Impact of COVID-19 on Relationship Conflict and Sexuality
New couples research enhances our understanding.
COVID-19 has resulted in widespread quarantine orders in much of the world. We are social animals, and staying at home—with some advantages—presents a strain, which may be more or less challenging depending on how we cope. While opportunities for resilience and post-traumatic growth abound, it is undeniably a difficult time for many. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study polled U.S. adults and found that over half reported negative mental health impacts due to COVID-related distress, up from 32 percent in March.
COVID and Relationships
While there are a large number of studies published almost daily about the mental health impact of COVID from around the globe, less research has looked at the impact on intimate relationships. In China, divorce filings reportedly increased in the wake of COVID. Being confronted with challenges often creates a tipping point, where couples can either work on things or having increasing difficulty, though we are adept at maintaining the status quo even when very unhappy for reasons including attachment style and external factors.
How has COVID-19 impacted relationship intimacy and sexuality in the United States?
To initially explore this question, Maya Luetke, Devon Hensel, Debby Herbenick and Molly Rosenberg from the Indiana University School of Public Health and Indiana University School of Medicine conducted a survey in mid-April of a nationally representative sample of U.S. residents.
They were asked about demographic characteristics (age, ethnicity, economic factors, educational level, etc.); whether they were experiencing elevated relationship tension, and to what extent; whether intimate and sexual activity had changed since COVID-19 started, including specific focus on the following behavior types: “(1) hugged, kissed, held hands with or cuddled with a romantic/sexual partner; (2) masturbated by yourself; (3) masturbated together with a partner or touched each other’s genitals ... (4) gave or received oral sex; and (5) engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse." Participants reporting recent sexual intimacy were asked about changes in orgasm and emotional closeness. Researchers also looked at severity of loneliness and depression.
Of the 1,010 survey participants, 742 reported being in a relationship. They were 51 percent women, 66 percent White, 10 percent Black, 16 percent Hispanic, and 8 other or mixed ethnicity. The majority were living with a partner or married, 81 percent of the sample, 11 percent were not married but in a relationship, and the remaining percent separated, divorced or widowed. Twenty-five percent reported having children age 12 or younger living at home.
Of the 742 partnered respondents, 34 percent reported increased relationship conflict and decreased intimacy. They reported less hugging, kissing, cuddling or holding hands and solo masturbation three times more often. They were nearly seven times more likely to report decreased giving or receiving or oral sex and almost six times more likely to reported decreased shared masturbation and genital touching. They reported decreased penile-vaginal intercourse four times more often than those without COVID conflict.
Rates of depression and loneliness were significantly higher among those reporting COVID conflict, older participants were less likely to report conflict, and there was no significant difference between relationship conflict for men and women.
These findings are relevant because, in spite of limitations, they are found in a broad sample of Americans. COVID-19, at least early on in the pandemic, was associated with a significant increase in relationship conflict, with a strong negative difference in sexual and intimate behaviors among those with conflict. Follow-up research is needed to see how relationship and sexual issues change as the pandemic continues.
Those reporting increased COVID-related conflict also reported significantly higher rates of loneliness and depression, highlighting the interrelationship among overall well-being and sexual and relationship satisfaction. Paying attention to relationship quality is of increasing importance to maintain and improve individual physical and emotional well-being, especially in the face of prolonged distress.
Making sure resources are earmarked for the relationship itself can be challenging, especially for less experienced couples who may be inclined to avoid dealing with issues (as compared with older couples who have learned how to work things out, reporting greater relationship satisfaction even though sexual satisfaction decreases for many older couples). Couples can proactively work on the relationship together—while carving out sufficient individual time, especially when stuck in close quarters.
Couples can use this research as a starting point to discuss relationship conflict and the impact on intimacy, focusing attention on specific behaviors that may be in decline, especially the most intimate ones. For couples having difficulty making progress and who may be reluctant to seek help until things get even worse, seeking an expert consultant is important to consider.
The study presumably focused on heterosexual couples as no mention was made of sexual orientation and some outcomes were exclusively heterosexual.
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Grant Hilary Brenner, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, helps adults with mood and anxiety conditions, and works on many levels to help unleash their full capacities and live and love well.