Couples face increased stress from effects of pandemic

University of Illinois Extension

“COVID-19 has created stress for many couples. Tension increases due to the uncertainty of one’s future: economics, health concerns, and more. Stress can spill over to our personal lives and affect the quality of our close relationships,” University of Illinois Extension Educator Tessa Hobbs-Curley says. (Courtesy of University of Illinois Extension)

There have been numerous studies and articles investigating the effects of COVID-19 on marriage and committed relationships. The results are mixed, but there’s no question the pandemic has caused massive disruptions and changes in family and work life. The overall effects on couples are still difficult to discern.

A study by the American Family Survey, a recent nationally representative survey of 3,000 Americans, revealed both positive and negative results. Marriages are facing extra stress and the marriage rate is expected to dip.

While “the impact on married sex is unclear, husbands’ and wives’ commitment to one another has deepened, and, at least in the short term, divorce is likely to fall,” the report authors claim. “The pandemic’s family fallout seems to have hit working-class and poor couples especially hard.”

University of Illinois Extension Educator Tessa Hobbs-Curley emphasizes many of the same concerns. “COVID-19 has created stress for many couples. Tension increases due to the uncertainty of one’s future: economics, health concerns, and more. Stress can spill over to our personal lives and affect the quality of our close relationships,” Hobbs-Curley says.

The AFS reports shows that 34 percent of married men and women reported increased stress in their marriage because of the pandemic. Strikingly, though perhaps not surprising, this rate was higher (45 percent) among men and women who also experienced negative financial effects during the pandemic.

Sudden widespread job losses have created financial uncertainty and hardship, as well as a lack of stability in housing situations for many couples and families. These issues, combined with the increased stress created for all couples by the pandemic, can prove especially damaging to relationships.

Hobbs-Curley points to a recent publication from Scott Stanley and Howard Markman discussing ways in which professional counselors can help couples struggling in the shadow of COVID-19.

Many people find themselves in a world that feels unsafe, fostering high levels of stress and anxiety and threatening fundamental safety needs that support strong, healthy relationships.

A surge in stress and discontinuity increases the risk that some people will behave aggressively. In a couple, this may lead to an increase in arguments that become physical. Or, in already dangerous and physically abusive relationships, the limited mobility caused by COVID-19 could decrease a person’s ability to escape or distance themselves from an abuser.

Emotional safety, or the extent to which one partner is able to relax around the other, can be threatened by the challenges associated with COVID-19, especially when couples are forced to spend more time together, Hobbs-Curley says. When opportunities to find space from each other become limited, it’s much easier for conflicts to escalate.

Some couples may lose access to the things that typically kept them connected to each other, like travelling or going out to dinner.

“Changes that must be made in light of COVID-19 will replace quality time together with preoccupation with how to cope with other changes in their lives,” Stanley and Markman report. For couples who already had a fragile system of mutual support or who depended on a community of support around them, the increased social isolation necessitated by the pandemic could prove especially damaging.

It is important for couples to learn to recognize the danger of allowing an emotional impulse in a moment of frustration to undermine the sense of a future for the relationship, especially in a time when everything else around them seems so uncertain. This can be extremely difficult to accomplish alone, in a compressed environment, and under increased stress.

At the University of Illinois, family studies researchers have partnered with Illinois Extension to offer the Illinois Strong Couples Project, an online program for Illinois couples seeking help for their relationship during a time when more traditional forms of support may be less accessible to them because of safety regulations or financial constraints. Participation is currently full, though additional opportunities will be available after January 2021.

The pandemic has been a time of marked destabilization, when roles and routines have been radically altered. One of the keys that Stanley and Markman emphasize for protecting a relationship is to optimize thinking carefully and work together during times of transition.

Early findings from recent studies suggest that many couples are coping relatively well, but others are certainly being negatively impacted by the stress of the current moment and we have yet to see how the massive upheaval created by the pandemic will affect the long-term future of marriages and committed relationships.

“It is early, and many couples will need help,” Stanley and Markman say. Negative effects are buffered if partners are equipped with the tools to manage conflict and maintain a supportive connection. Having a structured environment in which to confront and work through their issues becomes infinitely more important for a couple who is struggling with any or all of these threats to their relationship right now.