Dr Jozelle Miller
February 9, 2021
Relationships and the Pandemic

Life today in 2021, is definitely not what we are used to and may never return to the normative we were accustom to. Many persons have found it difficult to adapt to the changes in routine; the mandatory regulations of wearing a face mask, hand sanitization and social distancing. One would think that it would be considered a great thing if an individual is regulated to quarantine with their loved ones but many reports around the world have shown that many marriages and families may not fare well by the end of the pandemic.

Some families or couples, being thrown into much closer contact than usual can feel stressed and may be worrying, frightening or even unbearable, in some instance. At a time when we all face ongoing uncertainty and worry about Covid-19, these stressors on your relationships are probably all the harder to cope with. So it’s worth trying to be extra patient and understanding, both with each other and also try not to be too hard on yourself.

So what are some of the key factors that affect how relationships fare during such times? To answer this, I’m going to draw on an important model in relationship science called the vulnerability stress adaptation model. As the name suggests, the model proposes three broad factors that affect relationship outcomes: they are vulnerabilities, stressors and adaptations.

• Vulnerabilities are any factors that make it harder for a person to maintain enduring and satisfying relationships. Vulnerabilities can include mental health issues, personality traits (such as neuroticism), past bad relationships, addiction, and the like.

• Stressors are challenging life events and experiences external to the relationship, but which put a strain on maintaining a lasting and satisfying bond. These can include financial hardship, work stress, and difficult relationships with extended family or friends.

• Adaptations reflect the skills and capabilities couples possess to effectively deal with and adapt to challenging circumstances. Adaptations can include a couple’s sense of fun or humor, constructive ways of handling conflict and solving problems, and supporting one another.

Stressors and vulnerabilities increase negative relationship behaviors (such as criticism and insensitivity), and in turn increase negative relationship outcomes (dissatisfaction and relationship breakdown).

On the other hand, adaptations buffer the effects of stress and reduce the risk of relationship dissatisfaction and breakdown.

Framing this model around COVID-19

The social distancing rules enforced during the pandemic have seen couples spending long periods of time together, often in close quarters. Accounts from across the world show us that not all couples have adjusted well. China reported an increase in the number of married couples filing for divorce. Worryingly, incidents of domestic and sexual abuse have sadly also increased.

Lengthy periods of close contact may have acted as a stressor which intensified negative relationship behaviors and dissatisfaction, particularly for people with existing personal vulnerabilities.

The changes associated with social distancing rules, such as working from home and supervising home schooling, are additional stressors. These too are likely to have exacerbated personal vulnerabilities and destructive relationship behaviors for some couples.

Some vulnerable couples may be able to keep their relationship stable, provided that the stress of social isolation and other COVID-19-related stressors remain low, or that supports are in place to minimize stress. However, these same couples may encounter problems if stressors increase (for example, one partner suddenly loses their job) or supports are removed (such as from friends or family).

Similarly, high-functioning couples may cope well with the challenges of social restriction and other COVID-19 hardships.

But, if the stressors become too great, they’re likely to experience declines in relationship satisfaction.
What’s the ideal?

People in loving and supportive relationships are likely to cope more effectively with the enforcement and relaxation of social distancing guidelines (and other challenges, whether related to the pandemic or not). These are typically couples who constructively deal with conflict by working together towards solving issues, take on each others’ perspectives, and respond sensitively when the other is feeling stressed.

That’s not to say these couples never argue and don’t sometimes get frustrated with one another. But their adaptive ways of communicating and supporting each other mean these couples are likely to fare better Possible tips to help couples and families cope better within quarantine

1. Institute games night with the children. Make the children the focus at this time; be open to try whatever games they may be interested in.

2. Set up a romantic date right at home; get the children off to bed early or simply ask for some uninterrupted time, from the rest of the family.

3. Cut each other some slack — more than you usually would. Remember we are living through a highly stressful, unsettling, anxiety-inducing time. Under these conditions, it’s difficult to present the best versions of ourselves. So be gentle on each other when tensions inevitably arise.

4. Prioritize your alone time. Stay-at-home orders have led to a whole lot of forced togetherness, but it doesn’t mean you cannot ask your spouse and family for some private time, even if it is in the bathroom, allowing you to have a nice bath or shower, and pamper yourself.

5. Create a quarantine routine that works for you. When the world around us is chaotic, maintaining a consistent daily routine can make you feel more grounded. “Set some structure around your day-to-day activities”, such as the time allocated for online school with the children, preparing meals, completing your work etc.

6. Stop keeping score on who’s doing more around the house. This can become tedious and a point of contention. It is recommended that persons are given assigned task and avoid the tendency to micro-manage. Allow persons their time to get it done.

7. Don’t try to resolve long-standing conflicts right now. Remember this is an already tense situation. Don’t see this time as the opportunity to rehash topics from the past that may have been a point of contention. This is will only cause more tension and conflict in a space that you will be stuck in for an indefinite time.
While this period of time can be daunting and stressful, please know that it is better to work together and create a common ground of understanding as you navigate this time as a couple and a family.