Professor Bill Strom reflects on his study "Weathering Well: Relational Resilience During the Covid-19 Lockdown."
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When WHO director-general Dr. Ghebreyesus declared COVID-19 a pandemic, some of us likely thought, This will pass, and quickly so.
We were wrong. Twenty-one weeks later, we have settled into an ice age of routines, uncertainties and a nagging dull malaise.
So a good question is, “How are we doing, really?” Are we just hanging on, or living resiliently? Are we honest with people when they ask?
These questions prompted me to fast track a study earlier this summer to examine our closest relationships while under pandemic lockdown. The results might be surprising, and they continue to be relevant today.
While I asked questions about people’s age, education, gender and the like, I was more interested in whether the software of their minds and hearts prepared them to live well or struggle. That is, did a faith-filled approach to friendships and marriages, rather than a self-valuing one, prime the pump for resilience?
A self-valuing approach represents individuals who see relationships like a ledger where people manage rewards and costs in order to find satisfaction. If one is not satisfied, then you negotiate what’s fair; if your needs go unmet, you have the right to leave the relationship. In contrast, a faith-filled (aka ‘covenant’) approach pictures life as communities where people look out for each other, sacrifice and support, and rely on each other and biblical wisdom to rebound and repair.
The question I was hoping to answer was, “Does holding a faith-filled approach to relationships increase resilience and decrease struggle in stay-at-home isolation?”
So I developed a survey that would test my hunches and sent it out to people associated with my school, Trinity Western University. Over 800 responded.
The survey went out in late April—seven weeks after most of us began working from home.
The questionnaire included questions about people’s general resilience (how they were coping overall), social support (did they feel supported by people with whom they lived), trust (could they believe and rely on the people around you) and life satisfaction (how well was life overall). I called these “thriving” indicators. The survey also included “struggling” scales, namely aggression (such as verbal attacks, physical incidents, anger and hostility), being anxious around others, being fearful of being watched by others, and feeling lonely.
I also included lifestyle questions about exercise, eating, drinking, church attendance and media use. Finally, the survey also included pandemic-related issues, such as number of weeks in isolation, number of people in one’s home, perceived risk of contracting the virus, and getting ill.
So what did the study show?
The big picture
My hunch was right. The study found that holding a more faith-filled view of close relationships related positively with signs of resilience, and negatively with signs of struggle, across the board. That is, “covenantal values” appear to have helped people cope better generally, trust more, feel supported more and rate life as satisfactory. At the same time, these people reported being less aggressive, less anxious, less fearful and less lonely than people who rated high on a self-valuing approach.
I also found that people over 60 years of age were doing the best, while young adults (aged 18-29) were struggling most. I attribute this to the upheaval that many university students experienced in March when they had to go home and finish school online.
There was also a tendency for women to trust less, fear others more and feel lonely. Other research tells us that in times of crises, women usually reach out to best friends and family—but in this crisis, they couldn’t. We also know that men increase toxic behaviour during pandemic isolation, giving some women reason to be on edge.
Exercise, diet, media and church
In addition to experiencing quality relationships, ‘covenanters’ were also more likely to exercise outdoors, eat better quality food, worship more and consume less media.
For anyone who engaged in six or more hours of media per day, their relationships quality suffered. Whether or not too much media caused poor relating or already poor relationships motivate people to escape with Xbox is hard to tell. I am guessing both are at work.
The results for church attendance were especially eye opening. For people who said they do not attend church (about 150 individuals) and those who attended three of four times per week (about 140 people), the high-attendance crowd were much more likely to score well on relational thriving and low on struggling. A well-known book on resilience helps explains why:
It appears … that regular attendance at religious services may foster a number of resilience factors including optimism, altruism, and a search for meaning and purpose. In addition, as a member of a religious congregation, parishioners routinely interact with positive and resilient role models who encourage them to adopt meaningful social roles where they can give to others through acts of generosity. … The support that practitioners receive may [also] come from God. (Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Southwick & Charney, Cambridge University Press, 2012)
But still – Are we being honest?
I also included a scale that measures “social desirability” which is the tendency to put our best foot forward in public settings (and on questionnaires!) through statements or answers we think others want to hear (in order to boost our image). I found that respondents who scored high on social desirability were also likely to say they were thriving more and struggling less than they likely were. I guess we could call that optimism….or denial. If you tend to put on a happy face, I hope you are able to talk about how you are really feeling with people close to you. Let’s not pretend. Others may be feeling the same, and you can talk it through.
Our provincial health officer in British Columbia coined a now well-known mantra: Be calm. Be kind. Be safe. In light of this study, I might advise: Be authentic. Be supportive. Be resilient.
Bill Strom, PhD, is professor of communication at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., where he teaches and researches relational communication. His books The Relationship Project and More Than Talk: A Covenantal Approach to Everyday Communication recognize biblical virtues and ways of relating that help people thrive in friendship, marriage and work.