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Covid-19: how have relationships changed for different people?

The measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19 has had a profound effect on our relationships and how we engage with other people, a core aspect of our wellbeing.

Non-essential shops, pubs and restaurants, community venues and theatres were all closed. Sporting and music events were cancelled, and most aspects of social life put on hold. 

We have been looking through studies and surveys that have been conducted in recent months to show where wellbeing impacts have been evident. These have found that people have been affected by:

  • Loneliness: People who already felt most lonely in the UK, have felt even more lonely since social distancing and lockdown measures were introduced. The Covid Social study finds that those most at risk of being lonely have one or more of the following characteristics. They are:

    • young

    • living alone

    • on low incomes

    • out of work 

    • experiencing a mental health condition.

The ONS also identify renting, being single, and overall poor health are also risk factors for loneliness.

Since March, being a student is a higher risk factor for becoming lonely than usual. Surveys find that children and young people in particular are increasingly lonely, with more than one in five pupils in years 12 and 13 feeling lonely ‘very often’. In contrast, the people who were the least lonely at the start of the pandemic, have become even less lonely

  • Domestic violence: The intensity of lockdown within households has resulted in an increase in demand for domestic abuse helplines, particularly from women. At the same time, services have been curtailed. There have been gaps in the provision of services particularly for migrant, Black, Asian, or minority ethnic women or women with disabilities. The mental health of young people in these homes is also a growing concern.
  • Adverse partner relationships: As the incidence of relationship stressors, such as job losses or health concerns have increased, people in challenging relationships have faced increased pressure. 
  • Single people have also reported having less sex than usual.
  • Disabled women are slightly more likely to say that their relationship has been strained, compared to non-disabled women
  • Closer family and home ties: Not all outcomes have been bad for our wellbeing. More than a quarter of parents, and particularly mothers, and those working from home, said that their relationship with their children had improved under lockdown. Of the 46% of UK adults that said that some aspects of their life were better under lockdown, more than half attributed this to spending more time with those that they lived with.
  • Secondary students with higher overall life satisfaction were less likely to experience loneliness, compared with other factors.

Why this matters for wellbeing

  • We know that close relationships and having someone to rely on – whether with partners, family members or friends – are very important for how we feel about our lives overall. Nurturing these relationships is important for our overall wellbeing. This is particularly the case when facing uncertainty in other areas of our lives, such as with our health or employment.

  • Frequent and intense arguments at home, not only make us feel bad in the moment, but can also have long-term effects, particularly on the wellbeing of children.

  • Feeling lonely is strongly associated with reporting high anxiety and has been linked directly to poor physical and mental health.The loneliest people feel the least able to cope and recover from the Covid-19 crisis.

The inequalities exposed and exacerbated

Not having the quantity and quality of relationships that we would want can directly affect our wellbeing, but people that are lonely also share many characteristics  also associated with low wellbeing. This includes poor health and being unemployed, and compounds the negative wellbeing impacts they may have experienced. 

This series will look into how different people have been affected by Covid-19 and the associated policy response, across all areas of life that are important for our wellbeing.

It will identify the people, groups and areas most at risk of negative impacts, as well as where people feel that their lives have improved in some way. This helps us to understand the multiple ways in which an individual or community can be affected. We also need to consider the intersecting identities and characteristics that that can put us at risk of low wellbeing, loneliness, and other negative impacts in multiple ways. 

We are continuing to collect evidence on how people have been affected and invite more contributions here, and are using this to build an overall picture of the unequal impact of Covid-19 on wellbeing in the UK.  

Robin Hewings, Head of Policy and Research, Campaign to end loneliness

“There were early hopes that the sense of togetherness caused by Covid-19 and extraordinary community volunteering might alleviate loneliness in those it most affects. So it is heartbreaking that the evidence shows that those who were already lonely have only become more so.

"Over recent years work to tackle loneliness has stepped up through civil society, business and particularly in government with the loneliness strategy and appointment of a responsible minister. We can build on this momentum now, applying our resources and understanding of loneliness to support people that are struggling the most. 
"The key lesson here is that investment in supporting relationships helps us deal with whatever life throws at us - whether a pandemic or any other emergency."

Implications for a wellbeing-based recovery

To ensure recovery activity effectively targets loneliness reduction, evidence identifies three key areas: 

  • Invest in supporting relationships. People can be supported to strengthen and nurture close personal and family relationships. More research is needed about which interventions deliver the best outcomes for families in the UK. 

  • Provide the means and opportunity for people to leave damaging or toxic relationships. This is critical for people at risk, particularly during a time where movement is likely reduced. 

  • Target the most at-risk groups. Activities that can help to alleviate loneliness have the greatest impact where they are targeted to the most at-risk groups. Increased attention should be paid to young people, those living alone, on low incomes and students, who have been at an even greater risk of loneliness over this period.

Evidence of what works to reduce loneliness shows effective activities need to:

  1. be well-tailored, taking into account things like access to technology; people’s interests; and where they live

  2. reduce the stigma of loneliness 

  3. support existing relationships.

Use our graphics in your recovery plans

You can introduce loneliness in your recovery plans using these free-to-use graphics developed by the Centre:

  1. Events that could trigger loneliness across our lives

  2. Definitions of lonely, isolated, alone, and solitude

  3. Who is at risk of experiencing the lowest wellbeing and loneliness

Measuring loneliness

To measure how relationships have changed for people in your community as a result of Covid-19, identify those most in need, and track the effectiveness of your recovery activity, you can use the recommended measures in our brief guide to measuring loneliness. There are versions suitable for people both over and under 16 years old. 

More resources and organisations

Loneliness evidence and resources

Read more>>

Happiness Pulse

Go to the Pulse>>

Campaign to End Loneliness

Go to their website>>

Thriving Places Index

Go to the Index>

The Children's Society

Go to their website>>

Belong Network

Go to their website>>
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