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The Short Version: The American Psychological Association (APA) has published several studies on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on romantic relationships. Most findings indicate that this stressful period challenged couples on multiple fronts. Some couples grew stronger during this time, while others fell apart. Fortunately, emerging trends in surveys suggest that most people have become more invested in improving their relationships. The research suggests singles and couples will focus on developing healthy romantic pairings long after the pandemic ends.
According to psychologists, relationship stress typically has two outcomes: couples either break up or come together. A recent study from the American Psychological Association (APA) titled “Partners in lockdown: Relationship stress in men and women during the COVID-19 pandemic” explored the effect COVID-19 pandemic stress has had on couples.
Researchers surveyed nearly 800 adults with cohabitating romantic partners during the first shutdown in 2020. They found that couples were more satisfied if their relationships met certain conditions, including less stress around money and children, perception of fairness in the relationship, more sexual fulfillment, and less verbal aggression and relationship invalidation.
The stress the COVID-19 pandemic places on relationships can be analyzed within the framework of the Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation(VSA) model. The creators of the VSA model propose that individual differences in enduring vulnerabilities affect how individuals and couples adapt to stress, which affects how they handle conflict and disagreement. So an individual’s mental health, external stressors, communication style, and demographics all come into play during a time of high stress.
A year into the pandemic, Dr. Gary Lewandowski, a Monmouth University psychologist who studies romantic relationships, talked to APA’s podcast “Speaking of Psychology” about how relationships were faring. More than eight months later, Dr. Lewandowski still sees revelations about the pandemic’s impact on couples.
“I think the pandemic was an eye-opener for many who took their relationship for granted,” he said. “Some couples were surprised by how hitting pause on so much of their daily lives opened up the opportunity to better appreciate their relationship.”
The extra time together allowed many couples to put more effort into their partnerships. Dr. Lewandowski said that commitment and focus on their relationships will pay dividends in the long- and short-term. As it turns out, the study’s February conclusions hold true. Strong, team-oriented couples remain well-equipped to deal with challenges created by the pandemic.
Close-knit couples were likely to respond resiliently to pandemic challenges because they already liked each other’s company. For couples who are each other’s best friends, that time spent together isn’t a chore — it’s a gift.
Couples in strong relationships used the extra time in the pandemic to rediscover their love. Many even adopted an us-against-the-world mentality and worked together to meet challenges.
Dr. Lewandowski said he thinks that attitude is healthy for couples outside of the pandemic, as well.
“That’s how couples should focus on problem-solving. It’s not you vs. me; it’s us against whatever the problem happens to be. We have to remember that couples that have been together forever didn’t last that long because they didn’t face adversity,” Dr. Lewandowski told us. “They lasted because they met the challenges along the way and, through those experiences, grew stronger.”
However, the pandemic didn’t have a positive impact on couples who were already facing problems. It exacerbated issues in relationships.
Couples dealing with stress in their relationships searched for ways to relieve their tension. According to Dr. Lewandowski, the key to resolving those conflicts is to maintain healthy communication to keep minor problems from getting bigger.
“That starts with a willingness to be open and honest about concerns and see the issue from your partner’s perspective. Instead of trying to convince your partner of your way of thinking, seek greater understanding by finding the parts of their viewpoint you agree with or can learn from,” Dr. Lewandowski said. “It’s also helpful to a problem-solving mentality where partners work together as a team to deal with challenges.”
Another recent study considered the impact the pandemic had on cohabitating couples. Researchers presented their findings in a report titled, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Evaluating Intimate Relationship Outcomes During the 2020 Pandemic Shutdown.”
The study looked at how pandemic and quarantine stress impacted five relationship components: conflict, diverging attitudes, restrictions, connectedness, and neglect. Nearly 3,000 respondents participated in the survey. Among the findings: Women said they became more stressed in their relationships because of conflict and diverging attitudes, while both men and women said they felt increased restriction.
Researchers noted that the study didn’t take into consideration one crucial aspect. Couples may have already been experiencing negative relationship patterns, but those stressors may have presented more acutely in the confined space of lockdown. Alternatively, the pandemic may have actually increased “the occurrence or explicitness of certain relationship aspects.”
Researchers said there is much a couple — and health policymakers — can do to manage the isolation during a pandemic.
The researchers said they see a need for “more ways for partners to alleviate restrictions in their relationship. One way to do this is by opening up more outdoor opportunities for people to make use of during the lockdown.”
According to these experts, something as simple as a community garden or walking paths in a city park can offer a major boon to mental health. It could also offer an outlet to relieve the pressure on relationships during a lockdown.
Couples therapists can also help struggling partners create new routines to deal with stress, rather than adopting habits that ultimately undermine the relationship.
Partners who want to establish more positivity in their relationships can be proactive by scheduling time together doing unusual, fun activities — while ensuring they leave time for being apart.
Two new studies focused on cohabitating couples, but many singles also faced a more challenging issue during the pandemic: isolation.
Dr. Lewandowski noted that many individuals who were single when the pandemic started have struggled to find relationships. Quarantines limited social interactions, and though some couples met through video chats, others didn’t feel like those dates were as satisfying as in-person interactions.
“Concerns over contracting COVID-19 also inhibited the desire to meet people ‘live,’ which is why dating apps saw that being vaccinated was one of the most popular dating criteria when looking for partners,” Dr. Lewandowski said.
This sense of isolation may also have influenced more singles to commit to seeking long-term relationships, rather than hookups. OkCupid data from 2020 found a 5% increase in singles seeking relationships and a 20% decrease in users seeking hookups.
Match.com’s “Singles in America” survey found similar results. Many of the 5,000 respondents noted that they wanted to slow down and get to know their partners better so they can build healthier long-term commitments. Daters also said they wanted to be more intentional by prioritizing individuals with whom they can have meaningful conversations over singles they found attractive. Most notable, perhaps, is that more than 60%of respondents said they are focused on finding a committed relationship more so than they were before the pandemic.
Some people are happy to sweep the pandemic under the rug until life returns to “normal.” But Dr. Lewandowski said that the lessons learned during this stressful time will impact society for years to come.
“This pandemic is a lifetime-defining event that will have a lasting impact in all phases of our life, including relationships,” he said. “I expect the emphasis on more long-term committed relationships to endure for the foreseeable future.”