Co-habitating and self-isolating: What does it mean for your relationship?

Humans crave connection: emotional, physical, sexual. But how will the way couples interact change when they are suddenly forced to be home together all day, every day?

Most people aren’t used to being in closed quarters with their spouse or partner for weeks on end, as the response to COVID-19 has prescribed that many of us do. So what happens to relationships? How do we work, live, play together and keep our relationships thriving? How do we nurture togetherness so we come out of the pandemic with stronger connections?

Amy Muise

Professor Amy Muise, a York Research Chair in relationships and sexuality and director of the SHaRe (Sexual Health and Relationships) lab at York University, says there are a lot of different challenges for couples who are self-isolating together.

Some people may not be getting their personal needs met, says Muise, citing those who have lost jobs or are struggling to work from home, and those that have had to shift their outside activities, like exercising, to work within stay-at-home parameters.

Fulfilling personal goals, such as those related to work, exercise or hobbies, can fuel confidence, but when these are threatened, it can translate to how we manage our relationships.

Add to that the fact that couples can’t do many of the activities they used to do to connect, and we can begin to see why relationships may struggle.

“It takes a while to build up the things in our lives that help facilitate our well-being and productivity – and that has shifted. A lot of the outlets we had might be gone or have changed drastically, and we may need to find new ways to connect with others and facilitate our well-being,” says Muise.

One area Muise has studied (outside of the COVID-19 pandemic) is the idea of self-expansion, and achieving it through relationships. For instance, doing new things with a partner and having new experiences with a partner can revive some of those feelings of relationship satisfaction, even in these longer-term relationships, when satisfaction often declines.

During a pandemic, this may require couples to “think outside the box” to embark on a novel experience and create opportunity to find new connections.

Maybe that’s exploring a new hobby together, or dressing up and having a date night at home, but finding new ways that can bring about positive experiences may help a relationship thrive even during this challenging time.

Muise, who is a faculty member in York’s Department of Psychology, is embarking on a study to investigate the relationship of couples who are in self-isolation together during the pandemic.

“We want to understand how people feel their relationship has changed given their situation,” says Muise. “We expect that people might have more health issues, such as problems with sleep, anxiety, depression and loneliness, and we want to understand the role of relationships in these experiences.”

The study will look at what relationship factors might buffer against conflict and challenges, and how people were able or unable to meet the needs of their partner that might be threatened.

Professor Amy Muise is launching a study to investigate the relationship of couples who are in self-isolation together during the pandemic to look at what relationship factors might buffer against conflict and challenges

“We want to know if there are there any positive things that come out of this, and if couples have had the opportunity to connect, what does that look like and what are these resiliency factors that help couples maintain satisfaction during this challenging time.”

Other factors the study will look at are whether couples have kids, how the division of labour has changed during self-isolation, personal experiences with COVID-19, socioeconomic status, broader network supports and how people are connecting with that network.

In a recent study published March 14 (unrelated to COVID-19), Muise found that memories and feelings of nostalgia can sometimes help people manage unfulfilled sexual and relationship needs.

“This new paper is about how, during times when we feel like our sexual or romantic needs are not being fulfilled, some people will reflect back on their previous sexual experiences … and there is some evidence that people can use memories and thoughts about their previous connection to make it through challenging times,” says Muise.

Muise says there is also evidence that when couples go on a double date, it can spark novel experiences, so leveraging social media or apps that allow couples to spend time together “virtually” with friends may help.

“Just because we are socially distancing doesn’t mean we have to be totally socially isolated,” she said.

If you and your romantic partner would like to participate in Muise's study on how couples are coping with COVID19 together, visit the study website at www.covidtogether.me for details. The website also provides tips and resources for couples, and for parents, on coping during the pandemic.

By Ashley Goodfellow Craig, YFile deputy editor 

Do you have a story to share about how you are coping, or what you are doing differently, during the COVID-19 pandemic? Email us at yfile@yorku.ca.

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