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The state of our relationships in the COVID-19 era and beyond

As we near the end of 2020, we’re all thinking the same thing: 2021 can’t get here fast enough. Most people are longing to move on from quarantines, lockdowns, and daily updates about infection rates. But we shouldn’t be too eager to put 2020 behind us – as difficult as the past year has been, […]

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As we near the end of 2020, we’re all thinking the same thing: 2021 can’t get here fast enough. Most people are longing to move on from quarantines, lockdowns, and daily updates about infection rates. But we shouldn’t be too eager to put 2020 behind us – as difficult as the past year has been, it has also taught us a lot about the most important aspect of our lives: our relationships.

How have our relationships changed amid the relentless stresses of COVID-19? How are couples coping? What factors have led to the dissolution of relationships over the past year? What has kept people together? These are just a few of the questions Relish set out to answer with our first annual Relationship Health Report. We surveyed more than 1,700 people in the U.S. to determine how they have navigated (or failed to navigate) the pandemic with their partners, which provided a wide range of insights into why relationships either thrive or fall apart under strain.

Here are a few of our most important discoveries

1. Healthy relationships are integral to mental well-being. The most significant impact of COVID-19 has been its effect on our mental health, and this has direct implications for the health of our relationships. According to our survey, 58 percent of respondents cited mental health as the top impact of COVID-19, followed by financial stress (32 percent). There’s a clear connection between the quality of our relationships and our mental health – respondents who say they’re in happy relationships also report better mental health. Our findings are reinforced by other recent research, such as a 2020 study published in PLoS which found that, across every measure of mental health (such as depression, anxiety, and stress), those in good relationships score higher than those in bad relationships. In fact, from a mental health standpoint, it’s better to be in no relationship at all than to be in a bad one.

2. COVID-19 has made many relationships stronger. Although the pandemic has placed immense pressure on some relationships, it has also brought many couples closer together. While 31 percent of our respondents say their relationships have gotten worse during the pandemic, 27 percent say they’ve stayed the same and 41 percent say they’ve actually improved. Moreover, while our respondents say they’re having 15 percent less sex than before the pandemic, the number of people who report they’re having as much sex as they’d like remains unchanged.

Considering the fact that stress is negatively correlated with sexual activity, it isn’t surprising that respondents report having less sex in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and a massive economic contraction. However, it’s good news that couples say there’s a negligible gap between the amount of sex they prefer to have and how much sex they’re actually having. This means the decrease in sexual activity likely isn’t having a negative impact on relationship health overall. While this is a surprisingly encouraging finding, couples still need to ensure that they’re communicating about sex honestly and frequently.

It’s clear that a crisis like the pandemic can lead to the collapse of relationships – 20 percent of the people who broke up this year blame COVID-19. Meanwhile, 45 percent of our respondents say they’ve lost income because of the pandemic, and we found a strong association between income and mental health concerns (which are among the most prevalent reasons for breakups). Relationship satisfaction is lower when one member of the relationship has lost a job, and lower still when both members are without work. Our survey found that 70 percent of our respondents rated their stress level as a 7 out of 10 or higher during the pandemic, and stress can be destructive to relationships.

However, COVID-19 has also had several positive effects on relationships. Beyond the fact that 41 percent of respondents say their relationships have improved in a general sense, we found a 9 percent increase in how comfortable people feel sharing their private thoughts and feelings. Considering the fact that communication is by far the most frequently cited issue that led to a breakup (74 percent of respondents ranked it at the top), it’s a good sign that the pandemic has actually increased communication among some couples.

3. Couples should always focus on fairness, but especially during a pandemic. It’s essential to recognize that COVID-19 has set different expectations and imposed unique constraints on our partners. For example, consider how the pandemic has affected women versus men – our report found that more than twice as many women had quit their jobs as a result of COVID-19, while significantly more women also considered quitting or asked for reduced hours.

One of the major reasons for these disparities is the lack of access to childcare – according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 25 percent of women who are not working say it’s due to child care issues related to COVID-19. This proportion collapses to less than 10 percent for men. Our survey found that almost 20 percent of respondents don’t have access to adequate childcare – a proportion that has more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. On average, respondents who aren’t struggling to find childcare reported 7 percent higher relationship satisfaction.

Disparities in childcare should prompt us to think broadly about equity in relationships – particularly as the pandemic has upended our domestic routines and forced us to develop new norms around remote work, homeschooling, and so on. According to our survey, respondents who are very satisfied with the division of labor at home are 76 percent more satisfied in their relationships than those who are very dissatisfied with the division of labor, and they also reported 31 percent better mental health.

4. Couples need to keep phone use under control in each other’s company. A key finding from our research is that excessive phone usage can have a negative impact on our relationships. The amount of time we’re spending on our phones has increased by 23 percent this year, and 54 percent of respondents say their partners’ phone use affects their relationships. While 19 percent of respondents say they were spending 4 to 6 hours on their phones per day before COVID-19, 29 percent say they have spent this much time on their phones over the past six months.

Our surging phone use suggests that we’re becoming less connected with our partners during the pandemic, preferring the company of our screens to the people sitting right next to us. Considering the importance of communication, couples shouldn’t allow screen time to get in the way of quality time – which happy couples cited as the top contributor to the health of their relationships.

While the pandemic has inevitably caused tension between many couples, it has also reminded us what really matters in a relationship: communication, fairness, and a concern for each other’s emotional well-being. Some relationships have come undone in the COVID-19 era, but it’s possible that those who withstood this monumental challenge together will be all the stronger in the years to come.

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