The pandemic has certainly put us under a great deal of stress. It has affected our lives in so many ways, and it seems inevitable that it would have an impact on our relationships. The statistics seem to bear this out: there have been increases in divorce filings, or enquiries about divorce in China, US and the UK (Lemann 2020; Savage 2020).
The pandemic can act like a pressure cooker on relationships, and while we don’t understand the exact mechanisms of how it’s impacting relationships there are clues as to what factors might be contributing. Being in a relationship that is struggling has rarely been so challenging – we are more cut off from other supports than ever before. In part one of this article I will outline some common issues, and in part two I will discuss some ways to navigate these challenges.
Division of Labour
Since the pandemic, there has been an increase in responsibility within the home, particularly for those who are caring for children or aging family members. Research shows that parents are spending an additional 27 hours per week on household chores, childcare and education (Krentz et al. 2020). This increase comes at a time when people are more isolated than ever, many unable to lean on the supports that they had previously, such as family members and friends. Wanting to reduce their risk of getting the virus, some families are reluctant to hire childcare. In one poll, 60% of parents stated that they are receiving no extra help (Krentz et al. 2020). More care-giving responsibilities and household labour, and less help than ever before- sounds like a recipe for disaster. Mothers in particular are shouldering the burden. One poll showed that women were spending 15 hours per week more than men on domestic labour (Krentz et al. 2019). Studies have shown that when women feel disproportionately responsible for household management, it has a negative effect on their personal well-being as well as lower satisfaction with the relationship (Ciciolla and Luthar, 2019). With more domestic labour demands than ever before, families are under more pressure; women in particular are more likely to end up burnt out and resentful, which can lead to increased conflict, and potentially the end of the relationship.
Romantic partners sometimes differ in terms of their level of risk tolerance during the pandemic. (Jacobs and Mayor, 2020). While one person may feel comfortable with certain types of socializing, or seeing a few select people, the other partner may feel deeply uncomfortable with this. Unlike with other issues, this is not something that is easy to compromise on. What might be an appropriate solution in the past – such as encouraging the partner who wants to socialize more to go see their family without their partner – is not a solution during a pandemic. This is because ultimately, if you are living together, any risk one partner takes on is a shared risk. Furthermore people have differing needs when it comes to socializing and this can be incredibly complicated to navigate.
Many families are struggling with financial fall-out from the pandemic as people find themselves unemployed, furloughed or with decreases in pay. (Savage, 2020) and this can cause a great deal of stress that can lead to feelings of dread, anxiety, fear, anger and frustration (Davis and Mantler, 2004). Research has shown that financial stress is linked to increased physical illness and mental health issues, and lowers life satisfaction and self- esteem (Davis and Mantler, 2004). It is unsurprising that divorce rates tend to increase during economic downturns (Savage, 2020). Research has shown that financial disagreements are a stronger predictor of divorce when compared to other common marital disagreements (Dew et al., 2012).
Loss of routines, hobbies, social outlets
The pandemic has had a significant impact on our routines, hobbies and social outlets. You may have had a yoga class you went to regularly, or stopped at your sister’s every Saturday morning. By engaging in these activities you were benefiting your physical and emotional wellness, while also allowing for some healthy space from your partner. Having these routines and regular social supports taken away can negatively impact your mental health and create strain within the relationship (Savage, 2020).
During the pandemic, many couples are finding they spend a lot more time together. While it may seem counterintuitive, research shows that couples need distance in order to increase feelings of sexual desire (Perel, 2006). It is theorized that by having some space allows us to really see our partner, and appreciate what we find attractive about them. We often strive to be close because through closeness we feel secure – however when we spend so much time with our partner it is easy to lose sight of what about them appealed to us when we first met (we can all relate to the experience of spending too much time with someone, and starting to get on each other’s nerves). The pandemic certainly facilitates more of these moments for couples! Unsurprisingly, studies find that the more couples fight, the less likely they are to be intimate (Lehmann, 2020). The compounding factors of overfamiliarity and increased arguments can result in decreased sexual intimacy.
Ciciolla, L., Luthar, S.S. Invisible Household Labor and Ramifications for Adjustment: Mothers as Captains of Households. Sex Roles 81, 467–486 (2019).
Davis, C. and Mantler, J. (2004) The Consequences of Financial Stress for Individuals, Families, and Society, Centre for Research on Stress, Coping, and Well-being, Researchgate, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229052873_The_Consequences_of_Financial_Stress_for_Individuals_Families_and_Society
Dew, J., Britt, S., and Huston, S. (2021) Examining the Relationship Between Financial Issues and Divorce Family Relations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Science, 61(4), 615-628
Jacobs, B and Mayor, J. (2020, June 9) How to Stop Arguing With Your Spouse About Coronavirus Risks: Steps to calmly and productively reach a solution, AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2020/arguing-about-coronavirus-risks.html
Krentz, M., Kos, E., Green, A. and Garcia-Alonso, J. (2019, May 21) Easing the COVID-19 Burden on Working Parents, BCG (Boston Consulting Group), https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/helping-working-parents-ease-the-burden-of-covid-19
Lehmann, C. (2020, Nov 7) Pandemic Drives Couples to Divorce or to Seek Help, WebMD Health News, https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20201207/pandemic-drives-couples-to-divorce-or-to_seek-help
Perel, Esther. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Savage, M. (2020, Dec 6) Why the pandemic is causing spikes in break-ups and divorces, BBC: The Life Project https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20201203-why-the-pandemic-is-causing-spikes-in-break-ups-and-divorces