Partners' company helps us stay connected during pandemic

February 21, 2021

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Partners' company helps us stay connected during pandemic

This is, perhaps, the most socially important study of the week.

COVID-19 will soon not be the pestilence that it is. And with it will go the measures such as lockdowns and travel restrictions that have become part of the lives of most people on the planet. But the epidemic of loneliness and social separation preceded the pandemic and was only exacerbated by it.

This research looked specifically at one of the problems associated with loneliness arising from COVID-19, but it has relevance to our increasingly unconnected lives (except in the social media sense—and social media use has been shown to increase isolation).

A pair of studies reveal that living with a romantic partner helps people feel more socially connected during COVID-19. But no other pandemic-era social dynamic carries notable benefits, the researchers found: not your kids, not kibitzing with your bestie on Facetime, and not your adorable-adoring pets.

What the researchers say: “Research prior to the pandemic has long shown that partners are one of the strongest predictors of social connection and well-being,” said the lead researcher. “And our research during the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown the same. Living with a partner uniquely buffered declines in social connection during the early phases of the pandemic.”

By April 2020 in the US and many other parts of the world, many workplaces and stores had been shuttered, and social distancing measures had been implemented. The social existence of many people was relegated to the four walls of their homes, and their families became their only social connections.

The effectiveness of social distancing in reducing virus transmission had been established even before COVID-19. Researchers were curious about how to protect psychological health when such measures are in place.

The first study was conducted in Canada and included 548 undergraduate students. The second was conducted in the United States and United Kingdom and included 336 participants.

In the studies, participants reported their perceived social connection before and during the pandemic. They were asked to rate statements such as “I felt close and connected with other people who are important to me” and “People are around me, but not with me.” They were also asked to declare their social distancing adherence and whether they travel outside of the home for work.

Looking at participants before and during the pandemic, the authors wrote that people living with a romantic partner were most likely to improve in social connection after social distancing measures.

But the size of one’s household during the pandemic made little difference in feelings of social connectedness. Nor did being in the company of one’s children, or one’s pets. Working outside the home did nothing to help people feel socially connected, nor did video calls with friends and family.

“Living with a partner—but not how many people or who else one lives with—appeared to confer benefit during these uncertain and unprecedented times,” the authors wrote.

Researchers wrote the finding is consistent with past research that affirms romantic relationships lead to a greater sense of wellbeing and feeling connected. “In part,” the authors wrote, “because happier people are more likely to find partners.”

So, what? More people than ever are living alone. There has been a decline in marriage and partner stability over the last 40 years. There are more single-parent households—indeed many women are opting for single motherhood.

Research has also shown that older single people are far less likely to move in with a romantic partner, increasing their risk of loneliness.

Much of the decrease in relational stability can be tied to the influence of social media. But it can also be connected to social and job pressures. Working from home reduces the opportunities for the kind of gradual commonality building which leads to stable romantic relationships.

However, the most startling finding from this research is that the workplace itself does not provide social connection. This finding will need a great deal more study.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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