Throughout the evolving Covid-19 pandemic, couples have had to navigate a series of unexpected changes. Some had to adapt to working from home and generally spending a lot more time together. Others, such as those who work in health care, had precisely the opposite experience. Still others were infected with the virus or lost loved ones to it. For all of the varied experiences, though, one thing the pandemic has created for nearly all couples is increased stress.
But if increased stress in some form has been nearly universal, the actual effects of that stress on relationships are much less predictable. For decades, social science research has offered seemingly contradictory findings, with some studies showing that stress tends to drive couples apart and others showing that it can actually strengthen relationships. But why does stress seem to drive some couples apart and pull others together, and what can couples do to encourage favorable outcomes?
Since arriving on a Fullbright scholarship in 2017, Department of Psychology PhD student Esra Ascigil has been exploring those questions. “My research has always focused around couples dealing with stress,” she says. “Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of whether stressful situations can actually bring couples closer together. We know that in a stressful time supportive behaviors are crucial for both partners’ well-being and relationship quality. But there are also a lot of findings in the literature which suggest that people’s ability to provide that support may be impacted negatively by the stressful experience.”
Ascigil explains that one important variable identified in previous studies is the locus of the stress: is it an external stressor that the couple is overcoming together, or is it a stressor caused by issues with the relationship itself? As one might predict, prior research has shown that external stressors are more likely to have positive impacts on relationships, while internal stressors tend to drive couples apart.
Early in 2020, Ascigil and Dr. Amie Gordon of the Social Psychology area realized the pandemic offered a prime opportunity to investigate the effects of external stress on relationships. After all, what could be more “external” than the appearance of a novel virus?
“I wondered if Covid could be one of the conditions that brings couples closer together,” Ascigil says. “That was inspired partly by some previous findings about African American couples who experience discrimination, which is an external stressor and a chronic stressor for many people. I thought the pandemic had some of those same elements of being both external and long-lasting. Could it help bring couples closer as well?”
To answer that question, Ascigil and Gordon began a study that has so far gone through two phases. For the first phase, which began in April of 2020, they placed an ad on social media and Prolific to recruit couples. The selected couples then answered a survey consisting of both scaled-response questions (using a standard 1-7 agree-disagree scale) and open-text short-answer responses. For the second phase, which began in the spring of 2021, they sent a follow-up questionnaire to a subset of previous volunteers to analyze how their opinions and experiences may (or may not) have changed over time. This second, longitudinal subset consisted of couples in committed long-term relationships who had been quarantining together when they were initially recruited.
Although the open-text portion of the questionnaires have yet to be coded at the time of this writing, Ascigil and her team have already made some interesting—and perhaps counterintuitive—discoveries. Across both data subsets, they found that partners who were more stressed about the pandemic—that is, partners who were more worried about getting Covid or about the effects of the pandemic on their lives—were actually providing better pandemic-related support than those who were less concerned. In this case at least, individual stress did not appear to reduce partners’ ability to provide support; rather, it encouraged them to provide the kinds of more consistent support that may ultimately strengthen relationships.
But how could added stress increase—rather than decrease—a person’s ability to provide support? In this case, Ascigil explains, it may be partly due to the increased empathy created by both partners experiencing similar emotions about a shared stressor. Fundamentally, it may simply be easier for people who are themselves anxious about the pandemic to understand and support partners who are experiencing pandemic-related anxieties. “I think one reason the pandemic may be actually helping some relationships is simply because those partners understand each other, and it gives them an opportunity to come closer,” Ascigil suggests. Partners who are themselves less concerned about the pandemic, on the other hand, may be more likely to be dismissive of their partner’s fears or apathetic about providing support.
Moreover, the sheer externality (real or perceived) of the stressor involved may be a factor. “One thing I have been thinking a lot about lately is the nature of the kinds of shared experiences that seem to bring couples together. When it’s an external force applying stress, it’s just harder for couples to blame each other,” Ascigil observes. “You know, it’s a lot harder to say ‘this happened because of you’ about a pandemic!”
To dig deeper into these findings in a more controlled setting, Ascigil is now planning another study with Professor Robin Edelstein of the Personality and Social Contexts area. In that study, Ascigil, Edelstein, and a group of undergraduate research assistants will subject couples to various permutations of the Trier Social Stress Test, in which participants are required to speak and perform complex tasks in front of a less-than-supportive audience. The team will administer the test in versions in which either one or both partners are experiencing the stressor, which will allow them to observe how the couples’ communications and support vary depending on those conditions.
In the meantime, Ascigil’s research already has real-world implications for couples. Because partners who can better empathize with their partner’s needs are better equipped and more inclined to provide good support, learning how to communicate effectively about those needs is crucial. And because stressors that are perceived as shared and external are more likely to lead to feelings of solidarity and teamwork (rather than blame and resentment), learning how to reframe stressors as obstacles to overcome together may be one of couples’ most powerful tools for navigating stress and emerging from it stronger than ever.