The COVID-19 pandemic represents an acute, challenging event that puts to the test whether models in relationship science help identify whose relationships are vulnerable to disruption in the wake of this unprecedented global event. The current longitudinal study leveraged to examine whether pre-existing vulnerabilities (attachment insecurity) assessed prior to the pandemic and stress during a mandated quarantine predicted residual changes in relationship functioning. Partners’ attachment anxiety emerged as a consistent vulnerability that, along with stress, increased the risk of poor relationship functioning, including greater relationship problems, a more chaotic and less cohesive family environment and lower relationship quality. These results uniquely emphasize that the potential detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on relationships will depend on the partners with whom people are confined with during quarantines
Partners’ attachment anxiety indicating that partners’ attachment anxiety is likely an important preexisting vulnerability when people are confined with their partner during crisis. Partners high in attachment anxiety experience intense negative emotions, seek reassurance in counterproductive ways, and are difficult to soothe during stressful contexts. Moreover, because they remain distressed even when they receive care and support, partners high in attachment anxiety often behave in punishing ways that amplify conflict, undermine caregiving, and damage love and closeness. Receiving negative reactivity and excessive reassurance seeking by highly anxious partners is burdensome and dissatisfying, especially during challenging contexts. Accordingly, partners’ greater attachment anxiety predicted greater problem severity, lower satisfaction and lower commitment during a mandatory COVID-19 quarantine.
Consistent with diathesis-stress attachment models, partners’ attachment anxiety also predicted greater problem severity and a poorer family environment when people were experiencing high, but not low levels of stress. Compared to the evaluative outcomes that involved only main effects of partners’ attachment anxiety (satisfaction, commitment), the outcomes that involved interaction effects with stress (problem severity, home chaos, family cohesion) may more closely capture couples’ ability to work together to manage the challenges of family confinement. Despite feeling less satisfied, some people are able to soothe anxious partners, ease difficult interactions, and compensate for any detrimental effects on relational dynamics. However, such buffering may occur when stress is low, but will be more difficult when individuals are depleted by high stress. Moreover, not only will highly anxious partners’ unrealistic needs and destructive behaviours go unabated when individuals are stressed, individuals’ own need for support and help to manage the family environment will clash with anxious partners’ self-focused needs, producing more problematic rather than cohesive interactions.
The research studies also indicate that partners’ attachment avoidance may hinder functioning during the pandemic and quarantines: greater partners’ avoidance predicted lower problem solving efficacy and family cohesion. Highly avoidant partners withdraw when encountering problems, which may be particularly demanding for individuals during the challenges of quarantine. The need for families to ‘get through’ quarantine may also mean that avoidant distancing bypasses a focus on problems that cannot be solved or controlled given the situation at hand. These possible benefits might have counteracted any increases in problem severity and dissatisfaction resulting in no residual increases from pre-quarantine. Yet, continued disengagement and lower cohesion may risk growing problem severity, home chaos and poor relationship quality as the stress of the pandemic and need for couples to support one another grows.
Some scholars have warned that most social psychological models are untested in the real world of acute, stressful events and may be unsuitable to understand or guide decisions regarding mitigating the impact of COVID-19. On the theoretical integration of two key models in relationship science identifying attachment insecurity as an important vulnerability that should hinder couples’ capacity to adapt to the relational strains of mandatory quarantines. The results demonstrate the combined utility of the Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation (VSA) and diathesis-stress attachment models in predicting the risk of poor relationship functioning in the unprecedented, untested context of a global pandemic. Applying these models to a unique quarantine context provides valuable theoretical insights. First, the vulnerabilities that matter most depend on key features of the context. VSA-inspired investigations have examined external stress relevant to quarantines (economic hardship, work stress, poorer social networks), but have not considered the role of attachment insecurity. By contrast, attachment research has examined lab-induced stress or specific relational stressors (e.g., transition to parenthood). The uncontrollable, acute and shared nature of quarantines make attachment insecurity a particularly relevant vulnerability in this context. With no choice and little warning, people ere thrust into a threatening attachment-relevant context involving couples forced to depend on each other to navigate the daily challenges of family isolation.
Second, the results emphasize the need to understand the relationship risks of stressful events from a dyadic perspective. Despite the interdependence of human life, most research focuses on individuals’ characteristics as vulnerabilities to poorer relationship functioning. Indeed, a recent large-scale project concluded partner characteristics play a minor role in shaping relationship quality. One likely reason some prior studies have failed to identify partner effects is they have not examined couples within interdependent strain-test contexts in which partners’ characteristics really matter. The current results indicate that partners’ vulnerabilities may pose greater risk to relationships when partners are a central feature of emergent stressful contexts such as when people are confined with partners to face the challenges of family life during a global pandemic.
Third, the results emphasize that dyadic longitudinal designs are critical for understanding the effects of the pandemic (and other stressors). Amid the understandable proliferation of research investigating the impact of the pandemic on health and well-being, the strongest evidence emerges from longitudinal designs, like ours, that examine residual changes in functioning. However, prior investigations have primarily examined individuals, which fails to acknowledge the social reality of people’s lives, and have not examined how both individuals and partners’ vulnerabilities assessed pre-pandemic shape relationship functioning. In the current study, partners’ attachment insecurity and not individuals’ attachment insecurity had longitudinal effects. This pattern does not mean that individual characteristics do not matter. Individuals’ anxiety and avoidance were cross-sectionally associated with poorer functioning at both assessments, suggesting these negative effects may simply persist into the context of the pandemic and quarantines. By contrast, the effects of partners may become more apparent during quarantines when partners’ reactions are particularly salient and impactful.
Despite the strengths of the dyadic longitudinal design, the necessarily correlational nature of the data limits causal conclusions, leaves open the possibility of third variables, and does not offer a ‘control’ condition to compare changes in relationship functioning in the absence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dyadic longitudinal designs also restrict sample sizes, which may limit power to detect small but meaningful effects, especially if individuals’ vulnerabilities already have damaging effects prior to the pandemic. The risk of poorer outcomes associated with attachment insecurity is likely greater for couples facing more substantial stress, economic strain and difficult living conditions. For example, individuals’ and partners’ attachment insecurity may have weaker effects in contexts when people are able to regulate distance (e.g., working, going for a walk, spending time in another room), but have more detrimental effects when people have little room or resources to escape the pressures of quarantine.
Similarly, although the mandatory lockdown placed all families in a confined quarantine that could disrupt relationship functioning, this swift and strong response to the pandemic was accompanied by increases in trust in the government, police and science. Support of the lockdown also may have allowed families to capitalize on the opportunity to spend more time as a family and support one another, counteracting some of the difficulties couples faced during the initial stages of the pandemic. The risks to relationships are likely to grow as couples encounter ongoing challenges, especially in contexts where prolonged uncertainty, stress, isolation and economic disadvantage place couples under increasing strain.
The current investigation illustrates the utility of key models in relationship science in identifying which couples are at most risk of relationship problems when experiencing the stressful, unprecedented context of a mandated quarantine. It is emphasize that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be shaped by the characteristics of partners with whom people are confined with during the pandemic. Greater partner attachment anxiety predicted greater relationship problems, lower relationship quality, and a less stable and cohesive family environment when people were experiencing more stress. Greater partner attachment avoidance predicted lower problem solving efficacy and family cohesion. Such vulnerability to poor relationship functioning is critical given the downstream consequences of these outcomes, including poorer health and well-being of both adults and their children. The current findings illustrate that understanding and promoting how best to navigate the risks of the pandemic and quarantines requires attending to the dyadic context of people’s lives.
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