After the initial shock of COVID-19 began to wear off and people around the globe settled into a new normal, the growing stresses related to the pandemic—worries over money, job security, and the responsibility of homeschooling children, among many other things—had some media outlets predicting a rise in pandemic-related divorces.
Relationship expert and Professor of Psychology Gary Lewandowski was hopeful that trend would not play out. But to be sure, he teamed up with Monmouth University Polling Institute and conducted a poll that not only determined that this prediction was unfounded, but that in fact some people felt their relationship had improved.
“There were a lot of surprises, but I was hoping for this,” Lewandowski says. “In a way, I think people have been much too negative about things and if people are buying into the narrative that the pandemic is going to make people fight all of the time and it’s going to lead to divorce, then that’s problematic—one, because our poll shows that’s just not true, and two, because it creates this norm or expectation from folks in relationships.”
The poll found that the vast majority (74%) of Americans in a romantic relationship reported that their relationships had not changed overall during the coronavirus outbreak. Of those polled, most people said the outbreak has not impacted how much they argue (70%) or changed their sex life (77%). But some reported that their relationship had in fact improved (17%) rather than worsened (5%); that they get into fewer arguments (18%) rather than more arguments (10%); and that their sex life has improved (9%) rather than worsened (5%).
“Three out of four people said, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty much the same,’” Lewandowski says. “But given the dire expectations and all of the craziness that we’ve all gone through, to say that our relationships haven’t changed—and when they do change, generally speaking they’re getting better based on these numbers—I think that’s pretty positive.”
While couples seem to be weathering the pandemic well, Lewandowski says there’s always room for improvement. Here are some of the ways he says you can support your partner during this time to ensure your relationship remains strong—or better yet, emerges stronger post-outbreak.
1. Communicate more often.
While some of those polled reported getting into arguments more often since quarantine began, a majority of people reported no change (70%) and some reported they were even arguing a little less often (9%) or a lot less often (9%) than normal. Lewandowski believes that because couples are likely spending a lot more time together due to quarantine, they are perhaps getting into smaller arguments more often rather than letting issues fester and turn into a huge blow up fight.
He says this is beneficial in many ways because it can lead to communicating more often and, perhaps, more openly.
“Be willing to engage with your partner and discuss what’s on your mind,” he says. “People generally try to avoid confrontation. And when you’re not around your partner that much, that is easy to do. But now that people are around each other so much it’s not as simple, and it’s actually better to engage and discuss problems as they arise versus letting them build up.”
2. Look at this as a new challenge.
Lewandowski says research shows that couples who engage in new and challenging activities together report having stronger relationships partly because taking on a new challenge—even if it’s stressful—increases one’s sense of self.
Along these lines, research also shows that couples who engage in more new and challenging activities together report having a better sex life with more satisfaction and more frequency. This may be why the poll shows that some reported that their sex life had gotten a little better (4%) or even a lot better (5%) during the pandemic.
“While a lot of what we’re all going through and experiencing is stressful, there are also elements of novelty where we’ve never done a lot of these things before. Sure, it’s challenging, but they are challenges that we’re overcoming together with our partner,” Lewandowski says. “We know when we effectively deal with challenges in a relationship—‘my partner and I are doing really well in dealing with this pandemic and so we feel stronger and more capable as a couple,’ it increases our satisfaction, the actual love that we feel for each other, and ultimately, our commitment.”
3. Be a responsive partner.
While the poll was largely positive, one negative trend showed that some reported that their relationship was actually causing an increase in their daily stress either a little bit (16%) or a lot (10%) verses those who said it decreased their daily stress either a little (5%) or a lot (9%). Lewandowski says that research shows that the negative impact of stress on relationships could be remedied in part by being a responsive partner.
“Being a responsive partner means that you’re someone who listens to your partner, you care what they think, you see things from their perspective and so we know if a partner is responsive, it mitigates some of the problems that stress causes,” he says.
He says a helpful way to view this is through the lens of another Monmouth University poll, which shows that 83% of people view their partner as their best friend.
“It’s a really useful way to think about your relationship because we already have useful standards for our friends—an ideal best friend, they’d be pretty responsive right?” he says. “So, if you’re having those discussions about someone being messy, and I’m complaining to you about being messy, but you’re responsive and can see my perspective and care that I care—that’s going to help our relationship.”
4. Keep on dating.
Lewandowski says something that is important, pandemic or not, is to make sure you continue to date as a couple and make time to focus solely on your relationship.
One activity that a couple can organize during this pandemic is a “Netflix and Spill” night, where a couple watches a movie, like a romantic comedy, and then uses that as a way to discuss their relationship.
“So, it’s Netflix and spill—about your relationship,” Lewandowski says. “That’s not just my suggestion, that’s based on research that shows that couples who watch a film together and discuss it report better relationships. And it’s a nice context because then it’s not me talking about you being the problem, it’s, ‘oh, can you believe that Meg Ryan is acting this way in this movie?’ It opens things up on more of a neutral ground.”
5. Try to look on the bright side.
While the pandemic is sure to challenge couples in unprecedented ways, Lewandowski suggests it’s important to remain positive and even optimistic in order to keep your relationship strong.
“Research shows that as long as one partner is optimistic, it helps both partners,” he says. “So even if one partner is kind of a downer and one’s an optimist, having at least one optimistic partner boosts relationship satisfaction.”
While the poll suggests that even though a majority believe their relationship has not changed, a majority of people (51%) believe their relationship will emerge stronger once the outbreak is over—perhaps more reflective of the true course that romantic relationships will follow.
“I was not surprised that so many people thought their relationship was going to be stronger… I think that’s definitely possible,” Lewandowski says. “And if people are maybe being overconfident and hopelessly optimistic, the research does show that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”