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Getting through the pandemic: findings from the Families Un-Locked Study

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The coronavirus pandemic has impacted on all our lives

As we emerge from repeated periods of lockdown and the severe restrictions on our everyday lives, we will need to count the enormous social and economic costs, but we should also reflect on how we have got through the difficult, frightening and unprecedented challenges of the last eighteen months.

Many thousands of people have experienced the loss of a loved one, often without being able to visit or celebrate their life in the usual way. Many others are still recovering from the effects of covid-19 and wondering if their life will ever be the same again. Loneliness resulting from isolation and a range of mental health issues have been major concerns. Yet despite the hardships and losses we have clear evidence of the determination and strength shown by many of the people who responded to a new study.

In August 2020 Relate partnered with the University of Worcester in a new Families Un-Locked Study to explore the long-term impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on families and relationships. During the first phase of the study after the first lockdown in 2020, almost 800 people, some 80% of whom were in a couple relationship, told us how the pandemic was impacting on them.

One of the questions asked was: ’Looking back over the lockdown period, what have been your strengths?’ The study indicates that despite the enormous stresses facing much of the population as the virus took hold, many people found ways to cope and grow through the restrictions, reassessing the way they live their lives, their priorities, and the relationships that really matter.

Many highlighted the importance of having a positive outlook on life, being resourceful, having patience and keeping busy as key factors that had kept them going. Some people had used the time spent at home to make changes to their usual routine or to reflect on life, and others had turned to their faith for support. Importantly, friends and family members provided the impetus to keep going.

Spending time differently Having to stay at home meant that we had to work out how to spend our time under new circumstances, which for many people meant working from home, for some it meant home-schooling their children, and others spent long periods of time living alone.

Being alone was not necessarily a problem for people. Overall, some 75 per cent of people in the study reported that for most or some of the time they had enjoyed having more time for themselves. This unexpected time at home had allowed these people to engage in activities and pastimes that normally have to be squeezed into busy lives.

So people told us that they were able to:

‘enjoy reading’; ‘do more gardening’; pick up on hobbies such as sewing’; ‘take more exercise’; ‘cook more and create interesting things to eat’; and, as some people said, ’enjoy the isolation’ and ’enjoy my own company’.

Some people had made a deliberate decision to make changes in their life and were able to:

‘successfully give up smoking’; ‘take pleasure in nature and the local area’; ‘keep in contact with family and friends; ‘shop online’; ‘meditate’; ‘connect with neighbours; ‘get my eating under control and get fit’; and ‘spend more time outdoors’.

Several people acknowledged that they were very fortunate to have outdoor space, summed up in the following comment:

‘a beautiful garden with colourful plants and flowers, having a great view of the sea as we are on top of a hill’.

Individuals and families living in confined spaces without access to outside space were less fortunate, and life was extremely challenging especially for those who were isolating or deemed vulnerable.

Reflecting on life A number of people had spent time reflecting on life and the things that really matter to them. Just over a third of people reported that most of the time they had maintained a positive attitude and continued to believe that everything will be all right in the end. These people had been optimistic in the face of adversity and had accepted the situation they found themselves in.

So, for example, we received the following comments about how some people had found inner strength:

‘lockdown has given me the opportunity to reflect in a deeper way and to prioritise the things that really matter to me’; ‘appreciating the people in my life, letting people know they are a gift’; ‘being considerate and kind to all’; ‘the ability to ask myself how I’m feeling and being able to deal with that…ability to accept the unknown and take things as they come’; ‘being kind to myself; ‘knowing it is okay not to feel okay sometimes; ’ and, as one person told us, ‘presence and peace of mind, perspective and prioritising, permission to feel whatever I feel, see and value present benefits’.

Drawing on faith Some people had relied on their faith to get them through the pandemic with comments such as the following:

‘my trust in God and relationship with Him keeps difficulties in perspective’; ‘my faith and positive self-talk’; and ‘my faith…I don’t over-worry and can give myself time and space for calming’.

Strengthening relationships During the pandemic there have been many reports of the negative impacts on couple relationships to the extent that incidents of domestic abuse increased and some people have been locked into abusive situations with no means of escape. The evidence suggests that the pandemic and the restrictions on our daily life have had a seriously detrimental impact on the mental health of many adults and children, impacts which may continue to be felt for months and years into the future.

However, these same restrictions have enabled some couples to strengthen their relationship. Over a third of those in the study who were in a couple relationship during the lockdown reported that it had been a positive experience, a quarter of couples felt positive about their relationship, and four in ten couples emerged from lockdown feeling closer than before.

Asked about their strengths, these couples made comments such as the following:

‘a strong marriage and this experience has deepened the love I feel for my husband’; ‘caring for my boys and my partner…nursing my partner back to health’; ‘maintaining strong relationship with my partner’; ‘our relationship as a couple is very mutually supportive’; ‘communicating my needs and desires to my husband’; ‘having a strong supportive personal partnership’; and ’ being able to talk about things in depth with my husband’.

There is evidence from the study also that maintaining strong relationships with wider family and friends has been extremely important during the pandemic. We received many comments which indicate the value of family connections and friendship in helping people to cope:

'we have become much stronger and happier as a family unit. It has made me appreciate friends and family so much more and to appreciate the small pleasures in life’; ‘my support network has been great…I have continued caring for my children…I have kept everyone else going and have supported members of my extended family and my friends’; good neighbours who we all get on with as friends’; ‘keeping up communication with others, checking in on how they were coping’; and ‘keeping in touch with friends’.

There is no doubt that being able to communicate via zoom or FaceTime was extremely important for many people. Being digitally competent and having the appropriate technology gave many people the strength to cope because they were able to stay in touch with friends and family remotely, celebrate special occasions, and provide solace when times were especially hard.

Counting one’s blessings Despite the horrors of the pandemic and the grip it has had on our country it is important to recognise that not all the outcomes have been negative. Dr Gabriela Misca, the Research Principal Investigator at the University of Worcester has pointed out that 'a narrow focus on the scars the pandemic has left on people’s lives and relationships is in danger of missing the opportunities that the crisis has inadvertently given us to find more positive ways of relating to ourselves and others and taught us to value the little things that we so often take for granted. These findings point to an underlying resilience which enables individuals, couples and families to thrive despite considerable adversity.'

The second phase of the study which is exploring experiences over the past year and subsequent lockdowns is currently ongoing and is open to everyone in the UK aged 18 and over, irrespective of whether they took part in the first phase.

Find out more about the Families Un-locked - Revisited study and get information on how to take part.

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