The Impact of COVID-19 on Relationship Conflict and Sexuality in the USA

New couples research enhances understand of pandemic-related health impact.

COVID-19 has resulted in wide-spread quarantine orders in much of the world. We are social animals, and staying at home — with some advantages — presents a strain, which may be more or less challenging depending on how we cope. While opportunities for resilience and post-traumatic growth abound, it is undeniably a difficult time for many, especially those facing economic hardship and mental strain beyond the pale. Personal struggles are accentuated by unclear and inconsistent leadership and poor community resources, resulting in rising rates of mental illness.

A recent KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) study (August 21, 2020) polled US adults and found that over half reported negative mental health impacts due to COVID-related distress, up from 32 percent in March. Job loss is associated with more severe reactions, including depression and suicidal thinking. Notably, mental health was significantly worse among those sheltering in place (47 percent) compared with those who were not (37 percent).

COVID and Relationships

While there are a large number of studies published almost daily about the mental health impact of COVID from around the globe, less research has looked at the impact on intimate relationships. Being confronted with challenges often creates a tipping point, where couples can either work on things or having increasing difficulty, though we are adept at maintaining the status quo even when very unhappy for reasons including attachment style and external factors.

One study from China, for example, notes increased divorce filing after COVID (Prasso, 2020, in Leutke et al., 2020 [see below]) , especially being quarantined together, or in some cases kept apart, presents unique challenges above and beyond the underlying impact of financial strain, mental illness and related issues.

How has COVID-19 impacted relationship intimacy and sexuality in the United States?

To initially explore this question, Maya Luetke, Devon Hensel, Debby Herbenick and Molly Rosenberg from the Indiana University School of Public Health and Indiana University School of medicine (2020) conducted a survey in mid-April of a nationally-representative sample of US residents.

They were asked about demographic characteristics (age, ethnicity, economic factors, educational level, etc.); whether they were experiencing elevated relationship tension, and to what extent; whether intimate and sexual activity had changed since COVID-19 started, including specific focus on the following behavior types: “(1) hugged, kissed, held hands with or cuddled with a romantic/sexual partner; (2) masturbated by yourself; (3) masturbated together with a partner or touched each other’s genitals (e.g. fingering, hand jobs, etc.); (4) gave or received oral sex; and (5) engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse” Participants with recent sexual intimacy were asked about changes in orgasm and emotional closeness. Researchers also looked at severity of loneliness and depression.

Findings

Of the 1010 survey participants, 742 reported being in a relationship. They were 51 percent women, 66 percent White, 10 percent Black, 16 percent Hispanic, and 8 other or mixed ethnicity. The majority were living with a partner or married, 81 percent of the sample, 11 percent were not married but in a relationship, and the remaining percent separated, divorced or widowed. Twenty-five percent reported having children age 12 or younger living at home.

Of the 742 partnered respondents, 34 percent reported increased relationship conflict and decreased intimacy. They reported less hugging, kissing, cuddling or holding hands and solo masturbation three times more often. They were nearly 7 times more likely to report decreased giving or receiving or oral sex and almost 6 times more likely to reported decreased shared masturbation and genital touching. They reported decreased penile-vaginal intercourse 4 times more often than those without COVID conflict.

There was a non-significant trend of worsened intimacy among those with conflict who lived with a partner, suggesting that living separately may be protective. There was a non-significant trend toward decreased orgasm and overall experience of closeness among those who reported sex in the last month among those with conflict versus those without.

Rates of depression and loneliness were significantly higher among those reporting COVID conflict, older participants were less likely to report conflict, and there was no significant difference between relationship conflict for men and women. There was a trend toward greater negative impact on sex and intimacy for men, however.

Further considerations

These findings are relevant because, in spite of limitations, they are found in a broad sample of US citizens reflective of the overall population. COVID-19, early on in the pandemic, is associated with a significant increase in relationship conflict, with a strong negative impact on sexual and intimate behaviors among those with conflict. Follow-up research is needed to see how relationship and sexual issues change as the pandemic continues, and whether early trends reach significance.

Those reporting increased COVID-related conflict also reported significantly higher rates of loneliness and depression, highlighting the interrelationship among overall well-being and sexual and relationship satisfaction. Paying attention to relationship quality is of increasing importance to maintain and improve individual physical and emotional well-being, especially in the face of prolonged distress.

Couples focusing on overall relationship quality as well as sexual satisfaction may see decreased conflict, but authors caution that “obligatory sex”, which 27 percent of men and 58 percent of women report engaging in as “maintenance sex” for relationships may do more harm than good, as they are not a substitute for genuine closeness, and may be destructive in addition to allowing sleeping dogs to lie.

Making sure resources are earmarked for the relationship itself can be challenging, especially for less experienced couples who may be inclined to avoid dealing with issues (as compared with older couples who have learned how to work things out, reporting greater relationship satisfaction even though sexual satisfaction decreases for many older couples). Couples can proactively work on the relationship together — while carving-out sufficient individual time especially when stuck in close quarters.

Couples can use this research as a starting-point to discuss relationship conflict and the impact on intimacy, focusing attention on specific behaviors which may be in decline, especially the most intimate ones. For couples having difficulty making progress who may be reluctant to seek help until things get even worse, seeking expert consultant is an important consideration.

Footnote

  1. The study presumably focused on heterosexual couples as no mention was made of sexual orientation and some outcomes were exclusively heterosexual.

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