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Was lockdown good or bad for marriages?

Naomi Marsden

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Many of us have felt the effects of long days cooped up together with our families and housemates during lockdown. Shared workspaces (also known as the dining table); trying to source wildly-entertaining-yet-educational home school projects to keep the kids occupied; the stench of that new sourdough starter your spouse is experimenting with, in the latest iteration of their lockdown self-improvement ‘project’… at times, this experience has been somewhat challenging – to put it mildly.

So it would be easy to believe recent media reports proving that lockdown was, essentially, terrible for relationships. We’ve had multiple reports of lockdown putting an ‘enormous strain’ on relationships, leading to divorce booms both at home and across the Atlantic. Tragic stories abound of couples ending relationships that were already broken before lockdown — they just needed a lot of time stuck indoors together to realise it. The inevitable conclusion we must all arrive at is that too much time together leads to bitter conflict, relationship breakdown and divorce.

But is this really the full picture?

Because, amongst the tales of marital woe, fascinating contradictory evidence has emerged that paints a completely different picture of reality.

As surprising as this may seem, other data suggests that lockdown has actually been positive for marriages and families. For instance, national survey data suggested a quarter of parents were getting on better with their children in May, and only 4 per cent said their relationship was worse.

According to analysis by The Marriage Foundation, this is more reflective of the positive impact lockdown has had on relationships — particularly marriage.

They suggest that reports of a divorce boom are questionable — a rise in page views of a Citizens Advice website on ‘getting a divorce’ and a survey by members of a dating agency aren’t exactly concrete evidence. In fact, their research suggests that, despite signs that relationships may have been challenged by lockdown, those considering divorce is down by two thirds.

Their analysis is based on a survey of 2,559 parents who were married or cohabiting as a couple. They found that twice as many married parents described their relationship as getting better due to lockdown. 20 per cent of married parents said their relationship improved, compared to 9 per cent who said theirs got worse. The remaining 71 per cent said their relationship had remained the same.

As Harry Benson of The Marriage Foundation comments in this article for the Institute for Family Studies, “the reality is lockdown was good news for twice as many marriages as it was bad news.”

This was corroborated by research by the IFS which found that four of five US states that report divorce in real time showed a fall in the number of actual divorces: the report found that “half of married couples said their appreciation of one another had risen during lockdown, and their commitment had deepened.”

There are many possible reasons why lockdown has been good for relationships — more time together, with fewer distractions, has potentially led to a re-prioritising of primary relationships and a growth in intimacy as a result. For Benson, the real reason why marriages are doing better is commitment — but not the kind of commitment we often think of:

“When people think about commitment, they are usually thinking about "dedication," the extent to which couples want to be together. They forget about the constraints around a relationship that make couples have to be together”, Benson writes.

“When couples want to be together, constraints that make them have to be together are positive and affirming. But when the relationship is more uncertain or ambiguous, then additional constraints—such as having a baby, moving in together, or going into lockdown—can feel very uncomfortable and more like a trap.”

This is why, according to the Marriage Foundation's research, it was cohabiting mothers who struggled the most during lockdown: 22 per cent said their relationship had got worse compared to 7 per cent of married mothers.

As I previously explored in this article, commitment is found at its lowest levels in cohabiting relationships — particularly for cohabiting men. And your happiness in relationships is defined by how committed you perceive your partner to be.

It’s unsurprising then, that cohabiting mums are three times as likely to say their relationship has worsened during lockdown than married mums.

Where the signals of commitment are less clear, problems abound. But, as Benson argues, when commitment is explicit through marriage, “lockdown has given couples time together in a relationship where they actually want to be together.”

The evidence is still mounting, but it seems lockdown has ultimately been good for marriages. In fact, it's affirmed that marriage remains the best outward and inward display of commitment and the most stable foundation for a relationship — even overcoming the challenges of a global pandemic.

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