COVID-19 related restrictions have impacted the dynamics of romantic relationships, with many cohabiting partners spending more time together and non-cohabiting partners much less. We explored qualitatively, the vulnerabilities (characteristics that decreased resilience) and stressors that impacted intimate relationships following the initial COVID-19 lockdown. 45 semi-structured interviews were undertaken with participants who had completed a national web-panel survey (Natsal-COVID) and agreed to follow-up. Here we draw on the accounts of 19 participants in steady relationships who reported relationship difficulties. Analysis drew on Karney and Bradbury’s ‘Vulnerability-stress-adaptation’ model. The sample comprised 12 women and 7 men, 13 were living with their partner and 6 were not. Participant’s pre-existing attachment, coping, and communication styles shaped their susceptibility to relationship difficulties. The stress of COVID-19, amplified by financial strain and health issues, affected couple’s ability to adapt. In live-in relationships, childcare, divisions of housework, and a lack of space in which to unwind and escape from negative behaviours intensified pressures on relationship quality. One participant described these in the context of a violent relationship that worsened during lockdown, which she had managed to leave. Participants who did not live with their partners described struggling with phone/digital communication, physical distance, and a lack of certainty in the future of their relationship. In adapting to ‘pandemic life’, tensions arose over how much time to spend together. Those in non-cohabiting relationships were torn between balancing risks of COVID-19 against those of not seeing each other, with many reporting feeling they had placed their relationship on hold. For some, their sex life improved their adaptation, while for others it was a further source of stress. Understanding how existing vulnerabilities interact with a stressful event to shape adaptive processes in couples’ relationships might provide insights for counsellors and healthcare providers to better support couples through COVID-19.


Copyright information: © Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2021. No commercial re-use. See rights and permissions. Published by BMJ.

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Bosó Pérez, R., Maxwell, K., Reid, D., Tanton, C., Macdowall, W., Bonell, C., Clifton, S., Sonnenberg, P., Mercer, C., Field, N. & Mitchell, K. 2021, 'Qualitative Findings From Natsal-COVID: Exploring Difficulties and Distress Within Established Relationships During COVID-19 Pandemic', Sexually Transmitted Infections, 97((Suppl 1)), pp. A133-A134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/sextrans-2021-sti.350

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Last updated: 15 November 2022
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