I study the role of stress in relationships; when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, I of course wanted to know what effect it was having on relationships. What I found in my recently published research really surprised me.
More than 650 Americans reported on their relationship before and during the pandemic lockdown. Despite sheltering in place together while confronting the stress and chaos of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, people’s overall happiness with their partner did not suffer. Couples who were happy with their relationship before the pandemic stayed that way, and couples who were unhappy unfortunately stayed that way, too.
But relationships didn’t just stay the same – one aspect of couples’ relationships actually seems to have been improved by the pandemic.
The way that people think about and explain their partner’s behavior is what researchers call “attributions.” For example, if your partner snapped at you when you asked if they remembered to take out the trash, do you think this was because they are a selfish jerk, or because they had a stressful day today? Past research has shown that it is better for your relationship if you blame an external circumstance for your partner’s negative behavior (Karney & Bradbury, 2000). This, of course, doesn't mean accepting abusive behavior from your partner, but it means letting go of small transgressions instead of escalating them.
My research found that people were more likely to do this during the pandemic than they were before (Williamson, 2020). They significantly increased the healthy, external attributions they made for their partner’s less-than-ideal behaviors. In other words, they seemed to be blaming the pandemic.
The fact that stressors we experience outside of our relationship can “spill over” and cause us to behave badly in our relationship has been known to researchers for a long time (Randall & Bodenmann, 2017), but it can be difficult for couples to recognize this process in their day-to-day lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has had the unexpected positive outcome of helping people acknowledge the effect that stress can have on their partner and be more forgiving of it.
It makes sense that the pandemic was so enormous and omnipresent that its effects couldn’t be ignored. Past research has found that moderately severe stressors (compared to very minor or very severe stressors) are the most dangerous for relationships because they are big enough to affect us but small enough that their spillover effects may not be recognized (Tesser & Beach, 1998). As we approach the end of 2020, the changes brought about by the pandemic are no longer new and scary. Adjusting to the “new normal” may mean that we fall into the “moderate stress” danger zone – our partners are still stressed out and still sometimes treating us rudely, but we’re no longer recognizing their stress. That means that this hard-won lesson about stress spillover may be in danger of disappearing.
As we try to move on with our lives, don’t let this unexpected positive lesson from the pandemic be forgotten. When your partner gives you the cold shoulder, consider that it may be because they are stressed; it will likely be better for your relationship, and these days, it’s probably true.