissatisfaction and breakup), likely exacerbating personal vulnerabilities and behaviors destructive relationships for some couples.
Some vulnerable couples can keep their relationship stable, as long as the stress of social isolation and other COVID-19-related stressors remain low, or there are supports to minimize stress.
An opportunity for understanding
However, these same couples may encounter problems if stressors increase (for example, a couple suddenly loses their job) or supports are removed (such as those from friends or family).
Similarly, high-functioning couples can cope with the challenges of social restraint and other difficulties of COVID-19. But, if the stressors become too strong, they are likely to experience decreases in relationship satisfaction.
In these difficult moments friendship is key for couples to stay together. Friendship is the foundation on which romantic relationships are founded, so staying good friends will have a positive effect.
Physical intimacy is also obviously important. This is a key aspect that can increase the chances that a relationship will last over time.
Another suggestion to put into practice is to try to accept differences without seeing this as problematic. Differences provide an opportunity for understanding, and therefore an opportunity to complement each other based on them. It is important to accept that the couple has a personality of their own, and that nothing is “to be asked for.”
In a context in which couples have been forced to cohabit together 24 hours a day for months, even having the best will in the world, there will be discussions, crises and differences of opinion. But their adaptive ways of communicating and supporting each other are crucial in coping with the pressures the pandemic has placed on couples.
Unfortunately, a return to normality will not be the answer for all relationships. For some couples, reducing restrictions may intensify relationship conflict and dissatisfaction, especially if both members of the relationship tend to respond to conflict in a destructive way.
Therefore, the reduction of social restrictions may not have the same result for everyone. It depends in part on a couple’s existing vulnerabilities and how they handle conflict and support each other.