As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into late summer, social distancing and quarantining behaviors have brought challenges to relationships for people of all ages. Couples in the beginning stages of their relationship have had to choose between sudden cohabitation or long distance, while married parents have found themselves juggling their jobs, housekeeping and around-the-clock child care. For those in unhealthy relationships, the situation has created serious consequences: Domestic violence has risen due to victims trapped with their abusers.
The sudden life changes brought on by the pandemic can affect any healthy relationship, experts say, but there are ways to productively navigate conflicts and problems. What people are experiencing in their relationships also varies by age, said Leslie Kantor, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Public Health who specializes in women’s sexual and reproductive health.
“If we think about high school students or young adults who may have come back to their parents’ homes because of COVID, there may be challenges with even having the opportunity to see a partner in person,” Kantor said. “For some younger people, there can be a little bit more of an overreliance on the physical aspect of a relationship as a way of being connected. So one positive might be that they develop more of an emotional vocabulary and intimacy that’s not physical as a result of social distancing.”
Kathleen Bogle, an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University, said that current dating behaviors remind her of how people had to navigate decision-making during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“The questions people are grappling with are remarkably similar,” she said. “People are asking themselves, ‘Who am I taking a risk for? Do I trust what this person is saying about how many other people they’ve seen? How locked down is their quarantine — are they breaking it just to meet up with me, or have they been seeing a bunch of people and are therefore higher risk?’”
Those conversations can be difficult because if one person is willing to risk more for the person they’re seeing, that can put a strain on the relationship, Bogle said.
“If you have to quarantine apart, there are virtual ways to stay connected like FaceTime and Zoom,” Bogle said. “But that’s easier to do when there’s an endgame in mind, like just for March and April.”
Kantor said that for married or cohabitating couples, having too much time together may create problems.
“It can lead to some bad habits like being over-involved in someone’s business or not carving out special time together,” she said. “But the good news is that there are still things people can do to try to keep their relationship fresh, like having a creative date night.”
Farida Boyer, a marriage and family therapist based in West Philadelphia, also stressed the importance of spending quality time together as a couple. That can help people listen to each other, she said, which can defuse tension from conflicts.
“You want to make sure the time you’re spending together is fruitful, not just passing it by,” Boyer said. “It’s important to make space for each person to express what they’re feeling. I can assume what you’re going through, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I have a clear understanding of how you feel.”
Bogle said she thinks overall, conflicts have increased, especially for married couples grappling with how to handle child care. Parents are used to schools taking care of that for most of the day, and now there’s “a battle of who does what at home, all day every day,” she said.
Differing opinions on what’s safe and what’s not may be another source of conflict.
“Maybe one person never wants to go to the grocery store, but the other person doesn’t like what the delivery person brings,” Bogle said. “If you’re just operating by yourself, you know what level of risk you’re willing to take. But maybe now you’re sleeping in the same bed with someone who is fine taking greater risks. A lot of couples have gotten into debates on all that.”
When it comes to conflict, Kantor said that one of the most important things you can do is to keep the focus on yourself. Letting the other person worry about their own behavior and patterns can help decrease the number of disagreements, she said.
“I always tell my friends and family that your partner is not your project,” Kantor said. “Right now is not the time to work on another person. If you want a project, you can work on yourself.”
If things get too tense, Boyer recommended taking a break, such as going for a walk. She also said now is a great time to seek professional help.
“Don’t just give up on your relationship,” Boyer said. “There are therapists out there who are trained to help people understand what’s going on in their relationship.”
And during such a difficult time, a little kindness can go a long way, Kantor said.
“Everybody should remember we’re living in an incredibly stressful time and context,” Kantor said. “It can be really helpful to remember that everyone is doing the best they can. We have to give each other a break.”