The pandemic was supposed to break relationships and drive a wave of divorces. But in reality, most couples have drawn closer.

The pandemic was supposed to break relationships and drive a wave of divorces. But in reality, most couples have drawn closer.

November 14, 2020
  • When the pandemic hit, many predicted that economic stress and forced quarantine would break a lot of relationships and marriages. 
  • A recent study by the couples app Paired and The Open University revealed that relationships were more likely to get better than worse during the pandemic. 
  • Hard times can lead us to draw closer to one another. 
  • Kevin Shanahan is the CEO of couples app, Paired. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When the pandemic hit, many couples and families were thrust into forced lockdown with one another. Some people foretold the demise of relationships and romance: would pandemic-induced financial stress and emotional turmoil lead to increased bickering, distance, and a divorce boom?

It's an interesting reflex to think that more time together might cause us more relationship problems. Certainly, being together 24 hours a day and absent our outside social support networks has led some couples to break stale or toxic relationships. In Washington, DC, some divorce law firms saw a 70% increase in the volume of calls. Other families are in the process of "restructuring" — not necessarily because the pandemic caused the demise of their relationship, but because it gave them the time and space to make changes that were a long time coming. 

While some relationships will certainly end during the pandemic, the reality for most couples might be far less dramatic than we think. 

Time spent together might have been just what some people needed.

According to a recent survey conducted by my couples app company Paired, in collaboration with The Open University, many couples are seeing their relationships improve instead of deteriorate. We surveyed approximately 2,800 adults in a relationship in the US and the UK, and found that relationships were more likely to get better during the pandemic than worse in both countries. 

Respondents said that they spent more quality time together than usual, gave each other more emotional support, engaged in hobbies together, and split household duties more equally than they had in the past. 

In the face of apocalyptic situations, or what we perceive to be "end times", humans want to find someone to brave the storm with. As Galit Atlas, a psychotherapist and professor at New York University, points out, "there is a lot of anxiety about the future right now, about the second wave of Covid…[p]eople talking about civil war and conspiracy theories and fear about the future. I do think that makes people not want to be alone."

Enduring hardship can also draw couples closer together. Researchers at Monmouth University observed that in the face of adversity "we turn to our partners," who can be a support system. Those same researchers found that over half of couples in the United States said they would come out of the quarantine with a stronger relationship than before. 

Newer relationships were either strengthened or fell apart, while older relationships stayed steady. 

Our data showed the pandemic had a polarizing effect on couples depending on the age of the partners and the length of the relationship. In other words, younger couples or those with shorter relationship lifespans were more likely to either strengthen or worsen their relationship during the pandemic, while older couples or those who had been together for a longer period of time were more likely to have a steady relationship quality.

One interpretation of this is that the challenges of the pandemic were more likely to 'make-or-break' newer relationships. For example, moving in together in an haphazard way or not being able to spend time together can either worsen a relationship or prompt people to make extra effort to make things work. Longer and more committed relationships may be more stable in the face of changes. 

Even if relationships overall were more likely to improve, this doesn't mean that arguments and uncomfortable conversations haven't happened for couples. With unstable economic conditions, a contagious disease running rampant, and uncertainty over when this will all end, tensions can run high. But along with these strong feelings, other strong emotions can be accessed, too.

A big piece of growing closer together is unearthing feelings that have been suppressed, or discussing the taboo topics we generally skirt around. Dr. Terri Orbuch, professor at Oakland University and research scientist who wrote "5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great," found in her ongoing study of 373 couples for over 30 years that, "When couples shared their anxieties, concerns and fears with each other in a constructive manner, rather than let them fester and grow, they were happier in their relationship over time." 

We will always remember this era of our lives and will no doubt be changed for it. But that change can also be something that shifts the way we look at those we love and our lives together. Whether that means we stay together —or not — might be the one thing we can thank the pandemic for.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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