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On March 13, 2020, a national emergency was declared in the United States regarding the “novel coronavirus,” otherwise known as “COVID-19.” By March 19, 2020, nearly all US states had also declared a state of emergency. Several states began issuing stay-at-home orders and ordering the closure of non-essential businesses. This has led to millions of Americans working from home of being laid off from jobs. Through the entirety of American history, we have likely never seen spouses spending as much time home together as we are seeing now.
With this disruption to our typical routines, work schedules, and lives in general, many are making predictions about how relationships and marriages will work during this period of social isolation. Some predict there will be a baby boom in approximately nine months. Others believe the opposite, that we will see the divorce rocket skyrocket. Regardless of which situation comes to fruition, if either of them do, how can you keep your marriage healthy during a pandemic?
In an article by Matt Villano of CNN, he interviews Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, psychologists, and married couples, and came up with the following advice. First, as could be predicted by any married person, it is important to keep lines of communication open. Not only is this important to keep on the same page regarding updates regarding the COVID-19 crisis and your plans as a family should certain situations happen, but it is also important to check on your partner and see how they are feeling physically and emotionally. One therapist interviewed opined that her biggest challenge during the crisis were with couples who had on “different lenses,” i.e., one spouse is panicked about things and the other spouse believes they are overreacting. If you have noticed you and your spouse are having a markedly different reaction to all of this, it is important to communicate your feelings and to listen and try to understand your spouse’s feelings.
The next suggestion made by the article to “embrace space.” When one or both spouses typically spend a significant amount of time outside the home, for example, working, maintaining a sense of personal space is important. One therapist suggested that couples explore whether they are “individuals who need a partner to engage them in order to regulate their own emotions, or individuals who find comfort in regulating their own.” The therapist also suggested that, in tense situations or arguments, quiet separation might be the answer.
According to the article, couples should also try to find humor in this situation, and to turn annoyances with your partner into jokes. The article cites a tweet that suggests couples get an “imaginary coworker to blame things on” around the house, such as leaving dirty dishes out or not throwing away empty wrappers. This strategy can help couples communicate about things their spouse is doing that they find irritating without finger-pointing, and gives the other spouse an opportunity to change behavior with less embarrassment or less instinct to argue.
The article then suggests that new routines should be established. If both spouses are home when, in the past, one was home more than the other, it may be time to re-establish who does which chores, who cooks, etc. For couples with children, it is a good idea to establish a set childcare schedule so that each spouse has time to him or herself during the day while the other spouse cares for the kids. Positive encouragement never hurts.
If the crisis is causing one or both spouses to experience changes in their anxiety level or mental health, the article also suggests finding a therapist, and notes many therapists are providing telehealth services through Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype. The article also recommends not pushing for sex during what is likely a stressful time for everyone.
Finally, the article notes it is easy to become “overwhelmed with existential dread” right now, and that spouses should “focus on the little things.” This could include things as simple as making dinner together or having a conversation during a meal. A therapist interviewed mentioned that even just saying “Thank you” to your spouse can make a “huge difference.”
The New York Times recently published a similar article by Jennifer Senior about how to reduce tension in marriages during crises. The article cited a study published by the Journal of Family Psychology in 2002, which looked at couples after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and comparing couples in affected counties with those in non-effective counties. The study found that while more people in the affected counties divorced, more people also married, and the birth rate increased.
Esther Perel, a therapist, was interviewed for the article and noted several different coping styles that are likely to come up between spouses during this crisis. The first difference noted was “How partners approach information in moments of crisis,” stating some individuals binge news and try to read and research as much as they can, while others can become overwhelmed and need to separate from the story.
The next difference was “How consumed partners become by an emergency.” This difference is most starkly seen between individuals who are hoarding things like food and other essentials, and individuals who are ignoring stay-at-home orders entirely and trying to keep their normal routine.
Finally, the last difference noted was “How partners move through the world when disaster strikes.” Some individuals are planners and will make a structured approach to a crisis. Other individuals become panicked. Some become depressed and fatalistic.
When couples fall at different ends of these spectrum, the article notes, the constant “familiar soundtrack of stories, observations, and anxieties” can become exhausting for one or both spouses. The article suggests turning to a “virtual communities of outsiders” through “work or FaceTime or virtual dinner parties.” The article also notes that the fact different people have different strengths is helpful in a crisis.
In an article by Erin Jensen for USA Today, clinical associate professor of psychiatry Dr. Gail Saltz was interviewed, noting that right now “everybody has more anxiety, more fear of the unknown of what’s gonna happen” and that tends to lead to more irritability and shorter tempers. The article, again, stresses good, honest, open communication. If one spouse is more overwhelmed than the other, the less overwhelmed spouse should try to provide some comfort.
Author and couples counselor Alicia Muñoz suggests having “mini-dates” at home that both spouses might find fun, like “cooking together, dining by candlelight, taking an online dance course, or taking a tour of a museum virtually.” Dr. Saltz also suggested “watching a comedy, listening to a podcast, and even dancing around to music.” Dr. Saltz warned against increasing alcohol intake during the crisis, as it can lead to lowered inhibitions and, consequently, a higher likelihood of arguments. Dr. Saltz also stressed maintaining individuality, recommending spouses set up different spaces for work, exercise, technological socializing, etc.
In early March 2020, reports came out of China of a spike in divorce requests in the city of Xi’an. While being quarantined or on lockdown together may have led to this spike, it could have also been caused by the fact that the filing offices had been closed and are now being hit with delayed cases that have re-opened.
Only time will tell what effect the COVID-19 crisis will have on marriages and the divorce rate in the United States. Looking at things optimistically, the crisis may encourage couples to communicate more, leading to less divorce in the long run. Regardless, if you think you may need a divorce, an experienced family law attorney can present your options and help you decide if a divorce is the right thing for your individual situation.

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