As we approach the second Valentine’s Day of the pandemic era, it’s time to take stock of the impact COVID-19 is having on our most vital national institution: marriage.
The first major survey on families in the pandemic, from American Family Survey, found that 34% of Americans overall say the pandemic has increased stress in their marriage. For those households that faced economic setbacks, the number rises to 45%. And a major online legal provider announced they’ve seen a 34% increase in requests for divorce paperwork, and shockingly, newly married couples make up 20% of those requests.
Most disturbing of all, mainstream publications of record are openly promoting the idea that divorce is not only a good thing and part of the new normal, but also the solution to COVID-driven household frustrations.
The New York Times recently featured a piece extolling the benefits of divorce.
The writer argues breaking up a family unit could be the most beneficial for everyone involved. Claiming her divorce happened as COVID-19 heightened her already existing feelings of the structural claustrophobia of her marriage. She concludes, “This process hasn’t always been easy for us or for our children, but in the end, when I’m feeling sad, I tell them — and myself — that they now have four adults who love them, a wider circle, something a little closer to a clan.”
Not to be outdone an article featured in Parents Magazine titled “Divorce Is On the Rise During the Pandemic — and Don’t Feel Guilty If That Includes You” proposes that divorce can not only be good for adults, but can also be good for the children … “divorce doesn’t automatically mean your kid will be damaged — in fact, it may even have benefits for our children, including resilience, spending quality time with each parent, and having increased empathy.”
The idea that divorce benefits the family is not only absurd, it has no justification from a statistical point of view.
A recent study found that after one year of divorce over 50% of children in the study did not see their father within a one year time frame, and after ten years, 64% of fathers no longer had any contact with their children. And research, conducted over 15 years, showed that children whose parents divorced immediately began to suffer from behavioral problems that lasted for years after the divorce.
In short, these publications are not only wrong, they are tragically and heartbreakingly wrong.
The immediate relief and short-term personal benefits that we see as a perceived justification of divorce are dwarfed by the negative, long-term impacts divorce actually has on us and our children. The good news though is that, just as the data shows the negative impact of divorce for all involved, data also points us to a way forward in our marriages, beyond just “staying together for the kids.”’
In fact, a study conducted for a workshop helping couples facing severe marital crises found that over 70% of attending couples were still married 7 years later.
What’s the magic to this marital success?
Data and research concludes there are two keys: taking care of our spousal relationship and taking care of ourselves.
In the spousal relationship sphere, stopping negative communication in our relationships is paramount. This negative communication comprises what the Gottman Institute refers to as the 4 Horseman in a couples interaction: being defensive, expressing criticism, showing contempt and stonewalling. Research from the University of Washington found that couples who stop this negative communication in their marriage saw their chance of divorce decrease by 80%. Additionally, when couples then expressed appreciation of each other and focused on a shared dream together the success rate for the marriage grew even more.
Let’s look at taking care of ourselves, because good mental health is key to healthy relationships.
It’s no secret that COVID-19 has disrupted the very core of our daily routines. Work from home, online classes for kids and lockdowns have limited options for recreational activities and social gatherings, taking away the very opportunities for breaks and healthy diversions that are crucial in our mental health.
But while it’s easy to justify pushing our own mental health to the background while we help our spouse and children it’s actually counterproductive to our marriage. Two independent studies discovered that when one person in the relationship begins to increase their own self-esteem, it has a positive impact on the relationship.
And making it a priority for a spouse to get that much-needed break is crucial as well, as research has shown that people who believed that their spouse was attentive to their needs, regardless of whether the spouse really was attentive, had a more satisfying and long lasting marriage than those who believed the opposite about their spouse.
While this two-part formula has been shown to be highly successful, it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the data and research available to guide us to healthy marriages.
The reality is that we have the answers and the power to fix, and grow, our marriages.
So while many are claiming that marriage is another casualty of COVID-19, know that the research and data actually point to a hopeful outcome and way forward for married couples in America. If 2020 was the year that we lost our marriages, or they’re now hanging by a thread, then let’s make 2021 the year we get our marriage back. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and the future generations that will be impacted by the choices we make today in our relationships.
• Kimberly Holmes is CEO of Marriage Helper, an organization offering resources to save, fix, grow and rebuild their marriages.