Families in Psychiatry

Me, my spouse, and COVID

Managing family conflict and cohesion


I watched you in the garage, with your wipes and your mask, your gloves and bottles of sprays and potions. I admired your fealty to CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta as he demonstrated the proper technique for disinfecting groceries. I watched sterile protocol being broken and quietly closed the garage door.

I listened to your descriptions of the agility of the virus with each exhalation of breath, and how far the virus could travel with a tailwind and in cold dry air. I listen as closely and with the same intention as I listen to my yoga teacher’s explication of the benefits of attention to the breath.

Dr. Alison M. Heru, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver, Aurora

Dr. Alison M. Heru

Relatives and friends came prepared to be entertained outdoors. Even masked, you eschewed the world. Your version of science clashes with my laissez-faire attitude. We blow up as a couple. Then we settle down and learn how to cope with the stress, as a team, together.

The COVID factor

In the first few months of any stressor, family and couple functioning must reorganize to manage well. Like a family that welcomes a new child, we all have had to make accommodations for our unwelcome guest, COVID-19.

During lockdown, social scientists accessed an eager public ready to participate in their studies. With nowhere to go, many people, especially women, completed online COVID surveys. Community-based tools such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index identified populations of high social vulnerability (as caused by external stresses on human health, such as unemployment, overcrowding, presence of an individual with caregiving needs, and low educational attainment). It is assumed that such populations will experience more stress and have more difficulty coping and adjusting.

In a study by a team at the University of Miami, social vulnerability was associated with more disrupted family functioning, except when households with children (n = 2,666) were compared to households without children (n = 1,456).1 What allowed these families with children to enjoy better functioning?

Looking more closely at the Miami study, what can we find? It is a large survey study (n = 4,122), disseminated through professional networks and social media via purchased Facebook and Instagram ads. Data were logged in REDCap, and participants had the option of taking the survey in English or Spanish. Most participants were female (93.5%), 55.7% responded in English, and 44.3% in Spanish. There were few differences between the women who had and did not have children, in terms of their age, employment status, and education level. The number of children in the household did not affect the results.

This study used a new tool called the COVID-19 Household Environment Scale. This tool has 25 items measuring individual and household characteristics, and associated COVID-19 stressors. This tool also includes two family functioning measures: conflict and cohesion, asking the respondent to reflect on the change in “conflict” or “togetherness,” as it relates to household experiences and activities, compared with the period before social distancing.

The surprising finding was that even though households with children reported more conflict than before the start of the pandemic, they also reported more cohesion. This syncs with my experience. My niece and nephew found that having their teenage children at home brought them closer as a family, cut down on some of the extracurricular activities they did not support, and generally “slowed the world down.”

However, in a study in Germany, survey respondents (n = 1,042) noted that having children up to 17 years old was associated with decreases in satisfaction with family life, although this was not related to changes in family demands. The study assessed changes over 6 months and underscores the fact that perceptions of family demands and family well-being are independent of each other.2

These findings also resonate with prior research that measured burden and reward in couples. High burden is not associated with low reward; these two constructs are independent of each other.3


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