This popular article was originally published on September 25, 2015 but updated to reflect the impact on relationships and marriages today.
Separation and Divorce in the Age of COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered mostly for the staggering loss of life and the disastrous impact on our economy. The secondary consequences of this coronavirus may not show up in history books. One significant consequence is the stress and strain on relationships and marriages.
Most of us already know that over half of all marriages end in divorce. That means that there are many unhappy, distressed relationships under the best of circumstances. The age of COVID is the worst of circumstances, and it often has a negative impact on reasonably “healthy” marriages – let alone marriages on the brink.
In my work with couples I’ve noticed 3 marital stressors unique to the age of COVID:
- COVID pressures – Confinement at home, and restrictions that keep us from going out, socializing, attending shows or sports events. Other pressures include financial stress, working from home, and a little too much family time. These pressures make us cranky, anxious, and frustrated. Couples may do their best to be supportive of each other, but the stress can mount up and they may take it out on each other.
- COVID conflicts – Many couples have disagreements regarding their response to the virus. These conflicts include when and where to go out (such as restaurants or bars); when to wear face masks; returning to work environments that may not be safe, and socializing with friends and family. Couples often disagree, and this may escalate, or exacerbate an already distressed relationship dynamic.
- Domestic violence – There are indications that emotional abuse and other forms of domestic violence are increasing during the age of COVID. Frustrations and anger mounts, and partners who are predisposed to act out with blame and aggression may lose the capacity or motivation to avoid this behavior.
Couples Therapy Can Help
In most cases, couples therapy is effective in addressing these and other relationship problems. For more information about couples therapy, and our Connections program of marriage retreats and couples therapy intensives, please contact us today.
But If You Are Considering Separation or Divorce
It is important to recognize that your marital problems may be suffering from COVID burnout. If you think that may be true, give it time. And focus on boundaries, forgiveness, self-care, and taking space and time for yourself. Do your best to let go of the small stuff, don’t personalize, and don’t react to triggers. Try using empathy, emotional support, and develop the “We are in this together – we’re a team” attitude.
Otherwise, if you’ve been wondering if you should stay in this marriage or if you should go, this is a summary of concerns worth your consideration:
Internal Conflicts & Feelings – Almost everyone who has contemplated separation or divorce can identify one or more of these statements:
“I love him/her, but I’m not happy.”
“Maybe it’s supposed to be this way after so many years of marriage –maybe I should just accept it.”
“I made a commitment to this marriage – but should I stay when things are so bad?”
“I can’t leave – I can’t do that to our children.”
“I keep thinking he/she will change – am I in denial?”
“I can’t get my needs met – is there any hope things will change?”
There are no simple answers to these questions. Over time, with full awareness, deep personal honesty, and without judgment (mindfulness), the answers tend to become clear.
Morality v. Freedom of Choice – When considering separation or divorce, Is there a basic question of right or wrong – good or bad? Who really knows the answer to that question? And what about each individual’s right to choose? Ultimately, right or wrong can only be decided by each individual.
And to what extent should we consider the needs, rights, and feelings of others? I believe we should take our commitments very seriously – and we should do everything possible to care for and protect our most important relationships. But what if we know we’ve tried everything, and the situation is truly irreconcilable?
When I was much younger, my therapist once told me that I need to be able to live with my own decisions – they need to fit with my personal values and beliefs. That was a wise and insightful statement by a valued guide and mentor. I often use his advice when I’m faced with difficult moral dilemmas.
But What About the Kids? – This is one of the most serious concerns for people who are thinking about ending a marriage. Separation and divorce is almost always emotionally difficult for children. Many children have school, emotional and behavioral problems as a result of divorce.
The good news is that children can and do recover when there is friendly and cooperative co-parenting after the divorce – and counseling or therapy for children and families is helpful. Also, when the marital situation at home is highly contentious – fighting, verbal, and/or physical abuse for example – separation and divorce may be the better choice to protect the children.
Have You “Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” – I’ve heard comments like the following from many people over the years:
* I’m no longer in love with him/her
* There’s no passion in our marriage
* I’m not attracted to my spouse
* I’m not sure I ever really loved him/her
In therapy, when we unpack comments like this, we find important reasons why people’s feelings change. The reasons generally include years of marital conflict, unmet needs, hurt feelings, anger, and distance (emotionally and physically). Couples therapy is often effective in helping couples to reconnect, work through conflicts, and rekindle loving feelings and passion.
Is It Incompatibility – Or Rigidity? – Married couples often divorce due to incompatibility. However, I can think of only 3 marital problems I would consider as true indications of incompatibility:
- Active addiction (and the addict is unwilling or unable to stop the addictive behavior)
- Abusive behavior (emotional, verbal and/or physical)
- Active affair(s) or sexual acting out (and the offender will not change this behavior)
Other complaints of incompatibility include beliefs such as “We just don’t get along together”, “We have nothing in common”, “We argue all the time”, or “We’re not sexually compatible.” I’ve come to understand these are points of rigidity in a relationship rather than incompatibility. We tend to get dug into our respective positions and believe there is nothing to be done. When people put a little effort, caring – and risk – into changing behavior patterns, it’s amazing how compatible we become!
Fear & Anger – A long history of anger, conflict, fighting, complaining, and criticism can certainly undermine any marriage. However, separation and divorce may not be necessary. Anger can best be seen as a protest – due to unmet needs and hurt feelings. Once these feelings are discussed openly in a supportive environment (like a therapist’s office), they can easily be addressed in a caring and productive manner. Of course, anger that is unchecked and resistant to change can lead to a breakdown of the basic emotional connection necessary to a healthy relationship.
On the other hand, the fear of separation and divorce is not a good reason to stay married. If it becomes clear that the marriage is destructive and that things cannot change for the better, the best answer is to face those fears and to find personal empowerment to create a better life (often with the help of a supportive and understanding therapist).
Can I Make it Work – Or Is It Too Late? – This is actually one of the most difficult questions to answer. And the answer is highly individualized and different for each person and each relationship. I’ve found that each one of us, individually, can often change our relationships. When we can “be the relationship we want” – that is, when we are loving, understanding, available, considerate, and supportive, we create amazing results! At other times, we need the full cooperation of our partners. I’d like to say that it’s never too late, but I’ve seen too many marriages with too much damage over too many years. But even then, people will sometimes surprise me, and they will find a new path toward reconciliation, and new love between them can grow.
I hope this sheds some light on a difficult and complicated topic. Please know that you’re not alone in this. And remember that the temporary stress and pressures due to COVID may make the situation appear and feel much worse. Talking to an experienced counselor or therapist can help a great deal. Please don’t hesitate to contact us today if you have any questions, or if you want to set up a time to meet with one of us.