Elon faculty, students publish findings from study of life at home during COVID-19

Research into how many of the measures implemented during the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted social interactions and relationships has produced a range of publication by Elon researchers.

Like so many people, Associate Professor of Psychology CJ Fleming and Associate Professor of Sociology Alexis Franzese were at home all the time in April 2020. When they compared notes, they found that their experiences had been quite different.

CJ Fleming, Associate Professor of Psychology

Whereas Fleming was alone with her partner and missing outside social activities, Franzese had a full house and was missing the quiet afforded by children leaving to go to school. And thus, a study was born.

The two quickly put together a study that asked participants to report on their work and financial concerns, mental health, intimate relationship status and satisfaction, parenting issues, and more.

Relatively early on in the pandemic, they published an article titled “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Evaluating intimate relationship outcomes during the 2020 pandemic shutdown” that examined relationship satisfaction and commitment during the initial shutdown.

Recently, Fleming worked with Elon statistician Mark Weaver, an assistant professor of statistics, to follow up on those outcomes after two years, in a paper titled, “Did they stay or did they go? Following up on intimate relationship outcomes 2 years into the COVID-19 pandemic.” Based on past catastrophic events, the researchers expected significant declines in satisfaction and commitment. They did see significant declines in satisfaction over time, but they did not see as many separations or divorces as expected.

Alexis Franzese, assistant professor of sociology

This may be because many people in the pandemic reported mixed feelings about their relationships rather than solely negative experiences. Fleming and students Honors Fellow Abbey Rose ’23, Elon College Fellow Kerry Barba ’22 and Elon College Fellow Marli Siciliano ’22), took a deep dive into open-ended responses to the question, “How has the pandemic affected your relationship?” which participants addressed in the survey in April and May 2020 and again in March 2021.

Many participants responded with both positive and negative changes that they had experienced in their relationships, and even the same reported change was often discussed with a different emotional tone. For example, many participants experienced a shift in the division of labor in their household. For some, this was a welcome change but for some, it was an added stress. Their paper, “In the same storm but not the same boat: Experiences of intimate relationship changes across the COVID-19 pandemic” captures the experience of the pandemic in participants’ own words.

In addition to relationship issues, the survey also addressed mental health across the pandemic. Franzese and Fleming intended to look at mental health over time, and Honors Fellow Abbey Rose ’23 brought her own spin to the project. Now a nursing student and Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, Rose was interested in the intersection of physical and mental health. Together with Weaver, the group examined mental health over time as well as how mental health varied in accordance with the health challenges of the pandemic, including COVID diagnosis and hospitalization, quarantine due to COVID, and loss of family members due to COVID.

Mark Weaver, assistant professor of statistics

Results of this study were published recently in a paper titled, “Longitudinal Changes in Depression and Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Impact of COVID-Related Factors.” Results suggest that mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety spiked at the beginning of the pandemic and have declined somewhat in intervening years. As of Spring 2022, rates of mental health symptoms experienced by participants were still roughly double pre-pandemic levels, however. Surprisingly, most COVID-related issues did not significantly impact change in mental health over time, with the exception of quarantine experiences. It seems that more time in isolation as a family or as an individual had a significant impact on mental health over time.

That brought the researchers back to our early pandemic question – how do we best support our mental health and need for connection while protecting those who are most vulnerable? Hopefully, this is not a question that will need to be answered again for a long time.

Katrina Jongman-Sereno, Assistant Professor of Psychology

In addition to these published papers, the research team is examining the domains in which participants felt they could be most genuine during the pandemic. Building on Franzese’s interests in authenticity, study participants were surveyed for where they engaged in the most emotional masking – at work, in romantic relationships, or in their parenting. Results from the first round of data were presented at the February 2024 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and revealed that participants displayed the most emotional masking in work, followed by parenting, and that the least masking occurred in the context of romantic relationships, and that these differences were statistically significant. Particularly notable was the frequency of effort to more deeply feel the emotions one is displaying in the domain of parenting. Franzese and Fleming, along with Assistant Professor of Psychology Katrina Jongman-Sereno are now working on a publication on that topic.

Overall, this project shows how unique experiences and perspectives can inform the research Elon faculty members pursue. As Fleming and Franzese have found, despite some gains in pandemic recovery, the psychological effects of this crisis will continue to be felt for quite some time.