Hunkering down during the pandemic has not increased loneliness significantly — at least for those in a committed relationship.

But in recent years, the share of adults who say they are in “no relationship” has been climbing, up to 37% this year compared to 30% in 2015. At the same time, the portion who are married has been dropping, according to the American Family Survey, released Tuesday in Washington, D.C., by Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

The survey finds the biggest predictor of loneliness appears to be relationship status. “On the whole, family relationships appear to provide resources and support for navigating the coronavirus, not cause for emotional stress and difficulty,” according to the survey, now in its sixth year.

YouGov conducted the nationally representative survey of 3,000 respondents July 3-14, several months into the novel coronavirus pandemic. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.9%.

That single adults may have felt more alone during the pandemic doesn’t surprise Joshua Krug, 34, of Los Angeles, or Audrey Clark, 60, of Murray, Utah. Neither has been married, nor are either now in a serious relationship. While they are both active and have plenty of friends, each admits feeling isolated at times during a pandemic that has limited in-person socializing and enforced a lot more isolation.

“The experience of the pandemic would be better — that’s a funny thing to say — but I think the pandemic is more challenging for people without a serious relationship,” said Krug, a Harvard-educated religion educator who just received his doctorate from New York University before heading to California to ride out the pandemic close to family and friends. “I say that knowing that some are in abusive relationships and have other serious issues. I don’t want to diminish that. But the effects of loneliness are felt more when you’re isolated.”

Joshua Krug, a religious studies scholar and author finishing his doctoral program, sits for a portrait with his laptop, essential for school and communicating during the COVID-19 pandemic, at his parents’ home in Los Angeles, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. | Patrick T. Fallon, for the Deseret News

The pandemic-prompted opportunity to strengthen family connections, including staying for a time with his grandmother — ”which was awesome” — has been great, said Krug. He describes his single life as spontaneous, fun and mostly satisfying, but he’s “open” to finding a life partner.

“I love my independence, but to have someone who is part of your life in a real way is a beautiful thing. I think that in many ways makes life better,” he said.

Protective relationships

Experts have long noted an increase in loneliness over at least a decade, often comparing the health effects to that of smoking or obesity. The Deseret News reported in 2013 that national studies showed as many as 1 in 3 adults over 45 said they’re lonely, the share rising with age. The new survey finds the pandemic didn’t on average diminish or worsen the problem, compared to 2019.

The largest share of survey respondents (47%) were married, even though that proportion has declined over the survey’s history. Cohabiters made up 10%, those in  a romantic relationship but not cohabiting, 6% — shares that are stable since 2015.

“The decline in marriage and increase in single status has implications ... for how people experienced the social and political events of 2020,” wrote study co-authors Jeremy Pope and Christopher K. Karpowitz, who jointly direct the center at BYU.

The survey asked three questions well-accepted as markers of loneliness: how often those polled “lack companionship,” “feel left out,” or “feel isolated from others.” The answers were combined into a scale ranging from 0 to 1, with high scores indicating the answer “often” to all three items. 

At least some of the time, 53% of those surveyed said they lacked companionship, while 54% said they felt left out and 57% said they felt isolated from others.

Social distancing and going into quarantine didn’t prompt increased loneliness compared to 2019, as some expected. However, both years showed that people whose relationships are troubled — those separated from a spouse, for instance — or those not in a relationship, reported markedly higher levels of loneliness.

Others, experts say, have drawn closer during the pandemic.

Karpowitz noted that a quarter of those with partners said COVID-19 increased tress in their relationship, while 13% said it made them question their relationship’s strength. A much larger share reported no change in how they felt about their partner.

“A healthy relationship can provide stability and hope through difficult times,” he said.

Of those in a relationship, just 8% reported the pandemic played into plans to break up, separate or divorce. The same number said the pandemic made relationship dissolution less likely.

It’s all about relationships, says Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah and an adjunct professor of sociology who wasn’t part of the survey but has noted reports of growing loneliness in recent years. “I would contend that the increase in loneliness is definitely a product of the fact that more Americans aren’t married, cohabiting or dating.”

The survey found “pockets” of people facing problems that strained — “often a complex set of issues,” Pope said.

Wolfinger said the pandemic reminds him of the Great Depression years when some families struggled mightily and both marriage and divorce declined. While marital happiness declined, too, “the children of the Great Depression reflected back with some fondness on those years as times when families had to pull together to make ends meet.”

Joshua Krug, a religious studies scholar and author who just completed his doctoral program, adjusts his face mask as he stands for a portrait in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. | Patrick T. Fallon, for the Deseret News

‘Clarifying moment?’

Sociologist Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and an Institute for Family Studies scholar, who consulted on the survey, calls the pandemic a possibly “clarifying moment” for some single adults as they realize the value of having a solid partnership.

He thinks the marriage rate has dropped in part because people are “relatively more affluent,” making marriage less of an economic necessity. Society is more secular than in the past, which could play a part. And expectations of a partner are very high: “We have a list in our heads of the qualities and characteristics of the partner we are looking for and those expectations are hard to meet in the world.”

Wilcox  also sees “a lot of confusion and distrust around dating and relationships, making people reluctant or unable to find a partner.”

That resonates with Clark, of Murray, who found her trust broken years ago when she left a serious relationship and has felt disinclined to date seriously since.

Clark, a nurse, said she feels “neutral” regarding dating. “If I met a kind gentleman who would take the time to get to know me and not want to immediately form a bond — that’s my issue.”

She wants a slow-moving relationship that cements over time, while people around her seem determined to move fast. “I guess I want a walk around the park, even if it’s a fast walk,” she said. “I am not a sound-byte person. I want a slower life, not a fast-paced life.”

Tracking trends

Pope says he’s “confident” from survey findings that whether people are lonely or not has more to do with their life circumstances than what is going on with the novel coronavirus.

Karpowitz agrees. 

“We were expecting that in the middle of quarantine we’d find some kind of big increase in people telling us they’re lonely. It’s not the case that the pandemic brought this wave of loneliness to America, at least by these measures,” he said.

“It turns out that far from destroying relationships, it is relationships that are helping people through the pandemic — providing structure and stability and resources that allow people at least at this point to survive this experience. Those who are on their own who don’t have those resources are struggling the most,” Karpowitz said.

If the number of people without the anchor of a stable relationship continues to rise, more people could be “vulnerable to being buffeted by really difficult circumstances,” he said.

“We’re not saying everyone is doing well in the pandemic. We are saying having a partner through this really difficult circumstance is, for most people, a good thing. In saying that, we do not want to minimize the fact there are some families hurting and feeling like their relationship is not surviving this experience. We do not want to minimize that as an outcome.”

Advisers for the survey included Wilcox and Karlyn Bowman of American Enterprise Institute, Marcy Carlson of the University of Wisconsin and The Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves.

To see the full survey and look at previous years’ results, visit deseret.com/american-family-survey.

Joshua Krug, a religious studies scholar and author, helps his mother find her cellphone at their family home in Los Angeles, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. | Patrick T. Fallon, for the Deseret News