Pandemic Stress Has Varying Impacts on Couples’ Relationships

People with pre-existing struggles face greatest hardships, UMass Amherst research finds
Paula Pietromonaco
Paula Pietromonaco

AMHERST, Mass. – In two new papers, a University of Massachusetts Amherst social psychologist and colleagues in New Zealand explore and predict the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on couples’ relationships and identify ways to support partners in crisis.

How the pandemic has affected couples’ relationships depends on the internal and external stresses they’re facing, as well as their individual vulnerabilities, says Paula Pietromonaco, professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences.

“There’s huge variability in couples’ experiences,” says Pietromonaco, who in a theoretical paper published in American Psychologist applied relationship science to predict which couples’ relationships would likely face the greatest hardships from COVID-19. “People already struggling before the pandemic are going to be hit harder.”

Pandemic stresses may undermine couples’ relationship quality by increasing harmful processes such as hostility and withdrawal. Pietromonaco points out that different strategies for different groups of couples are needed to alleviate the disruption the pandemic has caused.

For example, couples whose relationships are suffering because they’re facing severe economic hardships can best be helped by policy interventions. “Some couples don’t even know if they can stay in the place they live, or they’ve lost their job. They have to devote their resources to figuring out how to pay the rent and get food and take care of their children,” Pietromonaco says. “For those couples, we need policies that help support them – that give them money, job training, childcare and health care.”

Another group of couples experiencing stress, though not in financial crisis, might benefit from learning techniques such as effective communication and how to give responsive support to their partner.

Finally, for some couples, including financially stable retirees and empty nesters, the pandemic may actually have created an environment in which their relationships have improved and even thrived. “Some couples may be able to benefit from spending more time with their partner, from doing more fun things together,” Pietromonaco says. “If they’re not worried about paying the rent and buying food, they may actually enjoy themselves and see their relationship grow. They may be resilient and flourish.”

In the second paper, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Pietromonaco and New Zealand colleague Nickola Overall, professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, had an opportunity to test some of their predictions in the theory-based work.

They examined the impact of attachment insecurity, a pre-existing relationship vulnerability that was assessed before the pandemic, on relationship functioning as couples in New Zealand coped with the stress of a stringent quarantine order during the pandemic. “People with attachment insecurity really worry about their relationship and they want a lot of support and reassurance from their partners, more than most people can give,” Pietromonaco explains.

In a study comparing relationship functioning before the pandemic and during the quarantine, the researchers found that having a partner with attachment insecurity predicted greater relationship problems, lower relationship quality and a less stable and cohesive family environment during the quarantine – but only when people also experienced high life stress.

“The stress of the pandemic, when combined with having a partner who needs a lot of support, impacts the relationship in a negative way,” Pietromonaco says. “The cool thing is we actually had data collected before the pandemic and were able to make that comparison.”

The data also helps advance relationship science models that seek to predict the effects of stress on the quality and stability of relationships.

“The effects of partners’ pre-existing vulnerabilities and pandemic-related stress demonstrate the utility of key models in relationship science in identifying who is at most risk of relationship problems in the unprecedented context of a mandated quarantine” the paper states. “The results emphasize that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on relationship functioning will be shaped by the characteristics of partners with whom people are confined during the pandemic.”