study from the University College of London finds over a fifth (22 percent) of adults say they have experienced a complete breakdown of a relationship with either family, friends, colleagues, or a partner in the past year. The results are part of a larger 72-week study with 70,000 participants that seeks to examine social patterns and overall mental health of adults during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK.  

While many of us may be well aware of the stressors that Covid-19 has introduced into our relationships, the data from the study provides interesting nuances. A decline in relationship quality in 2021 compared to 2020 was most prominent for relationships with other relatives (not parents or children) outside of the household (20% in 2021 vs 14% in 2020). This aligns with a wealth of anecdotal accounts of those exasperated with relatives who hold anti-vaccine or anti-mask views, but could also be due to a lack of in-person contact with travel and physical distancing restrictions in place for a large portion of the above mentioned time period.    

Young adults aged 18-29 (35%) and people with a mental health diagnosis (37%) had the highest proportion of relationship breakdowns, demonstrating yet again the disproportionate impact of this pandemic on this age group. People living with children (27%) and people with lower household income (24%) also had higher rates of relationship breakdowns. 

Twenty five percent of young adults aged 18–29 reported a worsening of their relationships specifically with their spouse or partner and a worsening of relationships with colleagues or co-workers. In more positive news, 46 percent of young adults said the quality of their relationships with their spouse or partner has been better than usual over the last year. This is a higher proportion than in adults aged 30-59 and those aged 60 and over, with 27 percent and 21 percent of these age groups reporting a better relationship with their spouse or partner respectively. The researchers suggested that young adult couples may have benefitted from remote working allowing them to spend more time together. 

The researchers suggested also that job losses, anxiety over finances, and a lack of in-person contact could have played a role in overall relationship breakdowns. Digital and online communication, such as a misinterpreted text message, lack nonverbal social cues and therefore can cause small misunderstandings. These would normally be cleared up face-to-face, but during lockdowns are left to fester. Social media also presents an often unrealistic and idealistic portrait of people’s lives, leading to an increase in jealousy and loneliness. Rising rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness in youth during the pandemic should also not be underestimated as a driving factor in these relationship breakdowns. Research shows that when we feel lonely, we are more likely to interpret interactions with friends negatively and thus loneliness often begets loneliness. 

Loneliness is a risk factor for many health conditions. Studies have reported an association with cardiovascular disease, sleep quality, increased inflammation, and decreased viral immunity, even after controlling for various other factors. Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely. The increased mortality risk of loneliness is comparable to that from smoking.   

A Harvard study on adult development which has run for over 80 years found that close relationships, more than money or fame are key to maintaining lifelong happiness. The study follows 268 Harvard sophomores from 1938 and their offspring. They found that close relationships help delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. 

While there have been many anecdotal accounts of fractured or broken relationships during the pandemic, we now have the data to quantify this trend. Given the substantial impact of our relationships on our mental and physical health, this is a trend we should all be paying attention to.