Dr Gabriela Misca, is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Worcester. She is an expert in child and family psychology and is leading an international research study, in partnership with Relate, into the long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on families and relationships. We have published a previous blog about this study. Here she talks about the initial findings and the next stage of the study.

The lasting impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have been likened to ‘long-Covid in relationships’ by researchers studying its effects on families.

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen our lives turned upside down with every part of society infiltrated, forcing change in all aspects of our lives. Now, as the vaccination programme is rolled out, we are beginning to contemplate how life will be in the aftermath of Covid-19 and into the ‘new normal’.

And just as health research has discovered that some people are suffering from the long-term physical effects of the virus - the so called ‘long-Covid’, researchers from the University of Worcester, in partnership with Relate, have found that the pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions imposed will have enduring impacts on our relationships.

“There has been a complete change in our daily lives,” said Professor Jan Walker, OBE, President of Relate. “The pandemic has inevitably inflicted wounds in many areas of our lives: emotional wellbeing, relationships and in the economy, with many people feeling the strain in their family relationships, being out of work and businesses facing the possibility of permanent closure. And as we are removing the dressing off some of these wounds to see what we are left with, we need to be prepared that things might be very different in the future.”

Over the past months, researchers have collected data from over 1,000 people in the UK as part of the Families Un-locked research study. More than 800 participants were in couple relationships – the majority being married or in a committed relationship - and about half were parents with children aged under 18 living in their household during the pandemic. Importantly, a third of respondents were employed in a ‘key worker’ occupation during the pandemic and a similar proportion reported that their spouse/partner were also key workers.

“We asked people to reflect on the effects of the first lockdown on their families and relationships,” said Dr Gabriela Misca, expert in child and family psychology and the research principal investigator from the University of Worcester. “As we launch the second phase of this study  and aim to capture the impact of the subsequent lockdowns on family life, we are sharing initial findings from the original survey”.

Almost half of the couples (45%) felt that lockdown put a real strain on their relationship and a quarter reporting that worrying about the pandemic caused tension in their relationship; and a similar proportion reported that money worries placed added pressure on their relationship.

Concerningly, almost a third of couples reported that the lockdown had a negative impact, worsening their already struggling relationships.  It is noteworthy that among these couples a third were key workers and couples with partners who were key workers, pointing to the additional strain that they felt under.

The vast majority of parents in the study reported enjoying spending time with their children during lockdown, however, three quarters felt overwhelmed by the childcare responsibilities and have been anxious about their children’s education.

A significant finding of the study points to people’s fears for the future and how the impacts of the pandemic might affect them socially and economically. A third of participants reported feeling worried about the future most of the time and quarter worried that nothing will ever be the same again.

A family are walking down the street with their child

“We have become a society plagued by high levels of fear and anxiety, and this fear will linger around for a long time, just like the ‘long-Covid’, changing people’s behaviour,” said Professor Walker. “There will be scars and we will behave differently towards each other. We need to look at how we manage this ‘long-Covid’ in our relationships going forwards.”

One of the remarkable findings of the study is that just over a third of couples (36%) felt that lockdown has been a positive experience for them; and about four in 10 couples reported that following lockdown they felt they were closer than before, despite also feeling tension in their relationship and both partners worrying. These findings point to the underlying resilience in family relationships - the so-called ‘ordinary magic’ - which enables couples to thrive and bring each other closer despite facing adversity.

Dr Misca commented: “A narrow focus on what has been bad about the pandemic and its scars on our families and relationships will miss the opportunities that this crisis has inadvertently given us, such as the opportunity to change our ways of relating to each other that have been taken for granted; and the opportunity to find better and more sensitive ways to support each other in the future.”

“As we approach the landmark of a year since the World Health Organization has declared the Covid-19 outbreak a global pandemic, it is important to find a moment to stop, reflect and search for the ‘ordinary magic’ of resilience in what undoubtedly has been an extraordinary time for individuals, couples, parents, families and society”, concluded Dr Misca.

Now, the researchers have launched in the UK the second phase with a new survey: Families Un-locked Revisited  and would urge as many people as possible to take part.  As well as seeking to establish how relationships have evolved over the past year and re-current lockdowns, the research is also addressing questions around loneliness, loss and resilience. The researchers invite to participate anyone who took part in the first survey, as well as new participants from a diverse range of backgrounds; and are particularly keen to hear from men and keyworkers. 

As the study’s data are analysed, the researchers will produce practice and policy briefings to help develop new policies and ways to support families, couples and children during the ‘new normal’ and any subsequent waves of the pandemic and/or other public health crises. The research study is concurrently replicated in Australia in collaboration with Relationships Australia to enable international comparisons and knowledge transfer. 

Find out more about the Families Un-locked research study and how you can take part in the second phase of research


All views expressed in this blog do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.

Dr Gabriela Misca, is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Worcester whose research portfolio aims to advance our understanding of complex and/or adverse family dynamics and transitions across the lifespan.