couple talking in bed

How Couples Are "Working On It" in 2023

This month, we are showcasing a collection of content that presents all of the unique, real, and relatable strategies that people in relationships use to work through their issues together—because we are all works in progress.

In This Digital Issue:

So much has changed in the last three years about how we live, work, and love. When it comes to marriages and other romantic relationships, lockdowns, isolation, working from home, and other changes have created a unique set of challenges and stressors. On the other hand, many couples have improved their connections with opportunities to spend more time together. We are also learning what this looks like looking forward.

According to Verywell Mind's 2021 survey on dating and cohabitating during the pandemic, about one-fourth of respondents said that, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, their relationships have improved, and about one-fourth said that their relationships have deteriorated. While some have cherished getting to know each other better, others reported boredom.

Has your relationship changed in the last few years? Learn more about how the pandemic has affected how we connect with each other and how to cope with relationship stressors in 2023 and beyond.

How Relationships Have Changed

We spoke with Dr. Andrea Medaris, assistant director of the Center for Relationships at Psychology Specialists of Maine, about how romantic relationships and marriages have changed since the start of the pandemic. Dr. Medaris said: “I wouldn’t say relationships have changed as much as people are more aware of the relationships they’re in."

"When there’s so much going on and we’re always coming and going from the home, it’s easy to sweep problems under the rug or put them off until the kids are older, what have you, but when you’re with your partner day in and day out, those problems get a lot harder to ignore.”

Basically, people have more time and energy to focus on pre-existing issues rather than seeing new issues emerge. Dr. Medaris has noticed an increase in referrals for couples therapy, with more clients sharing that “we were ignoring [the problem]; we didn’t realize how bad it was until we couldn’t look away from it anymore.”

This has created lasting trends: couples are more willing to explore, talk about, and work through conflicts rather than letting them fester.

In fact, a new Verywell Mind survey of 1,106 US adults who are living with their partner shows that 99% of respondents who are in couples therapy say that it has had a positive impact on their relationship, and three out of four (76%) say it has a high or very high impact. Sixty-six percent of respondents who stopped going to couples therapy did so because it helped resolve their problems.

Kaleb and Sierra are one couple whose relationship has evolved over the past several years. They moved in together in 2019 and got engaged in February 2020, right before social distancing and lockdowns began. They both transitioned to working from home. They shared, “It was tough to focus on “us” vs. everything else happening around us” when everything shifted. Over time, they report that they found balance with this, though it was a challenge at first.

This new balance has led to stronger connections and better communication for many, which can set the stage for a healthier relationship going forward.

How Managing Conflict Has Changed

Dr. Medaris shared that one theme that has emerged in recent years are differences in risk tolerance and values around handling potential dangers. She said: “We trust our partners to protect us and keep us safe, both physically and emotionally, and if their risk tolerance is different from ours, it can lead to a lot of mistranslations like, ‘They don’t care about me as much as I care about them’ or ‘They want to control me.’ A lot of what we’re seeing on a global scale with regard to vaccinations and masking, a lot of those arguments are happening locally too, within relationships.”

In other words, the worldwide debates we see manifest individually within our relationships if you and your partner disagree on the best way to manage ongoing risk. The ongoing focus on mental health and self-exploration means that there is more willingness to engage in couples therapy and work through conflicts, whether this means coming to a new understanding together or separating.

If differences in values have led to the end of a relationship, individuals can move forward with a better understanding of who they are and what they are looking for in future relationships. If they re-enter the dating scene, they might be able to communicate their needs and connect with someone who shares their values, with a mutual understanding early on.

For Sierra and Kaleb, they were able to grow closer over their shared values around safety and precautions. Although their routines have changed, they say this “new normal” works for them: “To be honest, we DO do less than we did pre-pandemic outside the house, but we are okay with that.”

Couples Therapy in the Future

According to Dr. Medaris, the focus of her work with couples remains the same: “To look beneath the context.” Although disagreements and arguments, on the surface, may be about one topic, “It’s more like a dormant virus that is having a flare-up in response to environmental stressors.” If a conflict brings out arguments that represent pre-existing, underlying conflicts that were previously ignored, you might see this as an opportunity to address problems that already exist in your relationship.

Willingness to dig into these pre-existing tensions can create positive communication patterns and changes into the future.

Of course, telehealth and online therapy might be the biggest shift we have seen in the past few years. While some continue to prefer in-person sessions, overall, most therapists and couples have seen comparable treatment outcomes to online couples therapy compared to in-person. Dr. Medaris acknowledged that there was apprehension at first: “There was a perception in couple therapy, even more than individual, I think, that you couldn’t build good emotional tension or a good connection with the therapist over video.”

In practice, however, this has not been the case. According to Dr. Medaris, “If anything, telehealth can enhance the practice of couple therapy in many ways, by allowing the therapist to see faces up close, for example.  And it certainly increases access for people trying to juggle two work schedules and childcare to fit therapy into their lives.” This increased accessibility has made therapy an option and has the potential to improve countless relationships going forward.

With telehealth entering the mainstream, couples living in rural areas and service deserts can still access therapy because they do not physically need to go to the therapist's office to be seen. They can additionally find a therapist who specializes in the problems they are facing even if that therapist is located several hours from them. Going forward, telehealth can hopefully continue to increase access to care.

Opportunities for Relationship Growth

Despite new stressors, the past few years have been a time of growth for many. According to Sierra, “In my opinion early lockdown gave a lot of people time to reflect on themselves and their relationships and because of that a lot of people shifted their focus with what they look for in relationships and need out of them. I see more people being direct with their wants and needs from others.”

Many have learned to assert themselves, both identifying needs they had not previously acknowledged and getting these needs met.

Kaleb shared, “I’ve seen people really take the time to think about who they are, what they need in their lives, and make the changes necessary. For some people, that has been breaking up with partners or having conversations about better communication, needs, wants, and re-working their future planning.” Increased self-understanding means knowing what you want and need from a relationship and being able to ask for it.

Going forward, many can continue to foster this growth. Now that they had time to plant the seed for self-actualization and understanding, they can maintain the positive changes they were able to make.

Overall, it is clear that the challenges of the past few years have led to significant changes in our relationships. For some, this has meant a deeper connection to their loved ones, while others have learned that their relationship is no longer working. Increased accessibility through telehealth has helped many make the best decision for themselves and their families.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hardy NR, Maier CA, Gregson TJ. Couple teletherapy in the era of COVID‐19: Experiences and recommendationsJ Marital Fam Ther. 2021;47(2):225-243.

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.