You may wonder, as you contemplate the state of your marriage or partnership, how things would have turned out if you had not been quarantined together for nearly 12 months. There is no doubt that the pandemic caused by COVID19 has contributed to your marital stress, tension, exhaustion, and agitation. Sometimes the agitation is simply the by-product of the pull of work, kids, and spousal duties. In these situations, you know that if you could just get back to the gym regularly or hang-out with your girlfriends for a weekend in the woods, you would emerge refreshed and clear-headed.
However, sometimes, though, the tension and frustration are amplified and apparent because your relationship is truly in trouble. Whereas in the past you could engage, knowingly or not, in avoidant behaviors like staying extra hours at the office, traveling across the country to sales meetings or playing intramural sports with your friends, these tactics are not an option during a health pandemic. The reality of living through the COVID19 pandemic is that we are made to face our realities… whether we like them or not.
ARE YOU AVOIDING REALITY?
While in the past you could avoid, ignore, or repress the obvious signs that our relationship was crumbling like an Oreo in milk, these tactics simply do not work when you are forced to stay in very close proximity to one another.
Our homes have become our schools, our offices, our gyms, our restaurants, our movie theatres, and our sanctuaries (if you are lucky). While our unique situations may vary depending upon our financial stability, size of our home and land, and the general undercurrent of our familial relationships, the truth is, we have all had to display a tremendous amount of adaptability, patience, and grit to remain sane over the 10 months.
This of course, is no easy feat for an already tumultuous relationship. The seams are about to burst like a water balloon filled to capacity- one poorly executed move on your way towards your target and you are soaked and defeated.
DIVORCE DAY IS HERE
If you are wondering why it is today, the first Monday in January, that you are daydreaming of a different life, it may (or may not) appease you to know that today is traditionally known as “Divorce Day” here in the USA and Europe.
In a typical year, you have just muddled through another disastrous holiday with the in-laws and your spouse clearly has no idea about your tastes given the random array of gifts you received. Your finances are exploding…in the wrong direction, and, you simply cannot fathom another year of bickering over whose turn it is to fold the laundry and get your kids to their basketball games.
And, of course, 2020 was no typical year. The balancing act between work, kids, marriage, and self-care is more off-kilter than ever before and our resources for centering, grounding, and balancing are limited due to quarantine restrictions, financial instability, and widespread fatigue.
This first Monday in January is when everything comes to a head and you sit down at your office desk (or kitchen table) and instead of answering your overflowing inbox, you instinctively Google, “how do I get divorced?” or “how much does divorce cost?” or “how to co-parent after a nasty divorce?”
You are not alone. Your colleagues are doing the same thing and because Google records these keystrokes, we know that the first working Monday in January is the day when the world comes together in unison to consider divorce. To quote Dr. John Gottman, some of us are “marriage masters” and some of us are “marriage disasters”.
ARE YOU JUST ANOTHER STATISTIC?
In England, one legal-aid agency recorded a mind-blowing 250% increase in inquiries about divorce between 2019 and 2020. While it is too soon to say if these inquiries will turn into actual divorces, it certainly indicates that many, many couples are facing difficulties. No matter what you see on social media or what you believe you know about your friends, behind closed-doors things are different. I have a theory that the happier a couple looks on Instagram or TikTok, the more trouble they are in!
Here in America, divorce rates increased a staggering 34% between March 2020- June 2020 compared to the same period a year previous according to research by LegalTemplates. Interestingly, newly married couples were one group of people who were most likely to seek divorce at the onset of the pandemic. We can make the assumption that they had not yet committed to the “until death do us part” part of their vows and, perhaps, they also did not have to consider the impact of their decision on children. As a therapist, this is certainly the number one reason I hear clients cite as they grapple with this impossible decision.
NAVIGATING MARRIAGE IN A PANDEMIC
So, like it or not, “Divorce Day” is upon us and the only question is, can your marriage be saved? This question has no magical, one-size-fits-all answer. The factors and variables influencing your decision are as plentiful as the stars in the sky. But, we can turn to research and statistics to help us look at this objectively (if you want a philosophical exploration of this question, you can read it here). The Gottman Institute has been studying and researching the behaviors of people and couples since the 1970s. In my field of counseling, the Gottman Institute is the gold standard of evidence-based treatment and scientific data related to couples. So, what can we learn from the Drs. John and Julie Gottman about the health of our marriages?
THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE
The research shows that when the “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” show-up in your marriage, you are entering into the danger zone. The 4 Horsemen show-up in the form of: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. These 4 communication styles are indicative of trouble. And, it is important to know that contempt for your partner is the single biggest predictor of divorce according to their extensive research. It is reported that Dr. Gottman can use his data on the 4 Horseman when observing clients in his Love Lab to predict marriage success with 90% accuracy! So, if you are feeling contemptuous, seek the advice of a professional family and marriage counselor ASAP.
Let’s now take a look at these 4 predictors of divorce and if anything resonates or scares you, take that as a sign that it is time to seek professional help. First there’s criticism. Criticism is an attack of your partner’s character; it’s not just saying “I didn’t care for the dinner you prepared last night, it was too spicy” (that’s a complaint, and that’s okay sometimes). Criticism is more like saying, “Your dinner sucked because you only think of your own needs and you purposely made something I hate to upset me”. The difference between a complaint and a criticism is the complaint is about the object (dinner) and the criticism is about the person (your spouse).
Imagine receiving either message from your partner. Which one is more palatable to receive and easier to recover from? Which one attacks our self-esteem and makes us want to react aggressively? No marriage is perfect but repeated criticisms will chip-away at your foundation of love and strength and that is like building a beautiful castle on sandy shores.
You will not be surprised to find that defensiveness is often the standard response to criticism. Following on from the above example, you may respond defensively by saying: “You try cooking a good meal on this lousy budget with 3 kids crying and one on my hip. If you think you can do better, feel free to cook tomorrow. I am sure it won’t be any better when you get in the kitchen.” You responded defensively because you felt attacked and tried to place blame on your partner, too. The problem is that this dance of attacking and defending is okay when you are practicing karate, but it has no place in a healthy marriage. It also makes it easier for the other two horsemen, contempt and stonewalling, to enter the marriage.
Contempt is simple. It is that feeling that you truly despise the other person and, worse yet, you do not bother trying to hide your feelings. When you have contempt for your partner, you are inspired by meanness. You let hate guide you to all sorts of ugly places. You attempt to make your partner feel unloved, unworthy, useless, and defeated. And you often succeed. And that is why contempt is the number one predictor of divorce according to the Gottman’s research.
In our cooking scenario, a contemptuous response may be something like this:
“Are you kidding me, this is what you planned on serving me for dinner tonight? I would not even feed this to our dog. I have never seen or smelt anything as bad as this, and that’s saying a lot considering what a terrible cook you are. All I ask of you is a hot meal when I get home from work and you cannot even do this one simple task. I should have known better than to count on you.”
That makes our criticism scenario seem like a walk in the park. It is easy to see how this communication style erupts like a volcano through a marriage. And, when contempt enters the picture, it will show up in all areas- it may start with your cooking, but it will quickly show-up in discussions on how you balance the budget and how you are in the bedroom and how you are as wife, mother, husband or partner.
Not surprisingly, contempt leads us to stonewalling. As the name suggests, when we feel under constant attack, we simply turn to silence. We try to protect ourselves, as best as we know how, and that is often to retreat and build a wall of protection. At this stage of the game, you will certainly feel more like badly matched roommates than any inkling of soulmates. You do anything to avoid the wrath of your contemptuous partner. And, if you are the one dishing out the lashings, you will notice that your partner has “checked-out” in many ways.
When you are feeling emotionally flooded after a contemptuous attack, take time away to soothe yourself. That might mean taking 20 mins for a walk or kickboxing, or it might mean 20 mins of meditation or 20 minutes of crying and resetting. Take time and space to balance and then return to the conversation.
If you have been unkind to your partner, attempt a repair by taking responsibility, acknowledging the wrong, and making a behavior change. And, please, deeply consider counseling.
CAN WE BE SAVED?
As I stated previously, there is no magic bullet to help you decide between staying married or partnered, or calling it quits. Many factors will influence your decision and you should never enter divorce lightly (and you shouldn’t take entering a committed partnership lightly, either!).
Luckily, the Gottman’s have researched some remedies to these communication problems. So, all is not lost. A trained marriage counselor, social worker, or psychologist can help you examine your role in your marriage, and they can provide you with exercises to help you build a new, better, relationship.
These remedies will take time, hard work, dedication, and a joint effort toward union and peace. But, no matter what, it is always worth it to really try to save your marriage. Even if the outcome is divorce or separation, you will want to know that you tried everything possible first.
WHAT IF MY PARTNER IS ABUSIVE?
However, when I am speaking on the topic of relationships, it is important to specifically address those of your in abusive or narcissistic relationships. If you are in an abusive relationship, counseling, friendships, and family support may not be available to you. This bid for control and isolation is a blatant red flag of an abusive relationship.
We know from research that domestic violence and intimate partner violence is on the rise due to COVID19. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 9% increase in calls in 2020 over 2019 data. Some experts are also noting an increase in female homicides of a “domestic nature” and increases in women seeking treatment for broken bones and strangulations. These are all terrible signs that violence is on the rise as COVID19 related stress peaks. Victims of domestic violence can truly become prisoners in their own homes due to social distancing requirements. This is a dream come true for an abusive partner and a complete and utter nightmare for the victim.
I wrote extensively about abusive relationships recently and you can read this full article here. The most important take-away is that abuse is often not physical; it is often sexual, emotional, verbal, financial or spiritual. Verbal and emotional abuse are often dismissed because there are no physical scars. Likewise, talking of sexual or spiritual abuse in a partnership is far too taboo for everyday conversation. Ask your friends what financial abuse is and I bet they will not have a clue. For the record, if your partner says things such as “you can’t leave me until you pay back last month’s rent” or if your partner gives you an impossibly low allowance of money to buy groceries and pay bills, then you are the victim of financial abuse.
In these situations, divorce may seem like a lovely, but unattainable, fantasy.
Most counties and cities across the USA have resources for victims of abuse. In the USA, The Hotline can be reached at 1.800.799.SAFE or you can chat with them online at https://www.thehotline.org/. If you are in Maryland, like me, every county has an emergency mobile crisis unit that will come to you if you are being victimized or if you are feeling suicidal or in danger of anyway. To reach them just call 211.
My hope is that you read this article on Divorce Day and you smiled to yourself knowing how lucky are to be in a safe, healthy, and mostly enjoyable relationship. But, if something here resonates with you or sparks an internal inquiry of self-reflection or if it makes you want to cry or scream, seeking counseling can help. You can use a resource like Psychology Today to find a professional in your area, or, if you live in Maryland and want to connect with me, you can reach me at: www.marylandtherapycarrie.com/contact
Carrie Mead, MS, LCPC is a professional counselor licensed in the state of Maryland. Carrie offers psychotherapy to adults suffering from anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and trauma. Carrie utilizes a person-centered holistic approach to healing and she honors the client as the expert of their own lives. Carrie earned her Master’s Degree in Counselor Education from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD where she resides with her family. When not working, Carrie can be found seeking the warmth of the sun in her garden or curled-up with a good book and strong coffee. For more information, visit www.marylandtherapycarrie.com