Of Emily Reynolds
During the pandemic, many of us were locked up and had little personal contact with anyone other than our partners. Given the stress of the time and the intense tightness we found ourselves in, one might think that this was a recipe for serious tension.
However, a new study suggests that the reality may not be that dry. Registered mail Social Psychology and Personality Science, A team led by Lisa A. Neff of the University of Texas at Austin found that the pandemic actually plays an important role in people’s ability to cope with stress. When couples attributed their stress to the pandemic, the team found that they were happier in their relationship.
Participants were people who lived with their partner during the lockdown in the US, who performed daily interventions for 14 days during the lockdown in April and then seven months later (almost all couples were straight, although some participants were not binary).
In each questionnaire, the participants indicated on a scale from one to five how much they hold themselves, their partner and the pandemic responsible for their current level of stress or problems. Next, participants were introduced to eleven different areas of their lives, from work to finances to household chores, and asked to indicate how stressful or problematic that aspect of life was that day. They also took measurements of relationship satisfaction and indicated whether they had exhibited negative behaviors towards their partner (e.g. directing criticism or anger towards their partner, or being withdrawn or distant).
In both waves of the study, participants were more likely to blame feelings of stress for the pandemic than they or their partners. And guilty of the pandemic seemed to be beneficial to their relationships, at least for the female participants: on days they found particularly stressful, women who blamed the pandemic for the stress reported greater satisfaction in their relationship than those who didn’t. They also reported feeling less negative about their partners, which in turn suggests that guilt for the pandemic has acted as a buffering force in romantic relationships.
For female participants, the pandemic seemed like a “scapegoat,” as the team put it, capable of protecting relationships from unnecessary stress. The team suggests that stress “spillover” – the spill over of external stressors such as work in a relationship – was reduced due to increased stress awareness and the ability to blame a massive global event that was a very obvious source of stress. (Of course, it’s important to remember that a lot of people to have struggled with their relationships during the pandemic, and in some cases the unique combination of factors that spawned the coronavirus was really a recipe for divorce.)
This spillover was also seen as a reason that female participants were more likely than men to benefit from the guilt of the pandemic. Other research has found that women experienced more stress and dissatisfaction with the distribution of tasks at home and their work-life balance during the pandemic. As a result, women may be more prone to stress spillover – and that could be why they benefited more from blaming the stress on the pandemic.
Future work could deal with times of intense stress. Although the pandemic as a whole was stressful for many, most of the participants in this study experienced low levels of stress on a daily basis; The daily journal method may have found itself labor intensive even for those with high levels of stress, leading them to drop out.
People may also have attributed their stress to the pandemic precisely because it was caused by the pandemic: It is not difficult to imagine that, for example, stress and bad feelings were triggered by the pandemic-related job insecurity, worries about vulnerable relatives or the monotony of lockdown . If so, it’s no great surprise that the days participants blamed the pandemic were happier in their relationship – because their relationship couldn’t be faulted from the start.
Overall, however, the results suggest that relationships thrive – or at least survive – when couples are aware of the stress and feel able to speak openly about it: advice that is likely to apply as well outside of a pandemic as it is in.
– To blame for the pandemic: Buffering the link between stress and relationship quality during the COVID-19 pandemic
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles