Love During Lockdown: Survey Shows How Couples Have Coped
As U.S. states issued stay-at-home orders in March and April, one of many questions was how couples would fare under lockdown together. Now a new survey offers an initial snapshot: some more arguments, regular declarations of love, and a good dose of same-old, same-old.
The survey included close to 2,300 U.S. adults who were living with their partner when the pandemic hit -- forcing most to hunker down at home.
For some couples, the extra together time caused friction: One-quarter of respondents admitted to more arguments with their partner.
However, about as many claimed to be squabbling less than usual, while the remaining half were maintaining their status quo.
Many couples were holding steady when it came to sex, as well. Two-thirds of respondents said they were having sex with their partner at their normal frequency -- which, on average, worked out to the awkward statistic of 2.5 times per week.
Some people -- 16% -- were having sex less often than their norm, but even more (28%) said their sex lives had heated up since lockdown.
Researchers said it's no surprise that U.S. couples are having a range of experiences. Much depends on what their relationships were like before lockdown, and what their present circumstances are like -- a cramped apartment versus a spacious home, or financial security versus insecurity.
"For couples who were already in a strained relationship, this probably created even more strain," said lead researcher David Frederick, an associate professor of health psychology at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
And yes, he said, there's a distinct possibility that strain will lead to breakups -- as research into other traumatic events, like the 9/11 attacks, has found.
"A disaster or pandemic can push some couples to become more stressed and argue more, leading them to break up," Frederick said. "It can also make them question if this is the relationship they want to spend their life in."
Dr. Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Boston, agreed that some people have likely been rethinking their lives and plans for the future. In lockdown, she said, "you can't distract yourself in the ways you used to."
To the extent that people use that time to self-reflect, Olds said, some might decide their current relationship is not what they want.
That's one side of things. Most couples surveyed, however, reported no big changes in their relationship, or said they were arguing less, or having sex more often.
And overall, 84% said they and their partner exchanged an "I love you" at least three times a week. Almost two-thirds were snuggling and cuddling that often.
"For some couples," Frederick said, "the safer-at-home order was a positive shock to the system. It allowed them to spend more time together and to become more emotionally and physically intimate."
So for them, the current moves toward reopening may actually be an issue -- as the old routines and distractions return.
"Holding on to what's been good may be challenging," said Dr. Richard Schwartz, who is also a psychiatrist at McLean -- and married to Olds.
His advice was straightforward: Talk about what you enjoyed during your time home together, and figure out ways to carry it through.
Olds pointed to something people often forget, pandemic or no pandemic: "A relationship is always a work-in-progress," she said. "There can be a thousand little things you can tweak over time."
That doesn't mean constant hard work. Instead, many people may need to be more selective with their time and energy.
"Maybe you decide you don't need to get so caught up in the little dramas at work anymore," Frederick said, as an example. In other research, on "regret," he noted, people generally do not wish they'd devoted more time to work -- but to family.
From one viewpoint, a positive about lockdown has been the lack of choices, according to Olds. People have not had all the usual events vying for their attention, and may have gained clarity on what matters most.
As reopening progresses, Olds advised resisting any temptation to return to "packing it all in," and instead maintain some boundaries around personal and family time.
The American Psychological Association has more on COVID-19 and mental health.
SOURCES: David Frederick, Ph.D., associate professor, health psychology, Chapman University, Orange, Calif.; Jacqueline Olds, M.D., consultant, psychiatry, adult psychiatry residency training program, McLean Hospital, Boston; Richard Schwartz, M.D., senior consultant, adult psychiatry residency training program, McLean Hospital