The global pandemic has forced many of us to reexamine different aspects of our lives as we’re confronted with drastic changes. For those who are living in close quarters with others, the challenges of quarantining together have often elevated issues that might have been overlooked under different circumstances. On the other end of the spectrum, those living alone have faced their own trials trying to maintain connections to loved ones. Now that we’re almost one year into the reality of the situation, we’re starting to discover how our relationships are really holding up.
The Long-Term Impact on Relationships
Researchers are interested in learning how these unique circumstances have impacted the quality of our relationships, with several studies suggesting that it’s having a real effect on how we engage with others.
The study “Early Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Relationship Satisfaction and Attributions” was published in November 2020. It surveyed 654 people, once before the pandemic was declared in December 2019 and twice during it, in March and April 2020. The findings indicated that “relationship satisfaction and causal attributions did not change over time, but responsibility attributions decreased on average.” It revealed that satisfaction increased and maladaptive attributions decreased in couples with more favorable dynamics, while satisfaction decreased and maladaptive attributions increased in those with lower functioning dynamics.
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Another study looked at the effects on social relationships during COVID-19 in Jordan. It found that the pandemic was negatively affecting social relationships, which in turn could actually lead to negative health implications.
Amy Cirbus, the Director of Clinical Content at Talkspace, explains that a lot of research on the long-term impact of trauma on relationships focuses on the dynamics of what occurs within a relationship when one person suffers a traumatic experience and how that impacts the partner and partnership overall. COVID-19, however, has placed extra pressure and emotional strain on both parties in relationships — we’re all enduring some form of hardship and trauma. “The impact can be overwhelming as couples individually struggle to manage emotions,” Cirbus says.
How to Increase Communication and Develop New Coping Skills
Typical reactions to trauma are withdrawal or social isolation or, conversely, needing extra love and attention from a partner. When each person is feeling drained or needy at different times, emotions and irritability can also run high. Relationships enduring ongoing trauma can create negative, unhealthy patterns. On the other hand, the situation can push couples to increase communication and develop a new set of healthy coping skills.
Find a new rhythm
Cirbus says this unique time has pushed many of us to acclimate and settle into a rhythm with those closest to us.
“In the immediate wake of the pandemic, couples either struggled to remain connected through the distance or grappled to establish boundaries after finding themselves with too much time together,” she says. “The state of the relationship today is the result of the efforts and conversations as couples navigated new territory and bumpy terrain.”
As humans, we seek the comfort of a natural rhythm and stability. Healthy relationships do the same. If the relationship has made it this far, it’s likely due to the dedicated efforts of each partner, working through the tumult and establishing a new way of being together during a tumultuous time.
Hold steady until things calm down
Those in particularly challenging relationships may feel at a loss for what to do during the pandemic. How are they expected to hold steady until it’s possible to split when things go back to normal?
Cirbus says that when a crisis or trauma occurs, it’s normal to try and steady ourselves by holding on to what’s familiar. “Our intimate relationships are, of course, impacted by crisis, or any forced, new development that’s out of our control,” she says. “Working through these issues while steadying ourselves and our relationships is challenging.”
One way to work through these relationship issues is through couples therapy, where couples meet with a licensed therapist to help learn strategies for healthy communication, conflict resolution, and trust.
Some of those challenges might include distinguishing between an internal problem within the partnership itself, versus hardship caused by external forces that will improve with work. The idea of breaking up might seem counterintuitive, as it creates even more chaos in our life. We assume it’s better to hold steady until things calm down. However, this is not always the best choice. “If you feel like you’re biding your time, for a ‘right’ or ‘better’ time to break-up, it’s time to either dig in and address the problem or release yourself from the relationship,” says Cirbus. “It’s never a good time for a break-up.”
Now might actually be the best time to break-up as it will help you avoid future stress, resentment, and toxicity. Otherwise, you’ll be idly waiting, stewing in a bad relationship during an already difficult time.
Distinguish valued relationships from social acquaintances
What about non-romantic relationships — has the pandemic caused us to lose friends or has our friend circle productively narrowed? Has the pandemic helped us realize who is truly there for us? Cirbus says that noticing who sticks around in a crisis can help us distinguish valued relationships from social acquaintances.
“There’s a lot of discussion in therapy rooms right now about who stepped up to the plate, stayed in touch, reached out, went the extra mile during quarantine,” she says. “There’s also a lot of talk of feeling disappointed; in both ourselves and our friends. We have felt a tremendous amount of isolation and loneliness, craving connection and not knowing how to get it, who to give our time to, and how.”
Everyone reacts differently in a crisis. There are certainly relationship casualties happening right now, yet there is also a new focus on forgiveness, communication, and grace for the people in our lives and for ourselves — all enduring hardship in one way or another.
Remember: Discomfort Leads to Resilience
The monotony of quarantine and the ongoing restrictions can feel unbearable and endless, making it hard to imagine easier times. However, Cirbus says that the hope is that through challenging times, we’re able to adjust, assess, discover our strengths, and come back up with a better perspective than when we headed into the darkness.
“Trauma, hardship, discomfort can all add to our resilience, our personal awareness, and the way we engage and appreciate the relationships in our lives,” she says.