Attachment security predicts better relationship quality during the trying times of lockdown, according to research published in Frontiers in Psychology. By contrast, infection rates, perceived threat from the virus, and level of governmental restrictions were not significant predictors of relationship quality.
The study’s research team, led by Stephanie J. Eder (@PepiEder) of the Faculty of Life Science at University of Vienna, seized a unique opportunity to study the effects of stress on romantic relationships by studying couples navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial phases of lockdown were particularly distressing, as evidenced by widespread uncertainty, strict social restrictions, and worry about infection. To top it all off, stay-at-home orders left many couples isolated together without other social contacts.
“In March 2020, the unprecedented measures taken to contain the COVID-19 pandemic throughout Europe got us interested: How do couples cope with such crises?” Eder told PsyPost. “Which factors are protective, what helps you cope with drastic changes and with being locked in together?”
The researchers were motivated to explore predictors of relationship quality during these unprecedented times. To explore this, they had a sample of 313 adults in romantic relationships fill out questionnaires once a week for 7 weeks. The respondents were an average of 32 years old and were living in either Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, or Pakistan. The first survey was sent out in late March, as most countries were entering the first phases of lockdown, and the last survey was distributed in late April/May when restrictions were slowly lifting.
Participants completed measures of perceived relationship quality and sexual satisfaction and answered questions about the frequency of sexual behaviors, kissing, physical interaction, and disagreements with their partner. They also answered questions concerning their fear of the coronavirus and whether they feared economic loss due to the pandemic. Finally, participants completed a measure of adult attachment style that scored them along the dimensions of anxious attachment and avoidant attachment.
The researchers then used two different machine learning models to analyze the data and search for patterns. Specifically, the models searched for variables that could predict relationship quality.
As Eder and her team report, relationship quality appeared to be fairly stable during the lockdown. Most participants did not experience any changes in relationship quality.
Age, attachment anxiety, and frequency of conflicts were all found to be significant predictors of relationship quality. Specifically, being younger, being less anxiously-attached, and having fewer arguments with one’s partner predicted better relationship quality during the pandemic. On the other hand, country of residence, local infection rates, the severity of restrictions, fear of the virus, and frequency of sexual activity did not reliably predict relationship quality.
“We find that a secure attachment style is the most important predictor of relationship quality during this time, whereas environmental conditions such as the current stringency of the lockdowns or local mortality rates were not reflected in the reported quality,” Eder explained. “Thus, if you have a ‘secure‘ relationship, this is more important than the crisis around you.”
Interestingly, the models did not reveal many predictors of changes in relationship quality. However, given that very few subjects reported changes in relationship quality in the first place, there may not have been enough data to reveal any such patterns. Eder and her colleagues mention that their findings would be strengthened with reports from both members of the couple, given that the attachment styles of both partners typically interact to predict relationship outcomes.
“Our machine-learning models are good at predicting general relationship quality levels, but they were not good at predicting changes in a couple’s relationship quality over the course of the first wave,” Eder said. “So – what predicts such changes? We identify one potential candidate, which is how much time the partner subjectively made for the participant, but it would be interesting to follow up on this aspect.”
The findings are in line with previous studies that have shown that attachment style is associated with relationship quality, an association the researchers say was likely strengthened by the stress of the lockdown. The results also match previous evidence suggesting that secure attachment leaves people better equipped to handle stress during challenging times.
The study is part of a larger research project examining the impact of the pandemic. “Relationship quality is just one of the aspects we studied,” Eder explained. “For example, we also investigated if perceived food insecurity and ‘hamster purchases‘ were predictive of weight changes during the ‘first wave‘, and if fear and the virus and ethnocentric orientations co-vary. You can explore the individual projects here: https://osf.io/db4px/.”
The study, “Securing Your Relationship: Quality of Intimate Relationships During the COVID-19 Pandemic Can Be Predicted by Attachment Style”, was authored by Stephanie J. Eder, Andrew A. Nicholson, Michal M. Stefanczyk, Michał Pieniak, Judit Martínez-Molina, Ondra Pešout, Jakub Binter, Patrick Smela, Frank Scharnowski, and David Steyrl.