Divorce is hard. Add a global pandemic and it may cause you to rethink some things. That was the reality for three couples whom attorney Susan Myres counseled on divorce. At the beginning of the pandemic, they all decided to step back and reconsider going through with separating in the midst of a global crisis.
“I think COVID, for people with a kindness and generosity in their heart, made them kind of sit up straight and think about, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’” said Myres, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, which is based in Chicago.
About six months into COVID-19, many people are working from home, meaning they may be spending a lot more time with their significant others. But regardless of if you’re just dating or thinking of starting a family, many relationships are under significant stress.
“For some people, it’s going to be a wonderful time to spend a lot of close time, relaxed time, since they’re not commuting with their spouse. For other people, some distance during the day, say while they were working, gave them space,” said Linda Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.
Hard data on marriages, divorces and pregnancies are hard to find so early in the pandemic, but Waite said many researchers are fielding studies and results could begin to come in the next few months. Many are concerned with people locked in close quarters for such a long period of time. Domestic violence seems to have increased. There’s also difficulty accessing resources to get out of abusive relationships.
Laura Berman, a sex and relationship therapist, said couples can’t ignore issues when they’re with each other all the time now, and the added stress may dissolve relationships and create unhealthy environments. “People are going to have to deal with their stuff together, which many of them are facing, often for the first time, or they will fall apart and we’re seeing a lot of relationships fall apart under the pressure,” Berman said.
The Kinsey Institute launched a sex and relationships study in March. The ongoing research is observing more than 3,000 participants on their dating and sex lives. So far, researchers say about half of the respondents have said they are less sexually active than before. Berman said online dating has taken precedence since people can’t easily meet strangers in a socially distanced world.
“You’re not going to meet in the coffee shop or the bookstore,” Berman said. “It’s not as easy to meet people at work, because you’re not working together anymore. Those more organic ways of meeting people have shut down, and lots of people are turning to online dating.”
Berman also said people are taking things slow and getting to know each other as casual sex isn’t a risk people may want to take right now. Chicagoans, among others, are exploring video dates with people from all over the world.
“I think this is the time to really heighten your communication skills, not only getting clear on what you’re looking for in love or relationships but really getting good at discussing things and taking your time. Dating now is really a risk-benefit analysis,” Berman said. “In other words, you have to make sure the person you’re going to meet up with or potentially hook up with is potentially worth the risk. That gives you the chance to move slowly.”
There is also an added stress for those planning to have kids. Dr. Jean Ricci Goodman, a professor of OB-GYN and director of maternal-fetal medicine at Loyola University Chicago, said she suspects there won’t be a baby boom after the pandemic. She said her colleagues have seen a decrease in the number of people seeking fertility treatments.
“My feeling initially with my own patients was a great fear of contracting the virus and really self-isolation and really not thinking of pursuing a pregnancy at that time for those patients who were coming in for preconceptual counseling,” Goodman said.
For pregnant women, Waite said the research is still up in the air. She said that since it has been only six months, there’s not enough time to track who is having a child during the pandemic, and whether the pandemic was a factor in their decision to have a child. However, Waite said it makes sense if people change their minds.
“We do know that in the U.S., when people feel insecure, when unemployment’s high, when people are losing their jobs, people are more likely to say this isn’t a good time to have children,” Waite said.
A recent study from The Gutt- macher Institute surveyed about 2,000 women. More than 40 percent of respondents said they changed their plans about when to have kids and how many children they’d have due to the pandemic. Until there’s more research though, Goodman said there could still be a surprising number of births.
“Hopefully things are going to turn around and we’re going to have a very merry Christmas,” said Goodman.
Although there is little data on how the pandemic is affecting marriage and divorce rates, previous widespread disasters may provide some clues. A report from the Association for Psychological Science in April noted that after Hurricane Hugo, divorce, marriage and birth rate increased in locations that were affected by the natural disaster. However, after terrorist attacks, divorce rates decreased. Researchers said factors such as a significant loss of life can affect how the pandemic influences relationships.
For those who are single or in a relationship, Berman recommends taking some of the time and money you might have spent on dates and investing it in yourself. “Spend that money budgeted on therapy,” Berman said. “And whether it’s coaching, personal growth or couples therapy, I think really taking advantage of this crisis in our world right now as a catalyst for really supporting your relationship, but even just supporting yourself, it’s such a valuable investment.”
Myres said of the three couples she spoke to at the beginning of the pandemic, two have now decided to continue with divorce proceedings. She said the AAML survey found more people are looking into divorce proceedings, but Myres said she thinks the main reason is exhaustion. “And just because people ask for a divorce, or ask about divorce, doesn’t mean they’re going to get one,” she said.
For anyone struggling in a relationship, Myres said it’s important to recognize that everyone is having a tough time, and there’s nothing wrong with exploring all available options. “So the best thing that people can do is get information. And getting information doesn’t mean you have to make a decision, it just means you’re informed,” Myres said.