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“Emotional Distancing”: Change and Strain in U.S. Young Adult College Students’ Relationships During COVID-19

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We analyzed qualitative data from 707 USA college students aged 18-22 in late April 2020 regarding if and how their relationships had changed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most (69%) participants experienced relationship changes, most of whom (77%) described negative changes: less overall contact, feeling disconnected, and increased tension, some of which was due to conflict over pandemic-related public health precautions. Physical distancing from social contacts also created emotional distancing: it was harder to maintain affective connections via online platforms and within the isolating context of shelter-in-place. Due to emerging adulthood being a sensitive window for social development, the COVID-19 pandemic-induced emotional distancing could have long-term ramifications for this cohort's relationships over the course of their lives.

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