The State of Us - Couple Relationships in Post-Pandemic Britain

Published in Blog on September 30th 2021

There will hopefully never be another time like 2020-2021, when our lives have been so confined.

Tavistock Relationships launches its findings from a major piece of research via YouGov on the UK's relationships in the pandemic and post pandemic - 'Levelling up begins at home: the urgent need to support relationships and families in post-pandemic Britain'. CEO Andrew Balfour offers his perspective on how relationship support from the Government can help now.

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Andrew Balfour CEO - September 2021

YouGov Survey: The State of Us - Couple Relationships in Post-Pandemic Britain

As part of our charitable mission to enhance the understanding of couple relationships and how to support them, we recently undertook survey research to find out about how the UK’s relationships have fared during the Coronavirus pandemic. Our survey canvassed the views of more than 2,000 adults across the United Kingdom and the results paint a disturbing picture of the state of couples and families in post-pandemic Britain.

Four out of ten respondents felt that the experience of lockdown would have long-term impacts on their mental health, and a similar number said that the pandemic caused additional stress for their children and wider family. It is especially concerning that separated parents have particularly struggled, with 68% of them saying the pandemic had caused additional family difficulties.

Indeed, the impact of the pandemic on parents has been stark, with 14% reporting that the experience of lockdown led them to consider splitting up - parents being twice as likely as couples without children to reach this point. The stress of the pandemic has led to increased conflict and difficulty in our couple relationships more generally, and in many cases resulted in relationships being at their worst point ever, or breaking up. Around a quarter of all respondents felt that the pandemic had caused increased stress and conflict in their couple relationship and half of those felt their relationship was at its worst point ever.

This is not surprising - for many people during the pandemic our immediate family relationships have been our entire personal worlds, with wider social and family networks only available to us online. Families have had to bear the emotional strain as we have been cut-off from the outside world of work and wider social contexts. In my clinical work, I have seen many couples where fault lines in their relationship, which have previously held, have been blown apart by the pandemic and its mix of heightened anxiety along with the removal of external structures and social supports. For many of us, the pandemic has meant that we have been reliant on our family relationships for all of our support. Where there have been underlying vulnerabilities in these relationships, these have inevitably become amplified. Never before has the link between our relationships and our mental health been so apparent to us.

The survey results are interesting on this issue - with two thirds of all respondents telling us that the pandemic also brought home to them the value of their relationships - and this theme is echoed in people’s attitudes to relationship support. Three quarters said they believed that where parents are in conflict, their children would benefit if they sought help. Almost half of those surveyed believe that relationship support should be provided free of charge in the UK and the same number thought that, as a result of the pandemic, people will be more likely to seek personal, relationship or mental health support.

The Pandemic Has Struck the Disadvantaged Hardest

Overall, the message from this survey seems clear: family relationships are under strain - and people believe that couple and family relationships need support now, just as our mental health does. Indeed, the experience of the pandemic has brought home to us what research has long shown: in many respects relationship health is mental health. When relationships are in trouble our mental health suffers. When relationship therapy is effective, we see significant improvements in mental health as well as in relationship quality. For example, year on year, figures released by NHS Digital indicate that couple therapy is one of the most effective psychological treatments for depression and anxiety. This is so important not just for the wellbeing of parents, but for their children too. Those children whose parents are in poor mental health are more vulnerable to developing such problems themselves, and this association has increased since the pandemic - as our most vulnerable families have become more disadvantaged than ever. While some may have benefited from the opportunity to spend more time with their partners and families during the pandemic, for a significant number of families, life has become much harder.

Given that the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review is now underway, these findings show that the need for support for couples and families is greater than ever. For the Government’s ‘Levelling-Up’ agenda to have lasting and meaningful results, we must support the relationships and mental health of all families, particularly those who have suffered differentially badly as a result of the pandemic. Levelling up begins at home.

Significant progress has been made in recent years around the public awareness of mental health and more people than ever are seeking mental health support. At the same time, there’s evidence that parental conflict is on the increase, and the workload of the family courts has significantly risen over the last 10 years. It is heartening to see in our survey such a high level of awareness of the benefits of relationship support for the mental health of adults, and the life chances of their children. It’s clear that by investing in relationships we can improve both adult and child mental health, and save money further down the line by better supporting struggling families in this way.

Our Call for Increased Relationship Support Now

We are calling on the Government to increase access to relationship support for families across the UK and to build upon the success of programmes such as Reducing Parental Conflict (RPC), funded by the Department for Work & Pensions. A recent cost-benefit analysis concluded that every £1 spent could generate more than £10 in benefits. Now is not the time to stop this innovative work. The problem which the Reducing Parental Conflict programme was originally intended to address - namely, inter-generational cycles of deprivation caused by the damaging impacts of inter-parental conflict on children’s developmental outcomes - has been made worse by the pandemic. As a consequence of the Government’s far-sightedness, the RPC pilot programme, instantiated before the pandemic, has yielded evidence of what works to reduce parental conflict, improve mental health and benefit child outcomes. This evidence should form the basis of our plans to tackle this issue at scale, enabling us to deliver evidence-based interventions for parents across the UK as part of the Government’s post-pandemic strategy of building back, better.

You can read more about our YouGov report findings here.

Andrew Balfour, September 2021.

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