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Student researchers get to the heart of romantic relationships during a pandemic

Romantic relationships in young adulthood (and most any other time!) can be complicated, even without a pandemic. So students in the psychology department’s Romantic Relationships Research Lab set out to take a look at love in the time of COVID-19.

They conducted interviews with 48 peers at TCNJ who were in relationships that lasted three months or longer, with a mean length of 25 months.

It wasn’t surprising that a pandemic — with its lockdowns, quarantine and remote work and socializing — put stress on the unions. But one overarching finding spoke to the endurance of love: 77 percent of participants said they actually grew closer to their partners, experiencing more intimacy and support.

With fewer distractions, couples talked more, some quarantined together. A lot of respondents took advantage of downtime during the pandemic to “work on their relationships and deal with conflict,” noted Jessica O’Dell ’22.

“The amount of bonding that was done throughout COVID was pretty significant,” said Jose Cancel ’22. Robbed of their routines, people found different ways to make connections. “Partners had to learn new communication skills,” he said.

The interviews lasted about 80 minutes each and were conducted with mostly female volunteers by Zoom in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021. Only one partner was interviewed about the status of each couple’s relationship.

The lab generally relies on narratives, said its director, Senior Research Scholar Candice Feiring. Interviewers were trained in guiding the conversation and asked the volunteers whether partners met each other’s needs and what strategies they used to cope with changes in their relationships.

The psychology students used the theory of relational turbulence, which holds that change is a major relationship stressor, in evaluating and categorizing answers, The pandemic, of course, provided plenty of turbulence, from isolation and lack of intimacy to worrying about contagion. More than a third of respondents reported more stress, and those in longer relationships “used more negative words when recounting their own and their partners’ unmet needs,” according to an abstract of the findings.

But couples found ways to cope, often using social media — think FaceTime and Netflix party — to approximate hanging out together. Some couples moved in together to quarantine while others retreated to their hometowns, but the scenarios all brought their own complications, stressors and rewards.  

Faith Cortright ’23 said the interviews painted a more complex picture than do multiple choice questionnaires. “It’s a very interesting and unique lab. The narratives are so rich and informative compared to survey style,” she said.

Students produced a video about the project and are preparing a poster to present their findings at the Eastern Psychological Society in Manhattan in March.

— Patricia Alex


School of Humanities and Social Sciences
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