- In the UK, 20% of parent relationships improved, 70% stayed the same, and 10% worsened during the COVID-19 lockdown. But cohabiting moms struggled most. Tweet This
- A significant minority of cohabiting men never fully commit, even though they move in with their partner and have children together. This explains why cohabiting moms have had more of a raw deal than anyone else. Tweet This
There’s been a huge amount of speculation about what lockdown has done to relationships in the United Kingdom. The media have talked up a supposed boom in divorce rates. There’s rather more evidence that mental health problems have increased. This is hardly surprising. For those whose lives feel precarious at the best of times, it’s easy to imagine how lockdown could have pushed them over the edge.
But what has really happened to mainstream relationships? How has the typical family fared where both parents and children have spent far more time at home than ever before?
We have some really great surveys in the UK to give us an answer. A special Covid-19 survey in May for the national household study, Understanding Society, showed that relationships between parents and their kids in the UK had improved for about one-quarter of families–including lone parents–and worsened for between 4% and 7% of families.
A subsequent survey in June looked at relations between parents. And that’s what Professor Steve McKay at the University of Lincoln and I have now analyzed.
Our new analysis examined 2,559 parents who live in a couple household, whether married or cohabiting. There are two main findings:
- Around 20% of UK parents said their relationships had improved during the COVID-19 lockdown. This was pretty well the case across the board, regardless of whether they were mothers or fathers, married or not, how old they or their children were, or whatever their income and employment status.
- Around 10% of parents said their relationships had worsened during lockdown. However, here there was a great deal of variation. Cohabiting mums in particular stood out, with 22% saying their relationships had worsened, compared to 6% of cohabiting dads, 7% of married moms, and 11% of married dads. Cohabiting mothers were also far more likely than anyone else to say that in their relationship: they had quarreled a lot, gotten on each other’s nerves a lot, regretted getting together in the first place, and thought the division of household responsibilities was unfair.
Source: Benson and McKay, Parents in Lockdown, Marriage Foundation, September 2020
This is a pretty astonishing finding that is very specific to cohabiting mothers:
- This is not just moms doing better than dads.
- This is not just richer doing better than poorer.
- This is not just those with younger or older children doing better or worse.
- This is not even just married couples doing better than unmarried couples.
Some cohabiting mothers have done well. Most have fared about the same as everyone else. But a disproportionate minority of cohabiting mothers have clearly struggled.
For me, the most plausible explanation is about commitment and men. When we commit, we want to be together. But there are factors that also make us have to be together. Lockdown is clearly one of those.
So, if we are committed to one another and want to be together, then lockdown shouldn’t have been too much of a burden on our relationship. We want to be together anyway, so lockdown is like wrapping an extra layer around us.
I think that’s why most parents—across the board—said their relationship hadn’t changed or had even improved.
But for some couples, that extra layer is especially uncomfortable when one partner is in any way unsure of how much the other partner really wants to be in the relationship. At best, there’s ambiguity and uncertainty. At worst, there’s asymmetry, where one partner is really less committed than the other.
This is where the gender difference comes in. In married relationships, both men and women have both bought in to the same plan of a lifetime together. So we wouldn’t expect to see much of a gender difference in how married parents viewed lockdown. However, in cohabiting relationships, it tends to be men who are the less committed ones. This doesn’t apply to all cohabiting men, obviously. A minority of cohabiting parents do perfectly well and resemble the majority of married parents.
But it is undoubtedly true that a significant minority of cohabiting men have never fully committed, even though they move in with their partner and even though they have children together. And it’s this that explains why cohabiting moms who are living with these men have had more of a raw deal than anyone else.
If you know deep down that your partner and co-parent isn’t as committed as you are, it is easy to see why lockdown would get on your nerves, make you quarrel more, make you question why you got into the relationship in the first place, and make you put more into home life than your partner so that it feels unfair.
Harry Benson is Research Director of the UK-based Marriage Foundation. An earlier version of this post appeared on the Marriage Foundation blog. This version has been edited with the permission of the author.