Almost as soon as “lockdown” became common parlance, gags started circulating about the havoc coronavirus would likely wreak on marriages.
It was inevitable, some quipped, that many couples suddenly forced to spend days or weeks cooped up at home together wouldn’t last the distance. As some Twitter users pointed out, perhaps only half in jest: “You can’t spell divorce without COVID.”
Funny (and true) as that might be, the outbreak of COVID-19 may be a pressure test on marriage some are completely unprepared for, with experts raising concerns the unprecedented health crisis could “irreversibly” damage intimate relationships in similar ways as natural disasters have been known to.
Already there have been reports of a spike in applications for divorce in the Chinese city of Xi’an as a result of couples having been quarantined in close quarters, with British lawyers predicting a similar phenomenon will hit the UK.
The “peak times” for divorce, a prominent solicitor told Westminster this week, are after Christmas and summer holidays, when couples spend long periods together. “One only has to imagine,” she said, “what it’s going to be like when families are sealed in a property for a long period of time”.
Meanwhile, domestic abuse experts in Australia and abroad have warned the crisis will trigger an increase in incidents of violence, with some worried victims may be isolated with perpetrators and have limited access to support.
But counsellors are also concerned about the impacts of coronavirus on non-abusive relationships. Some are already working with Australian couples struggling to cope not just with the logistical and medical challenges of the pandemic, but the effects of anxiety, financial insecurity and a lack of social connection as a result of unsettling situations like lockdown.
Clashes in coping styles, conflict
“The truth is, we don’t know yet what the impacts on relationships will be,” said Anne Hollonds, director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. “But based on previous smaller scale and potentially more contained events, we know stress levels will be high, and in some cases will actually lead to the end of relationships.”
Hollonds, who is also a psychologist, said stressful or traumatic events can bring some couples closer together “against a common threat”, even if just temporarily. “But for others, it will drive them apart” — perhaps by revealing existing vulnerabilities in the relationship, or different “coping styles”.
For example, she said, one partner might respond to the uncertainty of the situation by constantly scrolling through social media for updates or wanting to talk about the news. But this can create tension and trigger arguments if the other person would rather avoid rolling coverage.
“These different coping styles might have become evident during smaller crises, but this is a period of sustained pressure,” Hollonds said. “It could cause people to feel unsupported by their partner, they might be feeling quite alone … you can start to feel very disconnected and in some cases it can lead to irreversible damage.”
Of course, many couples have suddenly found themselves having to navigate dramatic changes in routine: many are working from home in shared spaces, juggling childcare and vulnerable elderly parents, while others are facing unemployment and financial insecurity — all of which counsellors say can cause conflict.
But some therapists are also seeing coronavirus have more direct impacts on intimate relationships.
Pandemic pressure, plummeting libido
People might be sharing jokes on social media about how the pandemic might lead to a mini “baby boom”, but many couples will experience a loss of libido, said Emma Cholakians, psychologist and the co-director of Couples Therapy Melbourne.
“There are couples that I am treating at the moment who don’t necessarily want to have sex because they’re stressed, they’re worried, they’re just not in the mood,” Cholakians said.
“This is important because healthy sexuality in a relationship fosters closeness. So if that is not happening and one partner is feeling rejected, it can create disconnection, and feed into loops of anxiety and worry.”
Then there’s the “germ factor”, she added: “Some people are not wanting to be close with their partner at the moment because of the fear of contamination or infection.”
According to psychotherapist Howard Todd-Collins, couples have also been using government advice to practise social distancing as a way of avoiding problems in their relationship.
“Their excuse is, ‘Let’s not talk, let’s distance ourselves, we’ll get through it by withdrawing from each other’,” said Todd-Collins, director of Men and Relationships Counselling in Melbourne.
“Some couples who come to see me will realise they’ve spent too many years avoiding negative emotion in their lives and with their partners. And when a big external situation like this happens … they can struggle to know how to cope with those feelings.
“This is all still very new, and it will be interesting to see what happens over the next six to 12 months,” he said. “But that is the risk, that people will start to realise they’re not with the right partner.”
Pause, absorb, embrace Marie Kondo
The current pandemic may be unprecedented, but research on natural disasters might provide some clues as to how intimate relationships could be affected in coming weeks and months. While such crises undoubtedly put enormous strain on couples, experts say it’s important to keep in mind they can also lead to positive growth.
A 2002 study, for instance, found that in counties in South Carolina declared disaster areas after Hurricane Hugo swept through in 1989, divorce rates increased relative to other counties. But so did marriage and birth rates.
And in another study in 2012, researchers examined the “disruptive” impacts of Hurricane Katrina on the intimate relationships of women on low incomes. But many reported the disaster also precipitated positive shifts, with some suggesting it had given them a greater “sense of perspective” and appreciation for the things they hadn’t lost, how lucky they were to be alive and still have each other.
Similar experiences have been reported in the wake of this summer’s bushfire crisis in Australia, Todd-Collins said.
“We saw with the bushfires that communities and relationships can actually do amazingly well, they survive and thrive. Those are the couples, the relationships that have strong foundations. They’re very good at creating opportunities to show interest in each other and express affection and empathy, they try to find ways of agreeing” he said.
So how can couples keep calm and carry on during the chaos of coronavirus? How, to put it crudely, can Australians stay married, stay together, in the face of growing uncertainty and social upheaval?
“One thing I’m really encouraging the clients I’m seeing to do is pause and absorb the magnitude of what’s going on,” Cholakians said. “This is something that has never happened in most peoples’ lifetimes; it’s a really humanising experience and it’s demonstrating how important it is to be connected.”
People need to talk openly about how they’re feeling with their partner and listen non-judgmentally to what they’re saying in return, she said.
“It’s okay to be anxious and fearful — they’re completely healthy reactions. But you also want to know your partner is hearing you, and is holding that vulnerability with you, validating how you’re feeling.”
Kindness is contagious, too
It’s also important to “embrace the pace of change”, Cholakians said, and create a sense of calm at home. “Try to make the most of any extra time you might have together by doing things you wouldn’t normally do because of busy schedules: go for walks, listen to music, look through old photos.
“If we do need to be locked down, the first thing I’d suggest doing is Marie Kondo-ing your home. Declutter, de-stress; just having a space that feels comfortable and homely does wonders for wellbeing.”
For Anne Hollonds, it’s crucial couples implement strategies to keep their personal anxiety in check. Panic and fear might be contagious, she said, but so are kindness and calm.
“There are many examples out there of communities pulling together, neighbours helping one another, especially the elderly. People are sharing notes under doors and calling to ask whether they can pick up things for each other at the supermarkets, but … you have to go looking for some of these more positive stories.”
For that reason, she advises against constantly monitoring social media. “It’s good to check the news in the morning … but then try and structure your day in a way that limits your exposure to media,” Hollonds said.
“This is particularly important when you have children — if the children see you constantly glued to the television with a worried expression on your face, they’ll pick up on your anxiety.”
Hollonds also suggests keeping a daily “gratitude practice”. “That can be very beneficial and help us contribute to our relationships in constructive ways,” she said. “It’s not crazy, flaky stuff — it actually does work. We know people who do better in [difficult] situations are those who have a more positive, optimistic outlook.”
And even though people are being told to avoid close contact with others, Todd-Collins said, it’s important couples aren’t emotionally secluding themselves from one another.
“I’ve often said to people that self-distancing is not the same as disconnection. Yes, we need to have plans and be aware of the risks but we need to be able to spend time with each other,” he said. “We can do that by phone, email, text and also sitting on the couch, two metres apart.”
Above all, people should try and look towards the future as the pandemic spreads, Todd-Collins added. “I’ve been like a broken record the last few days: This is a time to actually invest in your emotional health and wellbeing, together with your partner as well as on your own,” he said.
“I’m concerned about the impacts this will have on relationships but I also have a lot of faith in the history of humanity, that through this we can help ourselves and others find perspective and … learn that we are adaptable.
“It sounds a bit glib, but we’ll get through it, and we’ll learn from it. But for the moment we’ll need to get very good at mental health care, and the mental health first-aid that goes with it.”
Contributed by HE Prof Colin O Jarrett
Director of News and Current Affairs