Paula R. Pietromonaco is Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Editor of Emotion journal. She studies close relationship processes, emotion, and health. Her work focuses on how partners shape each other’s health-related physiological responses, and how individual differences and situational variables modulate relationship dynamics.
Transcription of the video
One aspect of social life that is clearly impacted by the current pandemic is couples’ relationships. As a result of quarantines and social distancing, married and cohabiting couples are spending more time in the same space; often, while they’re facing significant stress from an array of problems, such as financial losses, changes in their jobs or unemployment, lack of daycare and school closures and the daily stress of falling precautions to avoid contracting the virus. Some couples may be resilient in the face of these significant stressors and benefit from the opportunity to spend more time together, to work together, to solve problems, and to support each other. And by facing adversity together, their relationships may become even stronger in the long term. We know from a large body of research, that having supportive, well-functioning close relationships is closely tied to better emotional and physical health. And so an additional positive impact is that couples who are able to be resilient over time also may do better in terms of their health, and general wellbeing.
People will need wisdom about how to effectively communicate with their partner, especially about conflicts, as well as how to be supportive and responsive. Effective communication means avoiding being hostile and critical, giving your partner the benefit of the doubt when mistakes are made, and directly engaging in problem solving together as a team, with both partners being motivated and invested in improving the situation and willing to compromise when needed. Providing effective support means listening attentively to partner’s concerns and being responsive to and understanding your partner’s needs. For some partners, emotional support and comfort may be most helpful. Whereas for other partners providing concrete practical support may be most helpful. The pandemic also may open opportunities to expand and strengthen relationships not only through effective communication and support, but also by providing opportunities to spend more time together, to do enjoyable activities together, like playing a relaxing game or sharing happy memories. Because these types of activities build closest and allow for growth in a relationship.
I just suggested that some couples will capitalize on opportunities for growth in their relationships. But these are likely to be couples who are not particularly economically or socially vulnerable. We know from many research studies that when people are faced with stress that comes from outside the relationship, such as financial or job stress, they’re more likely to interact with their partner in ways that are potentially damaging to the relationship. They’re more likely to be overly critical, or argue, to blame their partner to find it harder to listen to their partner’s concerns and understand their partner’s perspective. And over time, they may become less satisfied with their relationship and may even break up. So couples who are most vulnerable, those facing the most severe economic hardship, also may suffer the most damage to their relationships over the long term.
There is tremendous variability in how the pandemic is affecting couples’ relationships, and how it may continue to do so even after the crisis ends. Couples who are struggling the most, who have major financial concerns have other vulnerable abilities such as emotional or physical illnesses, who have young children at home, or who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups, who are more likely to face severe stress from the pandemic, as well as stress from systemic inequality and discrimination are at the most risk for these couples. The wisdom will come initially from a societal effort to put in place social policies that will alleviate some of the burden and increase the likelihood that couples can effectively communicate and support each other. Couples who are not as vulnerable will do best if they practice communicating constructively, need a supportive caring partner, and engaging in positive enjoyable activities with their partner.
Realize that stress makes it harder for everyone to talk about problems in constructive relationship protecting ways and so it is especially important to give partners the benefit of the doubt rather than blame them and to keep in mind that the pandemic, not your relationship or your partner, is likely the primary cause of many problems people are experiencing and that eventually, the crisis will be over. And because supportive close relationships are closely tied to health, doing what you can to strengthen your relationship during this challenging time is also making an investment in your and your partner’s longer-term emotional and physical health.