Love, work and the lockdown. Partnership quality and intentions to split during the lockdown in Italy, France and Spain

From Firenze University Press Journal: Cambio

Daniela Bellani, Scuola Normale Superiore, Università degli Studi di Firenze

Daniele Vignoli, Scuola Normale Superiore, Università degli Studi di Firenze

The Shakespearean expression ‘love laughs at locksmiths’ is interpreted to mean that love copes with any difficulty and can overcome everything. Accordingly, even during hard times, partners find a way to preserve their relationship. Does this figurative sentence, that has become a common proverb over the centuries, fit with the feelings and emotions experienced by couples during the first COVID-19 lockdown?The home confinement and the strong recommended social (physical) distancing imposed as part of nationwide movement restrictions in many countries have represented an exceptional setting for the study of intimate relationships.

Many partners have been forced to live together, locked inside the same home throughout the day during a historical moment characterized by the threat of severe illness for themselves and their loved ones (as well as for the rest of humanity). In a way, couples were hold in captivity in their home for a relative extended period, since in many countries they were not allowed to leave their home or the neighborhood they were living in.During the last years, scholars have especially focused their research on the consequences of the COV-ID-19 pandemic in terms of health, economic and environmental outcomes. Recent studies have shown that the far-reaching impact of the pandemic influenced the family sphere, too (e.g., Craig, Churchill 2020; Egidi, Manfredi 2021; Bellani, Vignoli 2022).

At this regard, a crucial question is whether and how the lockdowns have had any consequences on closeness of romantic partners. As clearly reported by Biroli et alii (2021, pp. 1) “this lockdown artificially created a fusion between the work and family life of men and women.” As such, our main research question is the following, has the first lockdown, that was the most restrictive, weakened partnerships quality?

The available literature on the consequences of natural disasters on marital quality and couples’ instability shows mixed findings. In brief, some studies show that relationship within immediate families is likely to improve (e.g., Henry et alii 2004). The bulk of evidence, however, suggests that the stress of calamities is likely to erode intimate relations (e.g., Norris, Uhl 1993). Nonetheless, Cohan and Cole (2002), who analyzed the family con-sequences of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, found that marriage, birth and divorce rates increased in the US counties that were affected by the natural disaster. Specifically, they shown that life-altering events, such as natural disasters, seem to motivate people to take actions that accelerate life course events.In this article, we review and discuss the theoretical underpinnings and summarize the recent empirical find-ings of the consequences on family dynamics of the most recent natural disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic. We also present some descriptive findings based on an online survey about family relationships during the first wave of the COVID- 19 pandemic, which covers three countries, Italy, Spain and France.

Because of data constraints, this paper focuses only on the potential short-term negative effects of the pandemic on relationship quality. The focus on the negative effects of the pandemic is motivated by the academic discussion on its potential consequences for union dissolution (e.g., Manning and Payne, 2021). We leave to future investigations an analysis of the pandemic’s potential positive effects on relationship quality, using more complete and timely data.Our study offers descriptive results on the consequences of COVID-19 for partnership quality. Specifically, we observe that about 12% of those interviewed in the three countries reported that their relationship with their partner worsened during the first lockdown. In parallel, we find that, in the same period, about 2.5% of the couples intended to split up. Furthermore, we show that negative emotions — such as feeling lonely — the deterioration of working conditions and the experience of organizational issues were associated with a worsening of partnership quality as well as with the intention to dissolve the union. Given that a decrease in partnership quality as well as the intention to dissolve the union might presage couple’s dissolution, a descriptive study of this kind represents a starting point for in-depth investigations on the consequences of the pandemic for intimate lives.


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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy