Romantic relationships remained surprisingly stable during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Despite the stress caused by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, people’s satisfaction with their romantic relationships changed little during the early stages of the pandemic, according to new research published in Psychological Science.

“Much of my research focuses on the effect of stress on couple relationships, so when it became clear that the pandemic was going to have a huge impact on people around the world I was of course interested in what it would do to our closest relationships,” said study author Hannah Williamson, an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin.

“That is a particularly interesting question in this context because the pandemic had the unique feature that people were stuck at home with their partners in a way that they wouldn’t be when facing other major stressors, which I thought may cause extra strain.”

Using the online research platform Prolific, 1,200 individuals provided data about their relationships in December of 2019, before the onset of the pandemic. After the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, Williamson invited the participants to complete two follow-up surveys in March and April of 2020. The study was based on 654 participants who completed all three waves and stayed in their relationships.

Most of the participants were married, and the average duration of a relationship was 13 years.

Even though the participants reported a moderate level of negative experiences from the pandemic, Williamson observed no overall change in relationship satisfaction. The findings highlight that “close relationships are really resilient and really important,” she told PsyPost.

Williamson did find that participants became more forgiving and less likely to attribute negative behaviors in their partner to internal characteristics.

“The high salience of the pandemic as a stressor likely increased people’s ability to see it as a potential driver for their partner’s behaviors, compared with smaller daily stressors that are often overlooked as a source of partners’ behavior,” she explained in her study.

Williamson also found that couples who reported less conflict and better coping strategies tended to experience small increases in relationship satisfaction, while those with more conflict and worse coping strategies tended to experience slight decreases in satisfaction.

“Relationships that were satisfying and happy before the pandemic generally stayed that way and people who were able to come together with their partner to tackle the new challenges actually became even more satisfied with their relationship,” she explained.

“Stress can have a huge impact on our relationships; recognizing when your partner is under stress and supporting them in an appropriate way can be a hard skill to master but it is really important in building a long, healthy relationship.”

“People in this study became more aware of how stress was impacting their partner when the stress became so big that they couldn’t ignore it,” Williamson said. “As the salience and severity of stress from the pandemic recedes, people need to continue to recognize the impact it is having on their partner (and themselves!)”

Though most relationships were able to weather the initial storm, it is unclear whether this remained the case as the pandemic dragged on throughout the year.

“The major caveat is that this research ended in April, so the results are only relevant to the early experience of the pandemic — the first 6 weeks or so,” Williamson explained. “I’ve continued to collect follow-up data from this sample, so I will be able to look at longer-term outcomes, but we don’t yet know whether the fairly positive picture that this study painted will remain.”

The study, “Early Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Relationship Satisfaction and Attributions“, was published November 5, 2020.