Is lockdown enhancing health of our closest relationships?

A new survey suggests bonds may be strengthened during lockdown. JOANNE SAVAGE reports

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 23rd July 2020, 8:00 am
Our close relationships have been helping us navigate lockdown
Our close relationships have been helping us navigate lockdown

According to the UK-wide research conducted by relationship charity Relate, almost 60 per cent of people in Northern Ireland believe that relationships with loved ones have been the mainstay that has most helped them endure the particular anxieties and stresses of lockdown.

This suggests a new evaluation of the significance of the full spectrum of connections that make up our daily lives, from being part of a marriage or couple to family and social relationships.

At this time of crisis, you might assume living at close quarters 24/7 would produce only heightened tensions, frustration, arguments, higher rates of domestic abuse and bitter decisions to divorce - it has been well documented that the divorce rate in Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid pandemic, rose sharply once lockdown measures eased - but while this will have undoubtedly been a reality for some, the Relate survey also surprisingly suggests that one legacy of the pandemic may actually be more positive: a more heightened sense of gratitude for the emotional wellbeing our relationships provide and an enhanced intimacy with those we love.

The survey also found, for example, that 48 per cent of Northern Ireland respondents say they now feel more comfortable having open and honest discussions on difficult conversations with loved ones, implying more deep and meaningful instead of monosyllabic conversations while plonked in front of the TV.

Relate conducted the Covid-19 Relationship Survey across the UK in June with over 2,000 people participating. In Northern Ireland 102 responses were received.

The survey results have been released to coincide with the launch of the first ever National Relationships Week, which began on Monday.

The charity is hoping to start conversations on relationships, about how they have helped people during the Covid-19 period, or to discuss issues that may have been pushed aside in the midst of the pandemic.

Duane Farrell, chief executive of Relate NI, said he believes the slowing down of our usual frenetic lives occasioned by lockdown has instantiated a period of reflection that has led many to see what matters most - their relationships with others.

“When we’re always busy, and that is the usual pace of modern life - relationships do not always get the love, attention and nurturing that they deserve. You’re maybe taking kids here and there, somebody is running off to dancing, somebody else needs dropped off at scouts, you are doing your day job in a busy office, looking after elderly parents, and you can forget the importance of being proactive in investing in and taking care of your relationships.

“What the survey shows is that this pause in our lives, this silencing of the usual noise that the pandemic has brought about, has meant that people have stopped to consider things and come up with a whole host of relationship realisations.

“And for the most part these realisations have been positive, with 60 per cent saying relationships are the most important thing in their lives, and it is those relationships that have sustained them throughout lockdown.

“Fifteen per cent of respondents said lockdown had so made them realise their love for their significant other that they wanted to propose.

“Twenty five per cent said they felt closer to friends, 34 per cent feel closer to their neighbours, and very interestingly, 56 per cent feel closer to their parents since lockdown.

“So there is reason to hope that at the end of this crisis we might find ourselves in a society that values connection and communication perhaps more than things like consumption and profit.”

The picture was of course far from rosy across the board, with five per cent of Northern Ireland respondents saying lockdown has made them realise that they want to break up with or divorce their partner.

The survey also highlighted that 31 per cent of respondents with a partner believe money will be the biggest issue for their relationship as a result of lockdown, showing of course that for many this unprecedented period has brought new strains into their daily lives.

“Economic hardship, joblessness, financial worries - this is going to be a real problem in relationships for a lot of people as lockdown eases,” adds Duane. “And it is certain to be a potential source of conflict and potentially very damaging for the children and young people who are privy to this kind of situation. Conflict is not always a bad thing, it can be necessary and healthy, but it becomes problematic if frequent, intense and poorly resolved and children exposed to this are more liable to develop mental illness in later life and under-perform at school.

“So we wouldn’t want to suggest that lockdown has been this totally golden moment for all relationships. People have a lot of anxieties too.”

The survey also showed that 35 per cent are anxious about the re-opening of society. Fifty four per cent have enjoyed not having the pressure to socialise, suggesting that for many stripping things back to a core nucleus of intimate or familial relationships is the real source of their life satisfaction, with superficial connections tending to fall by the wayside in times of crisis. In fact, 29 per cent of people said lockdown had made them realise who their true friends are. Farrell says National Relationship Week is all about putting the conversation about the connections in our lives that have meaning and value for us front and centre.

“This is about getting people talking about their relationships and what really matters in their lives so that we don’t go back to what we might call the kind of thoughtless busyness that we might see as intrinsic to the normal functioning of society.

“Covid has changed all of our lives. For some it has brought new stresses and conflict, concerns about mental and emotional as well as obviously physical health. For us at Relate it’s all about encouraging people to prioritise communication in resolving conflict and learning to tackle problems in our relationships constructively.

“We would say that in terms of relationship health, communication is absolutely the fundamental skill. Listening to understand and respond is vital. Good communication is not just about being able to articulate your own point of view, it’s also the ability to listen and understand what is happening for the other person. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree with that perspective, but if you can understand, you can have a more fruitful conversation where some form of resolution is more likely to be reached.”

While for the lucky among us lockdown may have enhanced connections, there is also a significant proportion of the population for whom the lack of significant relationships and the trials of loneliness and social isolation have become the difficult reality thanks to Covid.

Farrell emphasises the deleterious effects of the lack of connection, comparing loneliness to having the same negative impact on health as “the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And you can be lonely of course, sitting in the middle of a pub with 15 people around you. Having quality relationships, all the indicators show, is vital for our health. It’s really, when you are at your lowest, do you have somebody you can reach out to? It’s not about having 15,00 friends on Facebook, it’s about having quality relationships that are based on meaningful communication. That is essential to wellbeing”.

Relate NI offers relationship counselling for individuals and couples. Visit www.relateni.org.