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Column: Is COVID-19 tearing marriages apart?

Column: Is COVID-19 tearing marriages apart?

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Illustration of a pregnant couple.

Illustration of a pregnant couple. 

Early on in the pandemic, relationship and legal experts predicted divorces nationwide would skyrocket. With shelter-in-place orders, couples would no longer be able to outrun their issues, experts surmised.

Plus, a variety of factors would add to the pressure.

Stuck at home with home-schooling kids.

Stuck at home with college-age kids.

Stuck at home while work travel was suspended and offices were closed.

Stuck at home while unemployed and in financial distress.

Stuck at home with a normally quiet spouse who suddenly turned into a chatterbox.

Stuck at home with a spouse who has more time to point out all the ways you aren't pulling your weight.

Stuck at home in an abusive relationship.

Stuck at home, period ... or in the case of essential workers, not stuck at home but still dealing with many of the same issues.

It would be a lot for even the healthiest marriages to withstand.

But something unexpected happened on the way to divorce court, at least in five states — Arizona, Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire and Oregon — where divorce statistics are published monthly. Many couples decided to hold off on plans to part ways.

There were some reported upticks of couples interested in divorce — a 34% increase by April 2020, according to legal document website Legal Templates — even if that interest didn't result in action. But with vaccines now fully in place and the recent surge in coronavirus cases, especially in Georgia, that may be changing.

"When the pandemic first hit ... there was a slowing of divorces. People were trying to figure out what was going on and how to manage their lives," said Atlanta-based family lawyer Elizabeth Lindsey, current president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), a group of more than 1,500 family lawyers across the 50 states. "As the pandemic continued and vaccines have started to come, every family law lawyer I know is really busy."

Lindsey consulted with several people during the height of the pandemic who were unhappy but were not willing to do anything in the midst of so much uncertainty. "It felt like an abandonment," she said. "Now the floodgates have opened for cases that are coming in and there are all kinds of issues. Not pandemic related per se, but pandemic delayed."

Relationship and dating expert Sami Wunder said the pandemic has shown us whether marriages have a strong foundation. A marriage that was always strong and well-connected has likely become even more so during the lockdown, she said.

"I have clients who immensely appreciated being able to work from home and spend more time with their partners and children," Wunder said. The main positive impact of the pandemic on marriages has been that busy couples who were usually traveling a lot and away from home finally found the opportunity to slow down and connect with each other.

If a marriage was weak, the pandemic magnified those weaknesses, she said, as living together 24/7 resulted in more frequent fights and arguments due to the increased emotional stress that the pandemic brought upon us all. For many couples, this has led to excessive attention on the faults of their partner and subsequent discord.

Some of the most common sources of relationship troubles, according to experts, are financial stress, boredom, disagreements about parenting and arguing about household responsibilities. The pandemic has added nuances to old problems.

Polarizing politics pushed some couples to uncover gulfs in ideology that have manifested in many ways, including bringing arguments about whether to vaccinate children into their divorce proceedings, Lindsey said.

Other couples found that the return of adult or near-adult children to live at home thwarted their planned breakup. "When the kids are in college, that is when a natural breaking point might have been, and now they are back home for who knew how long," Lindsey said. "That made it more difficult (for spouses) to make hard decisions about the future of their relations."

In the five states where divorces declined in the first few months of the pandemic, only Arizona had fully rebounded by September 2020, according to researchers at Bowling Green University. But the study authors said they could not accurately draw national trends from five states and that it was unclear if the decline in numbers represented delayed divorces or divorces that would never happen.

Meanwhile, quarantine proved a homewrecker for newer couples, with couples married five months or less pursuing divorce at double the rate of 2019, according to the data from Legal Templates. In addition, people in Southern states seemed particularly interested in divorcing. The rate of interest in divorce in the South was two-to-three times higher than the rest of the U.S. with Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana having the highest rates. It is probably not a coincidence that these are also some of the states that were hardest hit by COVID-19 and where about 50% of the workforce is employed in high-risk occupations.

Particularly with the challenges of COVID, couples in which the partners know how to communicate consciously and effectively have the best chance of keeping their relationship intact, Wunder said.

"I teach my clients how to express their needs respectfully, without blaming or attacking their partner," she said. "When our partner feels attacked, they are not listening to us anymore. They get defensive. This kind of communication breaks a marriage down."

It is helpful to be intentional about how you speak to your partner, she said. It is also important to give each other healthy space and freedoms within the relationship.

"Just because you are living together 24/7, does not mean you have to be at each other's tail all the time. Being a loving and nonjudgmental space they can come to is always a winning recipe for fostering love and emotional connection again," Wunder said.

The pandemic has made so many of us more aware of how unforeseen events can impact our lives and shown us the need to live with more intention, even when that means ending a marriage.

"We used to think people who had been married 30 to 35 years would last forever, but I do think the pandemic has created in people a sense that there are things outside of our control that impact us that we all need to take into consideration when we are making a very important decision," Lindsey said.

Omaha World-Herald: Momaha

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