The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to social distance, keeping us away from our co-workers, loved ones and friends. But it also has forced immediate family members, including couples, to spend more time together.
Researchers at Indiana University's Kinsey Institute are studying how the pandemic is affecting marital quality, sexual behavior, reproductive planning and health, and individual and family well-being. The study suggests that, overall, early in the pandemic, most married individuals reported a positive impact on their marriage.
“At the time of the study, the pandemic was causing increased stress, worry, housework and childcare for some married persons, resulting in strain on the marriage,” said William L. Yarber, Provost Professor in the School of Public Health at IU Bloomington and senior scientist at The Kinsey Institute. “However, for the most part, individuals reported an increased sense of teamwork and connection.”
Yarber and a team of researchers from Kinsey are presenting their findings at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. The findings are preliminary and have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Researchers surveyed a national sample of 1,117 married individuals (both heterosexual and same-sex marriages) ages 30-50 years old, in mid-late April 2020.
Overall, more participants agreed that the pandemic was having a positive impact on their marriage, with 74% agreeing it strengthened their marriage and 82% agreeing it made them feel more committed to their marriage.
In addition, 85% agreed the pandemic was helping them appreciate their spouse more, helping them appreciate what a good life they had before the pandemic, and was bringing their family together.
On the other hand, 63% agreed the pandemic was stressing their family, 54% agreed it was testing their marriage and 35% agreed it was straining their relationship with their spouse. Additionally, 21% agreed it was damaging their marriage, 20% agreed it was causing them to question their marriage and 16% agreed it was causing them to think about separation or divorce.
“What we found is even though many individuals experienced some stress from the pandemic, the overall marital emotional satisfaction stayed about the same for the majority of both men and women,” Yarber said. “However, more women experienced a decrease rather than increase in emotional and sexual satisfaction during the pandemic. Whereas, for men, about equal proportions experienced an increase and a decrease.”
When it comes to emotional satisfaction, 17% of women reported a decrease while only 11% reported an increase in their satisfaction with the emotional aspects of their relationship with their spouse and 72% reported no change. For sexual satisfaction, 17% of women reported a decrease and 9% reported an increase, while 74% reported no change.
Researchers found women's decreases in emotional satisfaction were significantly correlated with higher ratings of overall stress because of coronavirus and increased work stress for their spouses. For men, decreases in emotional and sexual satisfaction were significantly correlated with increased work stress for themselves since the pandemic started and higher levels of worry about their careers/jobs and finances.
Additionally, half of women (52%), in either heterosexual or same-sex marriages, reported they were having sex about as frequently as before coronavirus, with the other half being equally split (24% each) reporting either more frequent or less frequent sex. Significantly more men than women reported having sex more often since coronavirus, with significantly more men in same-sex marriages (55%) than in heterosexual marriages (35%) reporting this.
Both men and women reported engaging more in talking with their spouse about sex, sleeping in the same bed with their spouse, touching and cuddling.
“Early in the pandemic, the effects on gendered division of household and childcare labor can be seen as contributing to negative impacts of the coronavirus on marriages,” said Stephanie A. Sanders, Provost Professor and Peg Brand Chair in the Department of Gender Studies and senior scientist at the Kinsey Institute. “Although stress and worries related to the pandemic were correlated with negative impacts for both women and men, increased childcare and increased housework were correlated with negative impact for women, but not for men in heterosexual marriages.”
The researchers will conduct another national study to see how the impact as changed as the pandemic has continued.
Other researchers involved in the study are Robin R. Milhausen, Cynthia A. Graham, Karen Vanterpool, all of the Kinsey Institute and John M. Kennedy, of IU Bloomington's Center for Survey Research.