How COVID lockdowns affected our relationships

COVID-19 forced many of us to stay at home. For some this was a positive, bringing families closer together. But for others, it was lonely and overwhelming

Professor Johanna WynAssociate Professor Jenny Chesters

Published 13 April 2022

It may come as no surprise to anyone that the extended COVID-19 lockdowns and interminable time spent at home has affected many people’s closest relationships.

This is according to Life Patterns research published in the Relationships: Disrupted, Challenged, Reinforced during the COVID-19 pandemic report which finds that the pandemic impacted directly on uses of social time and space that most of us had taken for granted until the pandemic hit.

COVID-19 lockdowns constrained people’s social time and space. Picture: Getty Images

For some people, these lockdowns were positive. They had more time to spend with their partners and children, bringing them “closer together”, making things “less rushed and hectic” and creating a more desirable balance between work and non-work.

But for others this juggling act was overwhelming.

Relationships reassessed

The Life Patterns research program has followed two cohorts of Australians – from leaving school to maturing into their adult lives – 1990s (Gen X) and 2000s (Gen Y).

As the pandemic dragged on in 2020 and 2021, when Gen X were in their late 40s and Gen Y were in their early 30s, they were surveyed about a range of contemporary issues, including questions about their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We had responses from participants in every Australian state, the ACT, as well as people living overseas. Of the 261 Gen X participants who completed the survey, 233 provided comments, and within the group of 470 Gen Y participants, 340 gave us comments.

More time with family, less time with friends

The responses give us an insight into how the pandemic focussed people’s awareness of their relationships in a new way.

For some people, COVID-19 lockdowns were an opportunity to spend more time with the people they live with. Picture: Getty Images

Some were positive.

One Gen Y male engineer living in a capital city said:

“If anything, working from home has been a big positive being that I have been able to spend much more time with my wife and young son. It has been good.”

But others found the intensification of relationships difficult, involving “too much time spent together” with “no escape from each other” and not enough time for friendships.

This Gen X male software developer living in a regional city, said:

“I feel that tensions in my relationship with my partner and children have increased. It’s been difficult…the return to schooling from home…has made work time during the day more difficult.”

A Gen X woman working as a communications consultant living in a capital city explained:

“The pressure of lockdown in Melbourne- having 24/7 care for three kids including home schooling and trying to work too means there is little time left to maintain other friendships. It’s so busy.”

The restrictive COVID measures also heightened awareness of the value of friendships. For example, a Gen X female operations manager living in a capital city said:

“I need my friends to debrief…it makes me feel very alone, even though I have my husband and children with me all the time. It is a very lonely time.”

For some, lockdowns made relationships more intense, squeezing out other friendships. Picture: Getty Images

Others found that the pressures and stresses of the pandemic tested friendships, as a Gen X female public servant living in a regional city explains:

“Being locked up for so long has changed people. With my friends, tempers flare easily and no one seems to have much energy or inclination to arrange visits or outings.”

Constricting spaces

The long lockdown periods we’ve had of not being able to interact face-to-face with wider family and friends was especially challenging for many of us – which a lot of people commonly experienced as a sense of loss.

Both Gen X and Gen Y participants said they were “struggling”, that forgoing contact with “the people I love…the laughter and the fun” was “heartbreaking” and there was a sense that observing the rituals and celebrations of birth, death and life’s milestones were “stolen” by the pandemic.

As a result, digital communication became crucial. Families used online tools like Zoom and Facetime to communicate and share activities including mealtimes, games and regular chat times.

One Gen Y woman working as a communications adviser in a regional city said:

“We missed our friends and family a lot, but ironically my friends in Tassie and Victoria and I probably started speaking more often than we would have normally, setting up regular Facebook group chats.

Technology like video-conferencing in someways brought people and groups closer together than they were. Picture: Getty Images

And another Gen Y woman working as a policy offer in a capital city said:

“My immediate family and I made an effort to keep in touch during Stage 4 lockdown in Victoria through playing cards online each week while video conferencing .”

However, for some, juggling working from home, caring for children and trying to maintain relationships with family and friends just became too hard – even with digital communications.

A Gen Y woman who worked as a speech pathologist in a capital city said:

“The boundary between work and home life seems to have blurred, so it feels like we have less time for social relationships.”

Lives disrupted

Our results highlight how the COVID-19 pandemic made people acutely aware of their relationships with family and friends, and it’s research like this that gives us an insight into the threads of connection with others that make life worthwhile.

While challenging, COVID-19 and its associated restrictions helped some of us to prioritise who and what is important in our lives.

As a Gen Y male software developer living in a capital city said:

“COVID helped me to figure out which relationships I really wanted to nurture because it took more effort than before.

Banner: Getty Images

Find out more about research in this faculty


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