In sickness and health: How to help your relationships survive COVID-19 quarantine

With so many couples and families spending more time at home in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, some are finding ways to make it work while others warn it might result in an uptick in divorce and broken relationships.

Divorces sometimes spike after couples have been cooped up together, lawyer says

Matt Ross and Dawn Wiseman: 'We broke up seven times last week,' Ross jokes. 'This week it's only been two. The number of breakups per week are going down now.' (Dawn Wiseman)

With so many couples and families spending more time at home in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, some are developing ways to make it work in close quarters while others are finding it can be a challenge.

"It's like enforced closeness," Darby Saxbe, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, said last week.

"We're sharing our home spaces, which usually we return to at the end of the work day or at the end of the school day for just a few hours of winding down and rest. Now we're in those spaces together all day long. And so everybody's getting cabin fever."

Which might explain why the busiest month in family law for divorces is often January, says Los Angeles-based lawyer Laura Wasser.

Wasser, who has handled divorces for A-listers including Angelina Jolie, Kim Kardashian West and Ryan Reynolds, says it's not unusual to see a spike in divorces after couples have been cooped up together for weeks on end during the December holidays.

How to help your relationship survive COVID-19 quarantine

2 years ago
Duration 2:28
Experts say family meetings and a sense of humour can go a long way.

"I do think that there is going to be some definite ramifications of this pandemic, and it will result in changes in relationships," Wasser told CBC News.

For a lot of couples, working from home requires a few adjustments.

Danny Glenwright is used to traveling around the world as executive director of the international humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger. Based in Toronto, Glenwright and his husband Francis Carbonu, who works in corporate mental health, say they're lucky to each have their own section of the house. Even if there might still be some kinks to work out.

Francis Carbonu, left, and Danny Glenwright, right, aren't used to both working from home, but say they're making it work. (Danny Gee)

"Francis's office upstairs is right beside the bathroom," said Glenwright. "So I was leaving the shower yesterday and he left his office door open and I happened to see that he was on a video call."

"So, I had a panic moment."

He doesn't think he ended up on camera, but it's all too common these days to have a BBC News-type moment with so much video-conferencing taking place from home during business hours.

Especially when you add children to the picture.

As Dawn Wiseman and Matt Ross are interviewed over Skype at their home in Fredericton, N.B., their toddler daughter is heard giggling in the background, and their 20-month-old is crawling to inspect the computer screen.

"It's more than acceptable for a three-year-old to barge into my office and ask me a silly question," said Ross. "And a video call to see it."

With two kids, Matt Ross and Dawn Wiseman have a busy household working from home during the pandemic. (Dawn Wiseman)

The couple has a busy household. Wiseman manages a line of beauty products when she's not teaching, and Ross is a manufacture's agent. Like many Canadians, he's working from home.

"We broke up seven times last week," jokes Ross. "This week it's only been two. The number of breakups per week are going down now."

Wiseman laughs.

"You know how long he's been waiting to bust that joke out?"

For a lot of other couples living through the quarantine and isolation of this pandemic, there's much less to laugh about.

Ways to help

Marital strife can often bubble to the surface in times of stress and uncertainty, says Wasser. She is the one who inspired Laura Dern's tough-talking divorce lawyer character in this year's Oscar-nominated film A Marriage Story.

"What happens when we are in a relationship, particularly as parents, we have kids, we get very, very sucked into our busy lives," she said. "And now, all of a sudden, we're stuck together. And so some of the things, the resentments and the problems and the issues that we've had that weren't addressed are still there."

Celebrity divorce lawyer Laura Wasser, who inspired Laura Dern's tough-talking lawyer character in this year's Oscar-nominated film Marriage Story, says there's often a spike in divorces after people have been cooped up over Christmas. (Wasser, Cooperman and Mandles)

But there are ways to help.

The first is having a "family meeting," says Canadian registered psychotherapist Yasmin A. Razek, and developing a daily routine to have some control over an otherwise unpredictable situation.

"Either with their partners or if they have kids, go ahead and have this meeting, all of us together during this time," said Razek. "This is what we need from each other, for us to function together, for us to to even thrive during this time …. Take turns verbalizing."

Razek, who is currently based in Egypt but works online with multiple Toronto couples, says depression, anxiety and other pre-existing mental health issues can sometimes be "heightened" as well.

"We all react to stress differently, and there's a lot of stress going on right now," said Razek. "The chances that you and your partner would be reacting to the same stress, to this pandemic, in the same way, it's probably very slim."

Therapist Yasmin A. Razek, who works with many Toronto couples online, says empathy and communication are key to relationships in high-stress situations like the current pandemic. (Yasmin A. Razek)

And that reaction itself can be significant.

Saxbe has done a lot of research into stress and how it can affect families.

"I've found that couples that report more distress, more dissatisfaction and more aggressive conflict actually show more closely linked levels of stress hormones," said Saxbe. So they're literally kind of showing this stress contagion, suggesting that their stress states are kind of infecting or are contagious to the other members of the family."

'What matters the most'

Saxbe says one solution involves reframing the current predicament from being a "burden" for the workplace to an "opportunity" at home.

"A crisis sort of forces us to get in touch with what matters the most. Many of us are finding that it's not actually that hard to put our jobs on pause," said Saxbe. "But what doesn't go away is the need to care for each other."

Schedule date nights, schedule time, and then schedule time to be apart from each other. If you have room, get into different parts of the house and spend some time separately.- Laura Wasser, lawyer specializing in family law

Wasser's years of experience working with divorcing couples has also given her insight into what it takes to keep a relationship healthy.

"Just like we tell people in normal circumstances: schedule date nights, schedule time, and then schedule time to be apart from each other," said Wasser. "If you have room, get into different parts of the house and spend some time separately, because I think that's important too."

She also says couples now working from home as a result of the COVID-19 crisis can take advantage of seeing what their partner does at work or in the home.

"This is a really good time to see how the other half lives in your family," said Wasser. "Share responsibilities. I think it's really important to be adaptable and say and know that this will probably change, but kind of with an eye toward how this can make us a better family unit in the future."

The calm in a storm

Maintaining a sense of humour doesn't hurt either.

Ross and Wiseman say one of the best parts about staying home all the time is "the eating."

"We're having some good meals," joked Wiseman.

For Glenwright and Carbonu, there is a heightened give-and-take these days.

Carbonu says he's never been able to witness his husband in "full work mode" until now and has seen a different side of Glenwright. At the same time, Glenwright says he relies on Carbonu to keep civilized hours at home.

"I think I would have a tendency to just keep working 24/7 if Francis wasn't here to be like, 'You know what? Shut it down for the day. Let's have some "us" time,'" said Glenwright.

Carbonu says with all the physical distancing, social isolation and uncertainty of what to expect next, he doesn't take the relationship for granted.

"It's actually more comforting, because I know that he's going to be here tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day," Carbonu said.

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