July 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In the Trenches With COVID-Destabilized Marriages

The research on the impact of COVID-19 on marital well-being is just now coming to the fore. The goal of this essay is to provide the reader with some initial findings, as it can help to explain comments made by couple’s therapy clients of this author.

A remarkable thing about the pandemic is that therapists do not usually experience the same concerns and traumas at the same time as their clients do. “But during the pandemic everyone has been struggling to stay afloat,” according to Cadmona Hall, a Chicago marriage therapist. Vowels, Francois-Walcott and Perks summarized their data in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (2021) as follows: Overall, 29% of relationships improved during COVID, 29% of relationships got worse, 30% of relationships remained status quo and 8% were mixed. The themes that were used to produce the data were: communication, space, togetherness, shared responsibilities, quality time and support networks.

My client Susan is the mother of three children and has been married for seven years. She explained during our session that she and her husband Aaron had numerous marital problems prior to the pandemic. Putting them together under one roof 24/7 was akin to putting them in a pressure cooker. They argued constantly, moved into different rooms and ultimately they gave up. They went from wanting counseling to save their marriage, to wanting co-parenting sessions to help them with their children after their divorce would be finalized.

Arthur and Annie are both in their late twenties and plan to get married someday. However, due to COVID, their wedding plans had to be put on hold when the venue they had booked for their wedding canceled on them. Arthur explains with regret that though two years have passed, they have not yet booked a new venue. Annie chimes in with, “COVID canceled our wedding and it’s weird that we spend a lot of time together, cooking, taking walks, TV and other activities…but NOT planning our wedding. I feel like we’re adrift at sea as far as our future is concerned.”

Jacob and Aviva indicated to me that their biggest loss during COVID has been giving up Sunday as their family day with their two children. “We would go every week to museums, parks and restaurants, and it was so wonderful to have that structure and be able to enjoy together with our children…the magnificence of New York City with its vibrant and exciting cultural life.”

In the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy (June 2020) authors Sanderson, Arunagiri and Funk posit that COVID-19 has created a “mental health pandemic” throughout the world. Similar to the pressure cooker atmosphere, the authors propose the existence of a condition labeled “pandemic induced claustrophobia.” Unlike the disorder claustrophobia of the traditional sense, this refers to a unique feeling of discomfort related to being trapped at home. This condition may be particularly prevalent for those who live in city apartments, where square footage is minimal. Such individuals may feel stir crazy and exhibit negative affect.

Paul and Michelle are in their mid-thirties, married for six years and have a three-year-old son. Paul explained that COVID has impacted their life negatively by turning their routine into a “monotonous life schedule.” Michelle commented “It’s very problematic to be living without childcare, which prevents me from going back to work as an attorney, which I greatly desire. Paul does not understand that fact and thinks that I am currently happy because I didn’t like my previous law firm. That is simply not true! Another issue for us is that we have a very unfair division of labor with our household duties. Our prior communication issues are exacerbated because we are home all day and stressed out about the virus and cannot socialize with any family or friends.” I let them know that this is a more reasonable reaction to the isolation that so many of us feel since COVID hit. How are spouses able to miss each other and appreciate each other if there is nonstop togetherness? As the cliché goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Arnie and Lisa had no previous therapy experience before our sessions started. They have been married for ten years and have two daughters, eight and six. Arnie angrily described the pandemic, which he said had taken a massive toll on his wife. Her business was devastated; her emotional, mental and physical states were brought to her lowest since he met her. “That was the beginning of the end for me,” he remarked. “It was in September 2020 that all of the little things that she did that bothered me before, really started to bother me more. I had a mental and physical switch click off in my head from that day forward. I resented the many problems that came up in our relationship.”

Sanderson et al. point to the challenges. More than ever, individuals are working from home and spending more time at home. “Stress-induced negative emotions, boredom and irritability naturally contribute to more conflict in households. Of note, incidents of domestic violence have substantially increased worldwide since the onset of stay-at-home orders. Self-care methods and relaxation strategies can reduce irritability in the long-term, potentially making conflicts less likely to occur. Communicating using ‘I’ statements and making requests instead of demands are other helpful tactics for more effectively resolving disputes.”

 

Mutual Support

Making the best of a miserable situation are Victor and Esti. They are a doting, engaged couple in their late thirties who have both been married before and each has children from their previous marriages. Tragically, Victor’s father passed away from COVID right at the start of the pandemic. In our first Zoom session he said, “Esti was the one who faithfully helped me to at least see my father and be able to spend a little quality time with him before he died.” After Victor described how helpful she was to him, Esti described how helpful Victor was to her. “Victor was extremely helpful when COVID hit. He took over the homeschooling of my children so that I could financially support us. I think the issues we have would have occurred regardless of the pandemic.”

An important aspect of the research of Sanderson et al. describes boundary infringement. “Individuals who were working from home; were asked to do so within the context of unclear expectations such as increased availability and increased demands like homeschooling of children. Unsurprisingly, individuals struggling with the effects of boundary infringement may react by either withdrawing, avoiding particularly aversive work-related tasks, or by being overly accommodating or working increased hours. None of these responses is sustainable, and avoidance often leads to increased anxiety and overworking often leads to burnout. A helpful strategy is to develop and implement a behavior management plan in order to set a metaphorical boundary between work and home, given that the physical boundary is no longer in place.”

 

The Health Benefits of Social Interaction

Medical science has demonstrated for decades that social interaction is a critically important contributor to good health and longevity. In a study that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (1984) researchers at the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York found that among 2,320 men who had survived a heart attack, those with strong connections to other people had only a quarter the risk of death within the following three years as opposed to those who lacked social connectedness. New York Times columnist Jane Brody described research that indicates that, “Social isolation is on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death.”

 

Look on the Bright Side

What a sad and depressing topic this pandemic is along with its detrimental impact on marriages. So let’s end on a bright and optimistic note: sunlight! Research suggests a strong positive relationship between sunlight and serotonin levels. Serotonin stabilizes our moods, feelings of well-being and happiness. This terrible pandemic has canceled many outdoor events, shuttered businesses and other establishments, and changed the way we educate our children. As a result, many people are spending more time indoors away from sunlight. Sunlight can promote a positive mood; individuals should aim to get at least thirty minutes of sunlight every single day. This practice could take the form of walking around the neighborhood, sitting outside or engaging nature with a hike that brings you close to a body of water. These suggestions can be combined with other pleasurable activities such as reading and listening to music. If outdoor activity is still impossible, then light therapy lamps can have an antidepressant benefit as well (Sanderson, Arunagiri, and Funk 2020).


Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in New Jersey and New York since 1980 with an 80% success rate in saving marriages of couples on the brink of divorce. He serves as an adjunct professor for the Touro College Graduate School of Social Work. He coordinates reconciliation for family estrangement, is a Certified Discernment Counselor, blogs at FamilyThinking.com, and is author of the book, Creating Your Perfect Family Size (Wiley). All counseling sessions use ZOOM. His mantra: I’ll be the last person in the room to give up on your marriage. [email protected] (732) 572-2707

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