How has social interaction declined as a result of stay-at-home orders?
In the early period of COVID-19, many regions in the United States (as well as other international governments) worked on limiting the spread of the respiratory virus. This led to the closure of “schools and nonessential businesses, and shelter-in-place orders.”  We thrive off our social networks, which can include “spouses and partners, to coworkers, friends, and acquaintances,” and this article should begin with the fact that we have made certain changes to help adapt to this new way of life.  With video call apps like Zoom, we have been able to keep in contact with the people we love. Social support has drastically shifted online, which is good because this form of support is “not bound by geography.” 
Still, remote communication is not the same as the real thing.
The closure of schools brought young adults and adolescents to make less social contact with friends, and increased time spent with family due to the stay-at-home orders put in place. For adults, who were either working from home or became unemployed, this meant an increased amount of time being home alone or with their partner. Having spontaneous social interaction became limited, which could include “conversations with colleagues in a break room” or “a chance conversation” with a stranger.  We can no longer go in for a hug or a handshake when meeting with someone without a moment’s hesitation. There is a level of “awkwardness and uncertainty” that comes with in-person interactions, which can take away from the warmth we would usually feel.  Wearing masks has made it difficult to interpret how another person is feeling, where we cannot read expressions the same way (if, at all). These normal, human interactions are so much harder to come by.
A digital study was done in Florida, Minnesota, and Arizona that studied some of the effects of stay-at-home orders on social relationships. Social relationships are shown to have direct impacts on a person’s health. Just as certain medications can improve our mental states, social support is shown “to lower likelihood of anxiety and depression.”  With these stay-at-home orders in place, social distancing was shown to “decrease emotional well-being” where most people found meaning in going out and doing daily activities. 
One example of this was increased loneliness in individuals (mostly women). This is shown to be a result of the pandemic creating “discrepancies between actual and desired levels of social interaction.”  This means that the pandemic began to control whether people could socially interact or not. Friends were no longer able to meet up, family members were separated for holidays (if they didn’t reside in the same household), and romantic relationships were limited to video calls and online dates (also if they did not live together). Another negative reaction that individuals had was a decrease in the sense of friendship. People were asked to “limit time spent outside of the home.” 
How does this decrease in social interaction affect romantic partnerships?
Intimacy is referred to “the feeling of emotional connection and closeness with other human beings,” whether that be with friends, family, or romantic relationships.  Intimacy is a strong and basic human need that most people strive for. For those living with friends or family, the pandemic opened opportunities to strengthen emotional relationships. Those living alone felt “loneliness and lower mental well-being.”  When it comes to physical touch, another form of intimacy, many people were restricted by social distancing efforts. The decrease of physical touch in many relationships led to a decrease in emotional well-being, and many assume that “new levels of anxiety over germs may introduce hesitancy” when physical affection is able to resume.  This has mainly affected the romantic relationships in which physical intimacy holds an important role.
There have been mixed results on whether romantic partnerships have been negatively or positively impacted by the restriction of social interaction overall. A study done in 2020 showed that many partners became “more forgiving and less blaming of their partner’s negative behaviors,” but this was also factoring in pre-existing habits that the couples practiced pre-pandemic.  It was stated that couples who practiced “positive coping efforts” were able to continue those practices during the pandemic, which resulted in “a small increase in relationship satisfaction and adaptive attributes.”  On the other hand, couples that had “poor coping and high conflict” history found that their relationship satisfaction overall decreased. 
Another study was done in the UK in 2021, with most participants being white, heterosexual, and, on average, 36 years old in a relationship of around 11 years. This study focused on “communication, togetherness, quality time, sharing responsibilities, and space,” where these individuals answered questions related to each topic. 
Communication seemed to be one subject that changed for many participants of the study, either positively or negatively. Some couples “noted a buildup of emotions had created tension and arguments,” while others identified “increased patience and understanding.”  Quality time for many participants was increased due to the stay-at-home orders put into place, and therefore this “enhanced partners’ feelings of affection, with some also noting intimacy, such as sex life.”  Although quality time was increased, there were many instances where space became an issue. Individuals felt a sense of “cabin fever”, where personal space became more limited. This led to frustration between couples at first, but most found that the successful way of getting around that was through “creating emotional and physical space while respecting each other’s needs and boundaries.” 
Sharing responsibilities in the household led participants to work together more, alleviating some of the stress that came with the pandemic. Some people found that “there was a clear outline to share tasks,” while others ended up having to scramble for a plan.  Still, this teamwork fed into an overall sense of togetherness, where couples were challenged to be emotionally closer to their partners. Many participants found more things to appreciate about their partner, as being in close quarters forced them to learn more about each other. Overall, this study showed that couples who were more understanding of each other handled the stress and uncertainty well, while those who let the stress consume them were more conflicted and distanced.
What are some ways to stay connected and recover from this social decline?
Although it is important to stop the spread of COVID in order to keep ourselves and loved ones safe, it is also unrealistic to remain cooped up all hours of the day. Being online all the time can also be mentally exhausting, where you don’t have much movement, and staring at a screen all day can hurt your eyes. Balancing our online and offline reactions is one way we can start recovering. Offline interactions can still be achieved, even if it must be more cautiously planned than before. Following social distancing rules and wearing a mask are important tools we can use to start meeting in person again.
With social distancing in place, where travel has been restricted, it means that communities have opportunities to be more closely knit together. Community activities can allow residents to have events that are safe and close by. For example, community gardens can be a great idea, where social distancing wouldn’t be a problem (with enough gardening space), and it would build a community of people with the same interest. As Long states in their article about the pandemic and its effects on social interaction, capitalizing on the community can encourage “physical activity and mental health, as well as facilitating social bonding.” 
With a little cooperation, consideration, and caution, having more in-person social interactions with friends, family, and romantic partners can happen safely and still be a fun, heartwarming experience.
1. Yarger, J., Gutmann-Gonzalez, A., Han, S. et al. Young people’s romantic relationships and sexual activity before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMC Public Health 21, 1780 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-11818-1
2. Long, E., Patterson, S., Maxwell, K., Blake, C., Bosó Pérez, R., Lewis, R., McCann, M., Riddell, J., Skivington, K., Wilson-Lowe, R., & Mitchell, K. R. (2022). COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on social relationships and health. Journal of epidemiology and community health, 76(2), 128–132. https://doi.org/10.1136/jech-2021-216690
4. Williamson, H. C. (2020). Early Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Relationship Satisfaction and Attributions. Psychological Science, 31(12), 1479–1487. an initial "stay-at-home" phase of the covid-19 pandemic: A longitudinal survey study in the U.S. Social Science & Medicine. Retrieved January 21, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953621001118
4.Williamson, H. C. (2020). Early Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Relationship Satisfaction and Attributions. Psychological Science, 31(12), 1479–1487. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620972688
5. Vowels, L. M., Francois-Walcott, R. R. R., Perks, R. E., & Carnelley, K. B. (2021). “Be free together rather than confined together”: A qualitative exploration of how relationships changed in the early COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(10), 2921–2943. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075211041412
Author: Kayjah Taylor
Editor: Lauryn Agron
Health scientist: Carmen Kavyarimana