How Covid-19 has taken its toll on our closest relationships

How Covid-19 has taken its toll on our closest relationships

  • New research reveals more than a quarter feel their relationship has deteriorated
  • The impact is most severely felt amongst younger adults, with 70% of those in their twenties and thirties admitting lockdown has taken its toll
  • Overall, around 1 in 3 (34%) say the pandemic and lockdown has been the most stressful and anxiety-ridden period of their life
  • Despite the easing of restrictions, Priory psychiatrist says couples could consider getting help to avoid a relationship break-up now or in the future

The strain of the Covid-19 pandemic on relationships has been laid bare in a new poll which shows one in four people believes their relationship with their partner has worsened.

With concerns about the future, financial insecurity, home working and in some cases the health and mental health of children and other family members, more than a quarter (26%) of all those adults questioned said their relationship with their partner had deteriorated either ‘considerably’ or ‘somewhat’.

This figure doubles amongst poll respondents in London, with more than half (53%) of couples saying their relationship had suffered.

Those over 65 were happier, according to Priory’s poll[1], with just 10% saying their relationship had deteriorated, compared with 70% of those aged 18-34 for whom the pandemic has had significant economic and emotional effects.

The figures come as new Priory statistics show a sizeable increase in those suffering depression and anxiety seeking help.

Between January 2020 and January 2021, there was a 42% increase in the number of enquiries to Priory’s private services about depression, and a 21.5% increase in enquiries about anxiety.

Priory consultant psychiatrist Dr Natasha Bijlani, who treats patients at Priory’s Roehampton Hospital in south-west London, said many couples had found working in close proximity difficult.

Without the physical buffer of an office, the enforced intimacy (or in some cases the lack of contact with each other where couples live apart), had been a strain for many, exacerbating poor mental health and being a catalyst, in some cases, for potential break-up, she said.

The pandemic had brought tensions to the surface in a heightened, often emotional way, she added, with many worried about whether the damage was recoverable and others feeling a sense of rejection and worthlessness.

“Relationships require mutual compromise and adjustment, and the pandemic affected even the strongest of couples,” Dr Bijlani said. “Previous routines that couples had may have masked pre-existing problems and differences.

“The lack of space or distance between each other to ‘cool off’ under lockdown is likely to have exacerbated disharmony and it is not always possible for couples to address their miscommunication issues. We all tend to get into repetitive patterns of behaviour, particularly with loved ones.

“But recognising difficulties, and working to improve our understanding of each other’s perspective, along with better communication, goes a long way towards preventing breakdown. Psychotherapists are trained to help people understand their behaviour and reactions, as well as to enable individuals and couples to learn to incorporate practical strategies in their relationships that can go a long way to improving not just their own emotional state and ‘sense of self’, but also enhance their communication and relationship with others. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that can help people manage their problems by changing the way they think, feel and behave, in a logical, goal-directed way, she said. CBT therapists help people to change negative patterns of thinking, behaving and communication and, unlike some other talking therapies, it focuses on dealing with current issues rather than problems from the past.

“For example, if a couple have been arguing more, the application of CBT techniques could help them learn to argue more effectively, enabling each person to express their point of view in an appropriately assertive manner, without their partner feeling unheard, dismissed or dominated.”

Our online therapy service offers remote access to fully-trained and qualified Priory psychotherapists and psychologists – all patients need is an internet connection. Therapists treat a variety of conditions or concerns including anxiety, depression, grief and bereavement, and stress. Remote therapy makes it more accessible for many, and less stigmatised. People who use it say they can access it in lunch breaks, in their cars or in a quiet room at home at a time that easily suits them.

The results of the Priory’s survey also flagged concerns about the nation’s overall mental health, with 1 in 3 (34%) saying the pandemic and lockdown had been “the most stressful and anxiety-ridden period of their life”. Around 1 in 4 (24%) said the state of their mental health had been further exacerbated by fear of job loss, or fears about their finances as a result of a job already lost. Nearly half (49%) said stress and “feeling overwhelmed” during Covid-19 had made it difficult to do their job properly.

However, the poll findings also suggested that people are now more likely to actively seek help for their mental health.  Around 1 in 5 (18%) said the impact of the pandemic would encourage them to reach out for help, with one in 10 (10%) stating they had sought mental health support for the first time, either via a charity, helpline, or NHS or private provider.

[1] Online poll of 1,000 adults, see full citation at end



[1]An online survey was conducted by Atomik Research among 1,002 respondents from the UK. The research fieldwork took place on 12th February – 15th February 2021. Atomik Research is an independent creative market research agency that employs MRS-certified researchers and abides to MRS code.



“Changing a difficult situation isn't always possible. So, accept what you cannot change and focus on the things you do have control over - such as regularly connecting with colleagues over video conferencing or online meetings.

Use music

“Put on headphones to listen to music can have many benefits, such as helping you relax and focus on something away from work and the outside world. Turn off rolling news and social media platforms such as Twitter, and just check in once a day. Stretch your legs and take a walk, even just to the garden, the kitchen or another room in your house before returning to your desk. Moving around and changing your environment, even slightly, can clear your mind and re-energise you.”

Coping with panic

Dr Donna Grant, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford, offers some tips to help cope with panic at this time:

“Observe your thoughts and tell yourself that your mind is reacting to these thoughts and anxiety. These feelings are

normal - it's just the body's alarm system doing its job when it doesn't need to.

“Learn to control your breathing. People often hyperventilate during a panic attack. This means taking deeper breaths than normal which results in you feeling short of breath, causing a feeling of dizziness, disorientation and chest pains. By learning to slow your breathing down, you can help prevent the uncomfortable physical symptoms and stop the panic cycle. Try to get a slower and more stable breathing rhythm by breathing in for three seconds, holding your breath for two seconds, and then breathing out for three seconds. As you breathe, ensure that your stomach expands as you take each breath as this helps to ensure the breathing isn't shallow, which can add to the problem.

Learn to use positive coping statements

“When you are feeling anxious and panicky it can be helpful to have 'coping statements' which can be used to remind you that panic is not dangerous and isn't harmful.

Such statements could be:

- Panic is simply high levels of anxiety

- By remembering these symptoms are nothing more than anxiety, I can prevent further symptoms occurring

- My anxiety and panic will pass naturally given time. It doesn't last forever

Reminding yourself of these facts can help to prevent further panic cycles happening.

Keep a journal

Pamela Roberts, a Priory psychotherapist based at Priory’s Woking Hospital, adds that for those who might be self-isolating: “Ensure you are working in a well-ventilated room and following basic self-care, so healthy eating, sleep, lots of hydration, and try to keep to a routine. Set up a ‘buddy group’ with family or friends and regularly check in online or with Facetime.

“If you feel low, journaling can be a helpful way to unload emotions. Go with the flow. Tell yourself ‘what I am doing is enough’. Be good to yourself. If you have slept badly, accept you'll be in a low, more anxious mood. Your energy will be low. Try and relax and focus on positive things knowing that every effort is being made globally to bring this situation to a close, but it will take time. Being able to relax will help you through. When you're tense you tend to dwell on things and make them worse. If you are able, get into your garden and get daily doses of sunshine. Maybe look at some free online courses offered by the Open University. The mental health charity Mind has some very useful advice on self-isolating and your mental health. For support with grief, anxiety, or mental wellbeing, you can call or text an organisation like the Samaritans, or you can access therapy online with a trained therapist.”


Priory expert Steve Clarke, a psychotherapist and hospital director at the Priory¹s Life Works Hospital in Woking, Surrey, explains EMT: ‘Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) - Repetitive finger tapping can sometimes help to release negative emotions such as anxiety. It has been called a psychological version of acupuncture in that it involves making contact with a number of acupuncture points. The specific points to tap are the end-points of the major meridians (meridians are believed to be channels of subtle energy which flow through our body). So, whilst focusing on your negative emotion you tap on a meridian point (collarbone, under the arm and top of the head ­ try to avoid the face at these times) three to seven times, repeating your negative thought in your head. After each emotion, take a deep breath and exhale. Continue this until you feel calmer and relieved. When you feel more relieved, repeat the technique whilst you tap through a positive round, repeating more uplifting phrases.”


Dr Bijlani says: “Make time for a nourishing lunch with adequate hydration. Food and drink can greatly affect your physical and mental health. Stop working at the usual time you would if you had travelled to your office and then try and fit in some social calls to friends or family before you prepare your evening meal. Avoid drinking too much alcohol or eating unhealthy foods out of boredom. Try and keep to boundaries such as only drinking alcoholic beverages in limited quantities at the weekend. Having to spend endless time each day in our homes with others under the lockdown situation is certainly going to affect our relationships with them, regardless of whether they are our loved family members or not. Emotions can be “infectious” and if those around us aren’t able to keep calm and cope well, we could end up getting stressed, fed up, irritable or low ourselves. It’s important for each of us, where we can, to take responsibility for our own health so that we can help keep up a reasonable level of optimism and engender a healthy environment in our homes which we share with others. Try and do some things together, such as sharing the preparation and eating of meals and daily walks together while also maintaining respectful boundaries and giving each other space apart for private time alone. Work as a healthy community. Try and be sensitive, flexible and forgiving without losing your own sense of self or identity. The best way to keep your mood swings under control is to look after yourself by keeping to your usual routine of sleep, diet, exercise and other activities. If you have been prescribed medication for your mental health, then take it as advised.”



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About Priory and MEDIAN

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services. We treat more than 70 conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across our nationwide network of sites. We also support autistic adults and adults with a learning disability, Prader-Willi Syndrome and brain injuries, as well as older people, within our specialist residential care and supported living facilities – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of the MEDIAN Group, one of Europe’s leading providers of high quality mental health and rehabilitation services. The MEDIAN Group comprises 290 facilities with 5,000 beds caring for 28,000 people in the UK, 120 facilities with 20,000 beds caring for around 250,000 patients in Germany, and 15 facilities with 2,000 beds caring for 13,000 people in Spain, with more than 29,000 employees overall.

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