New Research Suggests that Blaming COVID For Your Partners Behavior Can Help Your Relationship

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Where you place the blame for your partner’s negative behavior can impact how you view them and how you view your relationship.

Source: Behavioral Couples Therapy (CC BY 3.0)

Major stressors such as large natural disasters, terrorist attacks or pandemics are believed to quickly overburden the community wide support network, leaving people to turn to those closest to them for help in coping with these types of crises. This tendency has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the unusual circumstances that have resulted.

Suddenly people everywhere have been required to shelter in place leaving them isolated at home with only their families for company for months. Everything done out of the home has now been moved into it. People are working from home and children attend school remotely. Any kind of physical contact between people outside the home is largely banned and masks combined with social distancing further remove some of the intimacy from our lives.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing people to remain indoors together constantly, there was a lot of curiosity and anecdotal reports about what this was doing to relationships. The research that had been done up to that point looking at this question involved people staying home because of recommendations not because it was ordered. These studies also involved situations which included only small segments of society, not the world at large and involved people who reported on their relationships after the crisis had been resolved.

Once the stay-at-home order was put into place because of COVID-19, researchers started looking at the question of how required co-habitation was affecting our relationships from a scientific point of view. This new study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin examined relationships during an ongoing crisis, involving mandatory isolation. It demonstrated some unpredicted results.

Many researchers have suggested that we are always trying to determine why people do what they do. The causes we attribute to other people’s behavior or attributions that we make about effect the way we perceive them and how we feel about them. For example, if our partner snaps at us for forgetting to do something when we were overwhelmingly busy, is it because they are a jerk or because they had a particularly stressful day?

This study examined the attributions that partners made about each other’s behavior and how those attributions affected the quality of their relationship during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals provided data right before the onset of the pandemic (December, 2019) and twice during the early months after the pandemic began (March and April, 2020).

Research has long demonstrated that when we look at negative behavior in others, we attribute it to long lasting or permanent internal attributes such as their personality, motives or beliefs. This makes it easier for us to blame them for what they are doing. This is a dispositional attribution which attributes the cause of behavior to an internal characteristic not outside forces. Dispositional attributions lead to what is known as the fundamental attribution error.

On the other hand, when the negative behavior is our own, we are more likely to blame an external attribute of the situation that we had no control over meaning that it didn’t indicate anything about who we were as a person. This makes it easier for us to dismiss our own negative behavior as not being our fault. This is a self-serving bias.

The results of the current study, however showed a different pattern. Instead of attributing a partner’s negative behavior on dispositional characteristics, people tended to become more forgiving and less blaming of these behaviors attributing them less to internal characters and more to an external factor, the pandemic. This could be explained by the significance of the pandemic as a stressor making it easier for people to see it as a potential cause for their partner’s behavior compared with smaller stressors that we experience on a daily basis. Though it’s too soon to tell, the pandemic may have helped us recognize the effects of stress on the behavior of those in our lives and to become more understanding when someone important to us acts in a negative manner.

So, the next time your partner forgets to take out the trash or gets upset when you didn’t do the laundry even though they were just as capable of doing it, put the blame on the pandemic instead of on them. It just might help your relationship.

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Chicago, IL

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