Pandemic can bring out the worst, and the best, in relationships
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Throughout 2020, headlines and studies make dual claims — some indicate divorce rates are up as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and other show divorce rates have declined.
The idea that the pandemic is putting additional stressors on relationships is no surprise — whether it has presented new problems for couples or is exacerbating existing issues.
“Any fractures, divisions or stresses became magnified pretty quickly,” observed Alex Osias, a counselor with Minds in Motion in Steamboat Springs.
The most recent evidence suggests there may have been an early spike in divorces in 2020 — and an anticipation of a spike — but divorce rates may have actually declined over the course of the past year.
According to a Jan. 5 Bloomberg article, “The number of Americans getting divorced plummeted last year, while the marriage rate also dropped precipitously as thousands of weddings were postponed.”
That data comes from a five-state analysis by Bowling Green State University’s Center for Family and Demographic Research.
The article continues, “The sharp decline in divorce doesn’t mean couples are necessarily happier together in lockdown. Instead, the pandemic may be forcing dissatisfied spouses to stay together for practical reasons.”
Osias said for clients who had been making positive progress with their marriages before the pandemic, many “regressed with COVID.”
Normal coping skills and outlets, she said, like going to the gym or skiing or hanging out with friends, were taken away, especially in those early months of the pandemic.
Osias remembers feeling like she was losing bits of herself.
“How people deal with stress and fear and the unknown greatly impacts how they deal with relationships,” said Gina Toothaker, Steamboat Springs and Walden outpatient program director for Mindsprings Health.
Toothaker also reported seeing an increase in substance use and self-medicating. That increased consumption of substances people turn to in order to help manage stress is a red flag, she said.
“It can increase conflict in a relationship and is related to domestic violence, too,” she said.
As the pandemic wore on, and on, and on, couples have had to confront totally new questions that can create divisions, like how seriously to take mitigation measures and restrictions, how strictly to enforce those restrictions on kids and how to navigate a completely disrupted world of work, school, child care and socialization.
And there are other issues “definitely coming across my couch,” said Steamboat couples counselor Colleen Clark Lay, like the violence in Washington, D.C., vaccines and handling quarantine orders.
Increased financial woes also have burdened a large percentage of families. Numerous studies put financial problems as a top reason for divorce, and separation rates tend to increase with economic downturns.
“I think couples who have financial stress are hardest hit,” Toothaker said, “as well as families with kids trying to do work and at-home school.”
Financial problems are “all too common a theme,” Clark Lay said. Families who never before needed assistance are finding themselves stretched to a breaking point.
And if there was already a conflict in a relationship over money or parenting, that conflict most likely got bigger, Toothaker said.
There are plenty of new things parents can disagree over, she said, like whether kids should be allowed to see friends and which friends or how many friends and in what environment. And whether they should go back to school or not.
And sudden quarantine orders can bring an immediate shift and halt to a schedule, when things had been going in a forward motion, Clark Lay noted.
“These are things they have never had to talk about,” Toothaker said. “It’s a lot of responsibility for parents.”
One of the top relationship issues Clark Lay said she is seeing from her clients is spending too much time together and navigating that cramped physical and emotional space. There’s also the continued challenge of kids being at home more and needing help with online schooling.
“Everyone is on top of each other,” she said. “We don’t recognize how much we value leaving for work, and the kids going to school and having that little bit of time to think and breathe alone.”
However, there are also studies showing couples report their relationships have been strengthened by the pandemic.
While a recent survey by American Family Survey (AFS) found that 34% of married men and women ages 18 to 55 reported the pandemic has increased stress in their marriage, it also found that 58% of married men and women 18 to 55 said the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse more. Fifty-one percent said their commitment to marriage had deepened, and only 8% said the pandemic had weakened their commitment to one another.
“Some people found ways to connect in ways they didn’t before,” Osias said. “They found they were forced to talk to each other more and couldn’t hide behind the usual things they normally used as buffers. They were forced to have more honest conversations.”
Toothaker also reported seeing “a deeper connection” forged among couples.
“A lot of couples are reporting that this forced closeness made them appreciate each other more,” she said.
“Things that are good and solid in a relationship can have the opportunity to be in the spotlight as well as anything that might have been wrong,” Clark-Lay said.
Tips for maintaining healthy relationships
Toothaker, Osias and Clark Lay all agree that finding alone time and outlets outside of the house are key to surviving the pandemic as a couple.
Work life used to mean an existence independent of home life. For many, that has shifted to a lot more screen time from a makeshift home office, often with frequent interruptions.
While at first more time with family, no commute and working in sweatpants felt like a gift, for many that novelty has worn off.
“Having privacy and alone time is really challenging,” Toothaker said. “My husband has learned more about my job than he ever wanted to know in the last nine months.”
Toothaker advises setting workday boundaries, including a physical space, and stopping work completely at a certain time.
She emphasizes the importance of keeping a routine.
“Everyone is experiencing a numbing out and forgetting what day it is, Toothaker said. ”Having a routine is really important for getting through difficult times.”
And if necessary, schedule that alone time.
“Make sure to make that space,” Osias said. “Even if that is a two-minute meditation or reading a book or taking a shower or a walk.”
When stress boils over, Toothaker said she has been helping her clients develop healthier coping skills, like breathing and yoga. And she cannot emphasize the basics enough — stay hydrated, exercise, get outside and eat well. “
All of the trite things you hear about self-care are really true,” she said.
“Be purposeful with what you are doing,” Clark Lay said. “Be purposeful knowing what is going to make you feel like a whole person. Be purposeful about spending time in nature, or spending time alone.”
And schedule that time, even if it has to be at 5 a.m.
Communication is vital
Communication is still at the top of the list of relationship advice, and that includes a good self-assessment, Osias said.
“If you are triggered by something, think ’Where am I coming from in my response? Is it because I’ve been in the house for seven days and literally need physical space, or was something triggered in me that I need to sort through?’” she said.
If there is an escalation, take a pause, Osias suggests.
“Look at your partner. Say ’I am upset.’ And say what you need: ’I need to take a bath. Or I need to go on a walk. Or I need you to make dinner,’” she said.
“Be clear in what you say. Do not be hurtful. Come from a place of empathy and understanding,” she added. “Make sure communication isn’t toxic. It’s OK to disagree and OK to see things differently, but it’s not OK to be mean and rude about it.”
“Pick your battles,“ Clark-Lay suggested. ”There are going to be times you have to agree to disagree.”
Within the context of the pandemic, roles have often been reversed, Osias noted. One person who was the breadwinner may no longer be. One person who typically reached out to solve problems may have become more withdrawn. Expectations and defaulted gender roles and other changes can be a source of stress, resentment and conflict.
“It’s disconcerting when you are used to your roles,” she said. “Be attuned to your partner. Reach out when you know something is off.”
When facing financial problems, Toothaker said it’s important to update the family’s budget and prioritize.
And if help is needed, find that help.
“There is no shame in accepting assistance when your family is need,” Clark-Lay said. “That’s why those services are there. You’ve been working and contributing and helping others in the past, and now it is your turn.”
Focus on the positive
“It’s really important to stay focused on the positive and talk about things to look forward to and figure out things to do when this is all over,” Toothaker siad. “This will end.”
Toothaker advises remembering the positives that have come out of the pandemic and the things worth keeping in our lives when it is over.
Osias points out there is a positive community-centered aspect to the pandemic — in everyone facing the challenges together.
“I’m a huge believer in gratitude practice,” Toothaker added.
Whether that means writing down three things at night, or thinking about something you are grateful for — no matter how small — over your morning cup of coffee, that conscious practice can have a significant impact.
Osias reminds couples to show their appreciation for each other. Small gestures or a small display of affection can go a long way, she said. Look through an old photo album and remember how life was, not just before the pandemic but also before kids and while you were dating.
“Find intimate connections,” she said.
“This is a marathon and not a sprint,” Clark Lay said. “There is definitely hope on the horizon, but we all need to channel energy into accepting the fact that this is going to continue to go on. If we can come to that truth, it will be more manageable. And it could potentially bring us together — knowing we are in it for the long haul.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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