How relationships were challenged by COVID-19 outbreak

In an article on BBC Future, Yi-Ling Liu makes a dense report on how the COVID-19 affected relations in China during the lockdown:

The Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped our personal relationships in unprecedented ways, forcing us to live closer together with some people and further apart from others. Life in lockdown has necessitated close, constant contact with our families and partners, but social distancing measures have isolated us from our friends and wider communities.

It is not difficult to recognise ourselves in these words: also in Italy, social distancing and lockdown have conditioned our relational and family world in unexpected and substantial ways.

Technology has allowed new ways of meeting and communicating: sexting, but also new evolutions of online dating. According to Helen Fisher, data from online dating platforms suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the courtship process. The lockdown has affected the choice of partner. While for decades researchers have tried to understand how we choose, some have hypothesised the so-called choice paradox: after we are offered about six options, we go into cognitive overload. Other researchers have noted that our short-term memory cannot embrace more than five/nine stimuli simultaneously. In short, when faced with too many alternatives – summarises Fisher – we do not choose any of them. Moreover, single people have returned to more traditional and “slow” modes of courtship:

From the evolutionary perspective, slow love is adaptive — because the human brain is soft-wired to attach to a partner slowly. My brain-scanning colleagues and I have found that men and women who’ve been madly in love for up to 18 months show activity in brain regions associated with intense romantic passion. But our teammate Bianca Acevedo found that those who’ve been in love for two to 12 years and had recently decided to marry showed activity in an additional brain region associated with pair-bonding and attachment in other mammals. In short: romantic love can be triggered rapidly, whereas feelings of deep attachment take time to develop. We were built for slow love — and this pandemic is continuing to draw out this courtship process.

Those already in a couple, but without sharing the house, found themselves reinventing the world of intimacy—no less complicated, the situation of cohabiting couples. In China, the lockdown has led to an increase in divorce rates. Many families and couples have had to face new problems, in addition to the tensions already existing: how to manage children, domestic workload, care work. Yi-Ling Liu reports that in China, women bear a more significant burden, given a situation of inequality in the distribution of domestic work. And even this does not seem to differ much from the Italian reality, as reported in an article by Daniela Del Boca, Noemi OggeroPaola Profeta, Maria Cristina Rossi, Claudia Villosio:

A not insignificant consequence of the COVID emergency containment measures19 concerns gender differences in the labour market and family balances. The containment measures ordered the closure of most economical and productive activities in non-essential sectors and the closure of schools. While past recessions (e.g. the 2008 crisis) had harmed male employment in manufacturing, but less severe on female work in sectors less exposed to the cycle […], the lockdown period had more similar consequences for women and men […]. Also, the closure of schools has significantly increased domestic work and care work for young children, as well as help for older children engaged in distance learning, potentially creating new equilibrium within the family. Grandparents, once an essential resource for the care of grandchildren, are now more at risk of infection and therefore need help themselves. The new balance of the most substantial family burdens in the emergency also depends on the sector in which men and women are (or were) employed and on the contribution of each member to family work (domestic and childcare),

while a European survey confirms that the measures taken by governments to control the spread of COVID-19 have increased the gender gap, in terms of employment and work-life balance and financial security: again, it is women who pay the highest price.

Often, in situations of conflict within the family, one can turn to relationships and affections outside the family and ask for support. Still, social distancing has cut these kinds of ties: ties that are vital if the problem within the family and the couple is not a simple quarrel, but a question of violence, be it physical, sexual, economic or psychological. In Italy, as in China, the lockdown has led to a dramatic increase in gender-based violence within the domestic context. As reported by Yi-Ling Liu, in Hubei province (the initial heart of the epidemic in China), domestic violence cases have tripled – those reported, suggesting that there may be many more. In Italy, a survey conducted in April 2020 confirmed an increase in cases of domestic violence and femicide.

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