Divorce in The Time of a Coronavirus Pandemic

The inevitable recession is going to challenge couples like never before. So it’s time to get creative about expectations

Maybe you’ve been unhappy in your marriage for a long time. Maybe you just came to that realization. Maybe you’ve been going to marital therapy or have been reading up about divorce. Maybe you’ve spoken to a divorce attorney. Maybe you were close to deciding what to do — and then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Your financial situation is unsure. If you have children, it hardly seems like a good time to add more stress and anxiety in their life.

Should you leave? Should you stay?

There’s a complicated history of how people have reacted during pandemics.

As the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote about the bubonic plague in the 14th century, husbands left wives and vise versa. Perhaps worse, parents abandoned their children.

The Spanish influenza pandemic of of 1918–1920 didn’t seem to lead spouses to abandon each other, but it did lead to a lot of people widowed.

OK, parents are probably not going to abandon their children nowadays. But, will spouses abandon their vow of “for better or worse”?

As Jennifer Senior writes in the New York Times:

The coronavirus pandemic forces all of us to contend not just with the customary tensions of a disaster, which are financial and logistical, but with a sense of dread as well. To live through it means tolerating a painful uncertainty — particularly in these early days, as we’re all still waiting to see just how many cases there are, how overwhelmed the hospitals will become, and how bad the economic devastation will be.

And how couples react to that is, well, complicated.

Hers is just one of many articles exploring how being quarantined can strain a relationship.

“A quarantine experience, particularly where there are underlying issues of resentment and poor communication, could be devastating to a marital relationship” notes Los Angeles divorce attorney Laura Wasser.

Thanks, Laura, but what marriage doesn’t have a certain amount of “resentment and poor communication”?

There’s a long history of couples breaking up in the aftermath of disasters.

Researchers looked at what happened after 1989’s Hurricane Hugo. What they found wasn’t totally unexpected — “a life-threatening event motivated people to take significant action in their close relationships that altered their life course” — sometimes marrying or having a baby, but just as often divorce.

Divorces didn’t spike after 9/11 — a man-made disaster. In fact, they went down, just as they did after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, another man-made disaster.

But natural disasters? They are not kind to marriages because they create a huge amount of stress that hits aspect of a couple’s daily life, including their financial and employment situation, and can trigger anxiety and depression — all of which take a relationship to a breaking point.

As Catherine L. Cohan, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Penn State, says, “People are confronted with the realization that life is short. It’s too short to be in this unhappy situation.”

That may not be the thinking in places like Syria, where an ongoing war has created a situation that has led to more divorce, child marriages and polygamy among refugees with inevitably long-lasting repercussions. This is not a “life is too short” thing.

So will we see more divorces because of the coronavius pandemic as well recent hurricanes, earthquake and fires? Maybe. And this may be the new normal: With climate change and political turmoil around the world, we are going to be facing more disasters — both natural and man-made — ahead. Sadly, children are doubly impacted — first by the disaster, then by the divorce.

But, as sociologist Philip Cohen has detailed, staying together — unhappily — may be worse. Divorces fell after the Great Recession, but it’s hardly good news because “[t]he enforced wait could simply prolong or exacerbate marital stress and family conflict, rather than saving or restoring a happy marriage.”

Given that, and the fact that a recession is inevitable, what can unhappy couples do if they are unable to financially handle a divorce and the cost of moving and setting up a new household? Here’s what: Remove the sex and romance from their relationship.

It’s similar to what my co-author and I propose in The New I Do for unhappily married couples with children who can’t, won’t or are hesitant to divorce. They can transform their marriage into a parenting marriage, in which they continue to go about their lives as co-parents and partners but without the sexual-romantic relationship.

Actor Mario Bello, who has a romantic, sexual relationship with a woman and a nonromantic, nonsexual relationship with the father of her child, asks — why do we consider the person we have sex with to be the most important person in our life? And if we stop having sex with that person, but still remain married or in a relationship with them, does that change anything?

I look at how most of us end romantic relationships — with anger, hurt, accusations, resentments, vengeful thoughts and, sometimes, downright hatred. And that is often how we divorce as well, with kids stuck miserably in the middle.

Would you be able to value the father or mother of your child even if you no longer were in love with them and were no longer having sex with them? Would you be able to remove the sex and romance from your marriage so you wouldn’t have to divorce, move and disrupt life for your children?

While each couple is free to create the terms of their new arrangement — who sleeps where, how financial obligations should be split, whether new romantic partners can be introduced into the family — they first must agree that their romantic and sexual relationship is over, and that the purpose of their marriage now is to be the best co-parents they can be.

Then they have to tell their children as openly and honestly as they can in age-appropriate language.

As for what are couples supposed to do with their sexual desires, why must a person’s sexual needs dictate how someone parents?

A parenting marriage makes sense when you consider the cost of divorce, not only financially but also emotionally.

The current coronavirus pandemic and the inevitable recession are going to challenge couples like never before. So it’s time to get creative about how we handle those challenges. Rethinking what we expect from our partner is a good way to start.

Want to learn how to have a parenting marriage? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore (please do) or order it on Amazon. And we’re now on Audible.

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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