For many people around the world, the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak represents uncharted waters. Unlike more localised crises, the global nature of this pandemic means citizens are able to benchmark their own government’s response to the outbreak against the response by governments in other nations.
This can lead people to question whether their government is doing too little or too much in response to managing the outbreak. For example, in the UK, doubts over the government’s initial reticence to mandate “social-distancing” policies that had already been mandated abroad led to public outcry and letters from scientists requesting greater transparency regarding the science behind these policy decisions.
However, these feelings of uncertainty towards the government may have unintended consequences for families in self-isolation trying to adapt and coexist under the same roof morning, noon and night.
Recent work from our team accepted for publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests people may cope with uncertainty in their socio-political relationships by affirming their faith in their close familial bonds, and vice versa.
Across two daily diary studies, a weekly study in the build-up to the 2018 midterm election, and a 3-year study of newlyweds, we found that people coped with feelings of uncertainty in politicians by affirming greater trust and faith in their spouses and children.
What this meant is that on days when people felt that the government had behaved in a way that violated what they expected from them, people compensated for this uncertainty by affirming how caring their spouses and children had been that day.
On the other hand, when it was their close family members who were the ones behaving out of the ordinary, people compensated by affirming that they believed the president had their best intentions at heart.
It is worth highlighting this research was all conducted in the USA, nonetheless, there are important implications that we can take away to better understand the current circumstances many of us find ourselves in.
Our research highlights the importance of realising that our social worlds are more connected than many people have previously believed or realised.
Typically, people think about their romantic relationships, and even their broader family networks, as closed systems. For example, people would anticipate that a fight between spouses would have consequences for their children, but not necessarily assume they would impact their neighbours.
However, our research suggests that the actions within our family networks can change how we think, feel and act socio-politically. These socio-political actions directly impact others by virtue of changing who we vote for and the policies we support. Likewise, our research shows that the actions of our politicians can shift whether we are more or less forgiving of a quarantine partner who refuses to close the kitchen cupboard.
Maintaining satisfying, cohesive, and conflict-free relationships is not only good for our mental health, but is also important for our physical well-being. When it comes to coping with a bizarre and constantly changing world, the extent to which we feel satisfied in our relationships can be an important buffer against feelings of uncertainty and unexpected behaviour.
So, is there anything people can do to fortify their relationships during these challenging days ahead?
One strategy may be to try and reframe recent conflicts with family members. In a marital intervention study declines in marital quality and satisfaction were eliminated when couples were asked to spend seven minutes every few months re-imagining a recent conflict through the eyes of a neutral, third-party observer. Likewise, taking the time to clearly communicate what we want and expect from our partners can pay dividends in the future.
In these unprecedented times, we need to be able to lean on those close to us for support, comfort, and safety. Perhaps there is some solace in knowing that the nightly news updates and their accompanying uncertainty may have the unintended side-effect of drawing us closer to our loved ones by the end of this.