Commentary: COVID-19 changed relationships so what happens when things normalise?
With the blurring of work and home life, relationships came under strain but now that countries are planning for life beyond COVID-19, clinical psychologist Annabelle Chow says we should keep some of the experience we gained in the last two years.
SINGAPORE: I need only to look back upon the many disagreements I have had (and still have) with my husband to feel the impact of COVID-19 on my relationship. Even now, we still disagree on what activities we should do as a couple or family. But more on this later.
I know I am not alone. All relationships have been tested from the time we were in lockdown together to still working from home and juggling family duties.
A recent study conducted by Dr Tan Poh Lin, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, together with her colleagues from Yale University, found that Singaporean mothers’ marital satisfaction and life satisfaction decreased significantly from before the lockdown and after it ended.
Her study found that Singaporean mothers had a pre-lockdown mean marital satisfaction score of 3.9 that dropped to 3.6 during the lockdown and remained the same. Life satisfaction mean scores for Singaporean mothers dropped to 3.4 from a pre-lockdown mean of 3.8.
The pandemic has certainly changed relationships, but how?
LOWERED EXPECTATIONS OF THE RELATIONSHIP
The blurring of traditional markers defining a partner’s personal time and space is significant. In pre-COVID times, work was done at the workplace wherever that might be - at the office, a factory, a client’s premises, or on-the-go. Social engagements also revolved around a range of possible venues such as restaurants, social clubs and bars.
During the height of COVID-19 restrictions, married or cohabitating couples were cooped up working at home, often in a no larger than a medium-sized apartment. Several couples in therapy shared that they spent almost all their time with each other.
They were concerned about the lack of “alone” time or time “outside” the relationship. Some felt as though living in such close quarters for an extended period took away the personal time and space needed to work on their emotional and psychological well-being.
More specifically, the dynamics of romantic relationships changed - being confined to the same space and possibly overexposed to each other increased the chances of bickering and disagreements, hence weakening the relationship.
Anxieties about the pandemic, a paucity of available social activities, reduced opportunities to engage in personal hobbies and activities outside of the relationship, created stress in relationships and in turn set the scene for more frequent arguments.
Some couples shared that even how and how often to purchase groceries sparked conflict. When vaccinations became a key lever in the fight against the virus, this became an added stress to couples who held different beliefs.
These constant stress-induced conflicts, over a prolonged period has a direct impact on the frequency of intimate and pleasurable behaviours such as hugging, kissing or holding hands.
If they don’t make deliberate efforts to engage each other in meaningful activities or conversations, interactions become dull and boring - something couples shared with me. Over time, we come to maintain lower expectations of the relationship and both partners become unmotivated or disinterested in improving the relationship.
LACK OF SPACE - BOTH PHYSICAL AND MENTAL
Being confined in the same residence also means a lack of physical safe space for each party to retreat to and calm down when tensions arise. It becomes a lot harder to walk away from a dispute even if for a while, seek external advice or community resources, or to develop an exit strategy from a toxic relationship.
Unsurprisingly, the Singapore Police Force and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Family Violence Specialist Centres (FVSCs) reported an increase in reported family violence cases during the “circuit breaker”.
While divorce (and marriage) rates appeared to have reduced in 2020, senior family lawyers in Singapore have reported an increase in the number of handled divorce applications and personal protection order (PPO) cases in 2020 and 2021.
With cases still high, working from home (WFH) is still the default arrangement even as more employees are heading back to the office. Many couples tell me that they feel like they are in “survival” mode while working from home and have become dissatisfied with their lives.
Many juggle the demands of work and children within the confines of a small apartment while trying to keep everyone alive. It becomes easy to prioritise resolving an immediate work, household or personal matter instead of our own emotional and psychological needs or the needs of our loved ones.
OUR ACTIONS HAVE REAL IMPACT ON OUR PARTNERS
A last but important point - I said at the start I would return to it - is that the COVID-19 situation painfully highlights that our actions and decisions have a real impact on our partners.
My husband and I often have lengthy conversations about where and when we can go for date nights out, the places to take our children to, or whether to meet with friends.
The disagreements essentially centre around the level of risk we are willing to take. While I take a conservative approach in limiting social activities, my husband takes what he calls a “balanced” approach in trying to maintain social activities as much as prevailing regulations allow.
Because of the pandemic, our personal choices now have a real impact on our partners and loved ones. In my desire to limit the risk of infection to myself, my two young boys, and my husband, I have effectively lowered in priority, unknowingly, the importance my husband has placed on maintaining a social life and a connection outside our home.
Similarly, by frequently suggesting that we go to cinemas for date nights without the kids (he has stopped asking) or visiting friends at restaurants, I felt that he neglected the sacrifices I am making to keep us and our family safe.
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THE SILVER LINING - WEATHERING THE STORM TOGETHER
Yet, all is not bleak. There is also data to show that there are positive outcomes too. Being able to spend more time with your partner and focusing on the relationship was one factor that came up frequently.
So why were there relationships that thrived and why do some couples can react and cope with stressors more positively than others?
There is one powerful tool that we use in psychology we call “dialectical thinking”. The root word, dialectic, is the process of distilling the truth through rational discourse. In psychology, understanding dialectics means there is often more than one way to approach a problem.
Two seemingly opposite ideas can be true at the same time. For example, it might be true that my husband promised to shoulder a larger mental responsibility within the household, but it might also be true that he has been trying his best with his limited experience (few husbands - certainly not mine - have experience in independently running a household by themselves!).
Simply put, dialectical thinking is the capacity to discuss an issue from different, often diametrically opposed angles, so that parties can transform a negative discourse into a positive one. It acknowledges that life, like our COVID-19 and safe travel rules, are constantly in flux and changeable.
In my experience, couples who acknowledged that the restrictions were difficult but embraced them and viewed it as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with their partner fared better. Compared to those who focused solely on the inconveniences of lockdown.
For example, Singaporean fathers reported making the best of staying home by understanding more about their wives and children’s daily routine. In doing so, data shows they were rewarded with stronger bonds.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, stress and its accompanying negative emotions in manageable amounts, can be beneficial in strengthening romantic relationships.
Some of my clients tell me experiencing hardship together allowed them to learn about each other’s coping mechanisms. When we take this holistic view of a person - whether a romantic partner, a parent, a friend, a loved one - we come to understand that we are all a mix of good and less ideal attributes.
During a conflict, approaching a problem dialectically allows partners to acknowledge and accept this discord but stay hopeful in resolving conflicts.
But don’t be disheartened if the conflicts are not resolved. Research from the Gottman Institute suggests that approximately 69 per cent of conflicts in a relationship are unsolvable.
So, the key here isn’t really to resolve every conflict that arises, but to constructively manage conflict around unsolvable problems using dialectical thinking as one tool as part of your psychological tool kit.
Just as the current Omicron wave will pass, life and our relationships will get back to normal but perhaps enriched by the storms we had to weather together. My husband is still hopeful we can spend date night at a cinema but at least we’ve progressed to having an occasional drink at the bar.
Dr Annabelle Chow is Principal Clinical Psychologist at Annabelle Psychology.