Exploring the Effects of Social Isolation on Couples During a Pandemic

A UConn researcher is part of an effort to study how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the way couples communicate and stay healthy.

Senior couple staying home and staying fit during COVID-19 lockdown

Researchers are studying whether strong relationships have helped couples in cities stay healthier during the COVID-19 pandemic (Getty Images).

During the time of COVID-19, life as we know it has irrevocably changed. Because of shelter-in-place policies, normal daily activities –  going to the office, going outside, seeing friends, spending time with family – have been disrupted or derailed entirely.

Now, a team of researchers from the University of Connecticut’s Department of Communication and Columbia University’s Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health will examine how shelter-in-place policies have impacted physical exercise among couples in densely populated cities like Chicago, Boston, and New York City. Investigators on the project include UConn’s Amanda Denes and Columbia’s Talea Cornelius.

Physical activity is a critical factor in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, as low levels of exercise can contribute to several health risks including obesity, heart disease, multiple cancers, and Type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, the current state of affairs, particularly in crowded cities with stay-at-home orders or social distancing policies, is not conducive towards many common forms of physical activity.

For example, someone living in a densely populated city may find it difficult to go for a run and maintain safe social distances from others the entire time, which in turn may limit their ability to exercise. Between the safety risks of outdoor exercise in densely populated areas and gym closures (or greater restrictions and strict limits on how many people can be in gyms that have reopened), many people may face a decrease in their exercise levels.

Denes, Cornelius, and their colleagues will look at the physical activity levels of couples living in several major cities before and after the shelter-in-place policies. By examining this data, the researchers will answer an important question: How has the amount of exercise people engage in been impacted by these shelter-in-place policies?

However, not everyone may experience the same adverse impacts. According to existing research, people in high-quality relationships typically experience more social support and positive interactions, which may help create a home environment more conducive to maintaining individual health and well-being. The researchers believe these high-quality relationships may counteract the unfavorable effects of shelter-in-place mandates, therefore allowing for the maintenance of, or the creation of new, exercise habits compared to people in poor-quality relationships, who may see a bigger drop in healthy behaviors.

Relationship quality is more important than ever, as physical interaction with people outside of one’s household has been sharply limited during the pandemic. Critically, the COVID-19 pandemic can place great strain on couples. Denes, Cornelius, and their research team will also explore how couples’ communication changes during these difficult times.

The conclusions reached from this research have the potential to garner more insight on how shelter-in-place and social distancing policies have impacted physical activity habits among couples. The findings from the study will also help clarify how relationships and the communication that occurs within them affect physical activity, as well as how relational partners influence each other’s health. Ultimately, the study will answer important questions regarding the effects of relationships on health and well-being during stressful times.


This study is funded by a seed grant from the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) to examine social and behavioral implications of COVID-19.

Amanda Denes is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut. She received her B.A. from Boston College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in communication from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her primary area of research specialization is interpersonal communication, with emphasis in biosocial models of communication, sexual communication, and communication processes related to maintaining successful relationships.

Talea Cornelius is an instructor in medical sciences at the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health, Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She attended Rutgers University for her B.A. in psychology, Boston University for her M.S.W. in clinical social work, and the University of Connecticut for her Ph.D in social psychology. Cornelius’s research examines health behavior and behavior change in dyads, with a focus on the impact of acute medical events on couples.

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