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The University of Southampton

Covid-19 spells trouble for millions of couples: the impact of unemployment on relationships

Published: 20 May 2020

Spells of unemployment can damage romantic relationships in both the short- and long- term, and are particularly disruptive for women, a recent study has found.

The study’s findings highlight how the current economic crisis could have long-reaching implications for millions of couples and families. Women appear to be more affected by their (male) partners’ unemployment. Problems within relationships mount-up when men are unemployed and, even when men become re-employed, women often still feel less happy about their relationships. Indeed, long spells of unemployment can cause serious problems for relationships, even leading to break-ups.

Using data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), Dr Niels Blom and Professor Brienna Perelli-Harris of the ESRC Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton have uncovered the gendered nature of relationships and employment within British couples.

Dr Blom commented: “Although attitudes have changed in recent decades it seems that, in the UK, people continue to see men in the ‘breadwinning’ role. This could explain why men’s unemployment experiences affect women’s relationship quality but not vice versa.

"In the current climate of precarious employment due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, our findings underline the damage that unemployment can have on our romantic relationships, and in turn, wider family units.

"Identifying times when couples are especially susceptible to economic hardship is extremely important for informing policies. For example, the government’s Troubled Families Programme, which aims to reduce the strain faced by vulnerable families, already recognises the impact of unemployment. However, these programmes should not only offer relationship support to the unemployed, but also their partners, guiding them through the period of unemployment and subsequent re-employment.

"As we go forward during and after the COVID-19 crisis, it will be vital for government and other rehabilitation services to recognise the strain on relationships as a result of unemployment, and devise aid policies accordingly.”

Dr Blom and Professor Perelli-Harris used the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) for their research project. The UKHLS is an annual household panel survey which began in 2009 with approximately 40,000 households in the UK. Participants are followed over a long period of time, giving a long-term perspective on people’s lives. The survey allows researchers to explore how life in the UK is changing and what stays the same over many years. Everyone in a participating household is interviewed to see how different generations experience life in the UK.

Their findings have been published on The Conversation website.


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