The pandemic provided an unexpected boost for couples, but new data show relationships are returning back to normal.
Early in the pandemic, relationships seemed doomed. Everyone was sure that lockdown's forced confinement would force couples to spend more time together, which would wreak havoc on relationships by creating conflict and enhancing stress. The crucible of closeness would drive couples apart.
But that didn't happen. For most relationships, the dire predictions were overblown. Certainly, relationships with preexisting conditions were at greater risk for turmoil. However, for most relationships, when it seemed like everything around us was getting worse, relationships got better.
Effects on Couples
According to Brigham Young University's 2021 American Family Survey of 3,000 adults, 12 percent fewer adults reported that their marriage was in trouble at some point in the last two years. In fact, 43 percent indicated that their marriage/relationship was stronger now than it had been two years ago, 54 percent thought the pandemic made them appreciate their partner more, and 42 percent said the pandemic deepened their commitment to their marriage/relationship. Similarly, a Monmouth University poll from January 2021 found that 7 in 10 respondents were extremely satisfied with their romantic relationship, an all-time high for that poll.
Our romantic relationships rose to the challenge of vaccine mandates, quarantines, and working from home. Rather than falling apart, couples fortified their connection. Looking ahead, half of those polled expected that their relationship would emerge stronger after the pandemic.
Couples were optimistic and eager to focus more time and attention on each other. We seemed poised for a newfound dedication to nurturing our relationships.
Effects on Daters
For those looking for love, that appears to have happened. Daters are moving away from casual hook-ups and toward more serious relationships. This new trend started in the first few weeks of lockdowns. At that time, OkCupid data showed “a 5% increase in OkCupid users looking for long-term relationships and a 20% decrease in users looking for hookups.”
More recently, data from Match.com’s 2021 Singles in America survey, featuring a demographically representative sample of 5,000 U.S. singles between the ages of 18 and 98, found that “Only 11% of singles want to date casually, while 62% say they seek more meaningful, committed relationships.” When asked what singles want in a long-term partner, only 78 percent mentioned physical attractiveness, down from 90 percent in 2020. Attractiveness now ranks lower than traits such as “someone I can trust and confide in” and a partner who “can communicate their wants and needs” (both mentioned by 84 percent of respondents). As Dr. Helen Fisher, chief science advisor at Match explains, "Looks are out, emotional maturity is in. Stability is the new sexy."
What’s prompted the change? Seventy-three percent of Match.com daters say that in the past year they got better at prioritizing what’s important in their lives. That shift toward what matters clearly values meaningful relationships. While daters are thriving, that’s not true for all relationships.
Returning to Prepandemic Routines
As life attempts a return to normal, we’re getting back to old routines. We’re heading back to the office, getting out of the house, and refilling our social calendars. Unfortunately, we’re also leaving our long-term relationships behind.
Data from a January 2022 Monmouth University Poll show that only 60 percent of respondents report being extremely satisfied with their relationship, a 10 percent decrease from 2021. Similarly, the number who say their partner is extremely important to their happiness (54 percent) is at an all-time low for that poll, down 12 percent from the previous year.
Are we already back to taking our relationship for granted? Sadly, it seems so.
Creating New, Positive Habits
Returning to “normal” may not be best for our relationship. It doesn’t have to be this way. While we have little control over COVID-19's long-tail physical effects, we can influence how COVID impacts our relationship. Just as daters are doing, established couples need to prioritize their relationship. Rather than allow our relationship to revert to its prepandemic form and take a backseat to other aspects of our lives, we need to leverage the positives of the pandemic's effects on relationships and create new habits.
That starts with time. The “great pause” forced us to spend more time together. Those quality moments led to lasting memories and stronger bonds. There are 168 hours in a week; how many is your relationship worth? Simply by spending four hours a week of nonnegotiable, dedicated time, committed to you and your partner can help. That’s especially true if you do activities that are "New, Interesting, Challenging, and Exciting" (N.I.C.E.) because they promote stronger relationships with more satisfaction, commitment, and love (Lewandowski, 2021). Those same impulses that led us to embrace breadmaking and bird-watching during the pandemic can carry over into our relationship. That means not only making time for uninterrupted dinners together but also continuing to branch out and try new things.
The pandemic also taught us a greater appreciation for mundane experiences like abundant toilet paper, stress-free trips to the grocery store, and the joy of breathing deeply outside, surrounded by nature. It can do the same for our relationship. Instead of nitpicking our partner’s faults, finding sources of friction, or focusing on the problems, let’s recognize what matters.
That means more gratitude for all the ways our romantic partner loves and supports us, for spending time with someone who knows us and accepts us, and for being in a relationship with a best friend. No partner or relationship is perfect. But, there’s a lot more going right than wrong. We just need to take the time to notice.
Relationships are misunderstood, which leads us to a lot of mistaken assumptions. Early in the pandemic, we worried that spending so much time together would put couples at risk. We shouldn't have. Now, as we return to normalcy, few seem concerned about the potential impact on relationships. Ironically, now is when they should worry. We’re slipping back into bad patterns that neglect our relationship.
Instead, we need to leverage the pandemic’s lessons about prioritizing what truly matters. If we do, COVID-19’s legacy for relationships can be a positive one.
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