University of Georgia

Researchers study COVID’s effect on relationships

image of woman looking out the window wearing a face mask
The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting the daily lives of people all around the world. But what about the ways they stay connected with loved ones?

Richard Slatcher, the Gail M. Williamson Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia, is working with two international colleagues to determine the psychological effects of a decrease in face-to-face communication with their “Love in the Time of COVID” project.

(The name of the project is respectfully borrowed from the classic novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez.)

“The COVID-19 outbreak is profoundly affecting our social relationships. Are people feeling more or less connected to others? How are couples feeling about working from home together? What are the effects of people working full time from home while also caring full time for their children? What are the effects of living alone right now?” said Slatcher, whose research focuses on how people’s relationships with others can affect their well-being and health. “This experience will impact us in ways we don’t yet fully understand.”

Slatcher’s partners include Rhonda Balzarini, postdoctoral fellow at York University in Toronto, and Giulia Zoppolat, a Ph.D. student at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. The researchers found one another after Zoppolat sought out fellow researchers on Twitter in mid-March to collaborate. After the three of them initially spoke on a video call, Slatcher said they worked nonstop for 12 days to get the project design up and running.

The researchers are gathering data through a survey, hoping to connect with as many people as possible from around the world and hear stories of how the pandemic is altering their relationships and well-being, Slatcher said.

With this information, the researchers will gauge how the pandemic affects people from different countries and cultures.

“This study is really about relationships: how the pandemic is influencing how connected people feel to others,” Slatcher said. “Many people will feel very isolated, both physically and psychologically, but others may actually feel more connected to their households, neighbors and/or social networks. In fact, since launching our study, we have already heard from some people reporting that they feel more connected to others than they typically do.”

“The way people are connecting during this time is incredibly moving—and not despite the pandemic, but because of it,” Zoppolat said. “We are inherently social beings, and this deep drive for connection becomes beautifully and painfully apparent in times like these.”

The research could help scientists understand which types of people are the most psychologically vulnerable to the pandemic’s effects by finding predictors of who will struggle the most with isolation.

“The value of collaborating with an international team of colleagues is we can target diverse populations and can be sure that the information we are obtaining is not limited to Western countries only,” Balzarini said. “With human society facing a major pandemic, collaboration has never been more important, and I hope our research efforts will contribute to a growing body of work that can help inform future responses to pandemics.”

As of March 30, the survey had been translated into eight languages and had collected more than 1,000 responses. After completing the initial survey, respondents will receive follow-up questions every two weeks so the researchers can compare their reactions as the pandemic continues.

The study will last at least as long as the pandemic, and it will likely continue with follow-up surveys after COVID-19-related social distancing ends.

“If the pandemic goes on for months, then the lasting effects of social isolation could be quite prolonged,” Slatcher said. “We simply don’t know what the effects of this kind of social isolation are going to have on people and how long those effects will last.”