During the pandemic, many of us were locked down with little face-to-face contact with anybody other than our partners. Considering the stress of the time and the intensely close quarters we were in, you would be forgiven for thinking this was a recipe for serious tension.
A new study, however, suggests the reality might not be so cut and dry. Writing in Social Psychological and Personality Science, a team led by Lisa A. Neff from The University of Texas at Austin found that the pandemic actually played an important part in people’s ability to deal with stress. When couples blamed their levels of stress on the pandemic, the team found, they were happier in their relationship.
Participants were people living with their partner during the lockdown in the United States, who completed daily measures for 14 days during the April lockdown and then again seven months later (almost all couples were heterosexual, though several participants were non-binary).
In each questionnaire, participants indicated on a scale from one to five how much they blamed themselves, their partner, and the pandemic for their current levels of stress or problems. Next, participants were presented with eleven different parts of their life, from work to finances to household chores, and were asked to indicate how stressful or problematic that element of life had been that day. They also completed measures of relationship satisfaction, and indicated whether they had performed any negative behaviours towards their partner (e.g. criticising or directing anger towards their partner, or acting withdrawn or distant).
During both waves of the study, participants on the whole were more likely to blame the pandemic for feelings of stress than they were themselves or their partners. And blaming the pandemic seemed to be beneficial for 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 did not. They also reported behaving in fewer negative ways towards their partners, again suggesting that the act of blaming the pandemic acted as a buffering force in romantic relationships.
For female participants, the pandemic seemed to act as a “scapegoat”, as the team put it, which can protect relationships from undue stress. The team suggests that stress “spillover” — the spilling of external stressors like work into a relationship — was lessened due to heightened stress awareness and ability to blame a massive global event which was a very obvious source of stress. (Of course, it’s important to remember that many people have struggled with their relationships during the pandemic, and in some cases the unique combination of factors thrown up by coronavirus really was a recipe for divorce.)
This spillover was also positioned as a reason why women participants were more likely to benefit from blaming the pandemic than men. Other research has suggested women experienced more distress during the pandemic, as well as more dissatisfaction with the allocation of tasks at home and their work-life balance. Women may therefore be more vulnerable to stress spillover — and this could be why they benefited more from blaming the stress on the pandemic.
Future work could look at periods of more intense stress. Although the pandemic as a whole was stressful for many, most participants in this study were experiencing low levels of stress on a daily basis; the daily diary method may also have felt labour intensive for those experiencing high levels of stress, leading them to drop out.
People may also have been blaming their stress on the pandemic precisely because it was caused by the pandemic: it’s not hard to imagine, for example, that stress and bad feelings have been triggered by pandemic-induced job insecurity, concerns about vulnerable relatives, or the monotony of lockdown. If that’s the case, it’s not a huge surprise that participants were happier in their relationship on days they blamed the pandemic — because there might not be anything wrong with their relationship to begin with.
On the whole, however, the findings suggest that relationships can thrive — or at least survive — when couples are aware of stress and feel able to discuss it openly: advice that probably holds outside of a pandemic as much as it does in.