young couple with backs to each other

URBANA, Ill. – The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every area of daily life – work, school, leisure, and yes, even our relationship with our spouse or romantic partner. However, emerging research suggests the pandemic is having rather opposing effects on couples, leading some couples to grow further apart and others to grow closer together.

A recent study by the American Family Survey confirms this, noting that “husbands’ and wives’ commitment to one another has deepened” in about half of couples and that divorce is likely to fall, at least in the short term. For others, the experience of the pandemic and the additional stressors associated with it has resulted in quite the opposite experience. As one individual plainly described in a Washington Post story, “My marriage had preexisting conditions, and COVID killed it.” The AFS study also notes that the increased stressors and the resulting family fallout from the pandemic “seems to have hit working-class and poor couples especially hard.”

University of Illinois Extension Educator Tessa Hobbs-Curley emphasizes many of the same concerns. “COVID-19 has created stress for many couples. Tension increases due to the uncertainty of one’s future: economics, health concerns, and more. Stress can spill over to our personal lives and affect the quality of our close relationships,” Hobbs-Curley says.

Sudden widespread job losses have created financial uncertainty and hardship, as well as a lack of stability in housing situations for many couples and families. These issues, combined with the increased stress created for all couples by the pandemic, can prove especially damaging to relationships, particularly for couples whose relationship was already in a bit of a rough spot and had some underlying issues or unaddressed conflicts.

So, what can couples do to keep their marriage strong?

For insights, Hobbs-Curley points to a recent publication from Scott Stanley and Howard Markman, co-directors of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. In the article, Stanley and Markman discuss ways to help couples struggling in the shadow of COVID-19. The authors note that many people find themselves in a world that feels unsafe, fostering high levels of stress and anxiety and threatening fundamental safety needs that support strong, healthy relationships. As a result, it becomes all the more important to preserve and maintain safety in the relationship – physical safety, emotional safety, and commitment safety.

Emotional safety – or the extent to which both partners feel understood and loved, part of a team, and able to talk through challenging relationship issues – can be threatened by the challenges associated with COVID-19, Hobbs-Curley says. When couples are facing more challenges and time together, as well as loss of routine and access to the things that may have kept them connected to each other, such as traveling or going out to dinner, it’s much easier for conflicts to escalate. 

“Changes that must be made in light of COVID-19 will replace quality time together with preoccupation with how to cope with other changes in their lives,” Stanley and Markman report. For couples who already had a fragile system of mutual support or who depended on a community of support around them, the increased social isolation necessitated by the pandemic could prove especially damaging.

It is also important for couples to learn to recognize the danger of allowing an emotional impulse in a moment of frustration to undermine the sense of a future for the relationship, especially in a time when everything else around them seems so uncertain. This can be extremely difficult to accomplish alone, in a compressed environment, and under increased stress.

But with the launch of a new program, couples in Illinois do not have to get through this pandemic alone. In fact, help is now just a click away. At the University of Illinoisfamily studies researchers have partnered with Illinois Extension to offer the Illinois Strong Couples Project, an online program for Illinois couples seeking help for their relationship. Participation is free and open to Illinois residents, aged 18 and older, and currently married, engaged, or living with their partner for at least six months. 

The project will use the ePREP program for couples, which is “one of the most scientifically based programs for strengthen couple relationships” according to Project Director Allen Barton, an assistant professor and Extension specialist at the University of Illinois. The entirely online program consists of six sessions, each taking about an hour for couples to complete. After every two sessions, there's a 20-minute coach check-in call, during which couples review the material and do some actual practice of what's been discussed.

For information about the project, as well as how to enroll, can be found at go.illinois.edu/IllinoisStrongCouples.

SOURCE: Tessa Hobbs-Curley, Family Life Educator, Illinois Extension
SOURCEAllen Barton, University of Illinois Assistant professor, Extension Specialist
WRITER: Nicole Stewart, Communications, Illinois Extension, extension@illinois.edu 

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.