Expert Alert: Navigating Post-Pandemic Relationships

May 12, 2021

How has COVID-19 affected intimate relationships? Associate Professor Ashley Thompson offers insight.

The pandemic has had an indelible impact on romantic relationships. COVID-19 restrictions kept people apart and left many isolated. For some, pandemic-related stress precipitated separations and divorces. For others, it strengthened ties and resiliency. 

Associate Professor Ashley Thompson teaches in the Department of Psychology at UMD. Her research interests include attitudes and judgments relating to romantic and sexual interpersonal relationships, the onset and maintenance of these relationships, and the role of gender in romantic and sexual relationship experiences.

Thompson agreed to answer some questions and offer some advice about the challenges of the post-pandemic relationship landscape.

How does the current world we live in impact how individuals navigate new romantic relationships? 

In my opinion, the pandemic has impacted both the initiation of new relationships and the maintenance of existing relationships. With regard to relationship initiation, stay-at-home orders and social distancing policies have made it difficult for single adults to meet potential romantic others. Thus, many started to use the web to communicate and initiate romantic relationships from a distance. 

Although online dating is anything but new, the usage of apps like Tinder, Match.com, and Bumble has nearly doubled. In fact, early estimates revealed that messages on Bumble were up about 25 percent only a few months after the start of the pandemic. Many dating sites saw this as an opportunity to “up their game” by offering new initiatives/platforms that heightened their video chatting capabilities. 

These advancements and innovations are likely not going anywhere, even as life begins to return to “normal.” Consequently, although the loosening of social distancing policies will likely open the door for more in-person relationship initiation, online dating will likely remain a force in the matchmaking world and we can expect it to continue to grow as technology advances.

How is the pandemic affecting already established relationships?

With respect to relationship maintenance, the pandemic has had a dramatic impact on people’s ability to dissolve unsatisfying relationships. For example, research conducted early in the pandemic indicated that, although relationship satisfaction overall did not decrease from pre- to post-pandemic, couples who historically grappled with conflict experienced a decrease in relationship satisfaction. 

Thus, the pandemic appears to have exacerbated the problematic relationship functioning among those who were already experiencing relationship distress. To make matters worse, many people report feeling “trapped” in their relationship due to difficulties living in isolation, supporting him/her/themself independently after layoffs/furloughs, navigating logistical hurdles, etc. 

Consequently, many have delayed terminating unsatisfying relationships until pre-pandemic life resumes (essentially resulting in a “limbo phase” for many adults). With all of that in mind, I expect a surge of separations/divorces to occur once things return to “normal” and as people begin to feel comfortable/secure navigating life on their own. In fact, this trend has already been documented in China, as evidenced by increased divorce rates once the quarantine was lifted.

What lessons do you think the pandemic has for us about maintaining relationships?

Among partners not experiencing relationship distress pre-pandemic, COVID-19 has enhanced satisfaction in some cases. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that cohabitating partners that quarantined together used that time as an opportunity to reconnect and reestablish their relationship foundation. For example, many of these couples acknowledged that the stay-at-home order allowed them to increase their communication related to life and relationship stressors, thereby enhancing relationship satisfaction. 

In addition, the stay-at-home order often provided the opportunity to explore new activities together, thereby improving one’s mood and enhancing relationship satisfaction. Thus, as the world begins to return to “normal,” we can reflect on the past year and use many of the hardships as learning opportunities. As restaurants begin to reopen, large gatherings become acceptable, and social distancing becomes a thing of the past, we can work to continue promoting relationship communication and participation in novel activities.

Is there any other advice you have for navigating post-pandemic relationships?

My biggest piece of advice is to use the pandemic as a learning experience. This pandemic has taught us many things, with skills related to relationship promotion and maintenance being one of them. 

I encourage individuals to continue prioritizing communication, particularly in times of conflict. In addition, I challenge individuals to participate in novel and stimulating activities with their partners (e.g., cooking classes, outdoor hikes, fitness activities). 

Engagement in these types of activities has been shown to enhance self-expansion which can strengthen a relationship bond. 

Finally, I urge individuals to reflect on the positive memories he/she/they have with their partner and to use those memories to promote connectedness. This link between relational memories and relationship satisfaction was discussed and promoted in my last “expert alert piece.” 

Do you have current research related to this topic?

I believe so strongly in the benefits of nostalgia that I have recently ignited a research program designed to assess the association between sexual nostalgia and sexual satisfaction. The results of phase one have revealed that reflecting back on one’s positive memories with one’s current partner is strongly correlated with sexual satisfaction, such that the more an individual brings to mind sexual memories, the more satisfied he/she/they are sexually.