Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness column

Pandemic puts pressure on relationships already in peril

Divorces are on the rise globally, but is COVID-19 to blame? Happiness columnist Jennifer Moss looks at what couples should consider if their relationship is on the rocks and how to make positive change.

COVID-19 has been hard for many, but couples need to ask if there are other issues at play, Moss says

The novel coronavirus pandemic has put a lot of pressure on people and relationships. It may have people wondering if thoughts of divorce are because of ongoing problems or COVID-19. (Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock)

When a major crisis hits, it tends to pull people together or divide them.

Unfortunately, for some marriages during COVID-19, the pandemic has forced a divide. Around the world, divorce rates are increasing.

In China, marriage registration offices saw an unprecedented number of divorce requests when they re-opened in March. Italian lawyers report a 30 per cent increase in the number of couples embarking on divorce proceedings.

The trend of 'COVID divorce' is also showing up in Canada. 

It's no wonder relationships are suffering. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our emotional and mental well-being. We've been living with health-related stress for months and add to that a lack of financial security and too much time on our hands, it's pushing relationships to the edge.

Social isolation has been hard on couples that are not used to spending this much time together and a lack of outside time to regroup from arguments or stress can take its toll. 

But that doesn't mean it has to be over. There are some ways people can take stock of their relationship and make changes if they're motivated to do so.

Is it COVID's fault?

Some may wonder, why the increase in divorce? Isn't it just the pandemic that's making our relationships harder? And the answer to that is complex.

It's playing a role, but it isn't the only reason, particularly for couples who are already dealing with marital problems. Those problems can become highly exaggerated when another major stressor enters the picture.

But the pandemic has been atypically challenging because of the lockdown component. Couples may have already been arguing more frequently, or they've been growing apart and emotionally disconnected from each other and then suddenly they're forced to spend so much time together without a way to escape. The physical proximity can overwhelm couples. 

Another issue is the shared responsibility of household duties — often an issue even without a pandemic. New research shows women are working 20 more hours per week to balance family and work obligations. In general people are working 30 per cent more hours in the day to accomplish the same pre-pandemic goals.

This workplace burnout is causing significant stress at home. Add to that, financial stress which happens to be one of the top reasons couples get divorced and there you have it — a recipe for the breakdown of a marriage already on the brink. 

People change in a crisis

When we face a major emotional event, particularly one of this magnitude, it forces us to take stock of our lives. We feel the limitations we have on time and our own mortality and that can speed up decisions, particularly about our relationships. Something that seemed acceptable before, may now seem intolerable.

Crises can highlight the disparities in a relationship that won't be fixed after the pandemic is over. 

But, for some marriages, the pandemic has created a closeness and a bond that is unlike any time in their history. I've listened to stories of couples who are finally getting time together around the dinner table or one woman who said she finally gets her husband back after years of him travelling for work.

Many relationships are being rekindled for the same reasons others are being divided.

For many of those couples who live somewhere in the middle, this is the time to discuss whether it's the unsustainable stressors of COVID that is taking their marriage off course or if it's more than that. If it's something more, this would be a good time to get virtual access to counselling. Recognizing that this is an intensely challenging time, counselling can help generate a compassion and empathy reset. 

If it's the former, and you're a couple looking to find a healthy way back, there are ways to work on and revive your relationships.

The most notable researchers, like Dr. John Gottman from the Gottman Institute and author of How to Make Love Last, believes that it is about figuring out how to really fall in love with your partner's qualities again.

Typically, after the honeymoon phase ends, we fall into what psychologists call the partnership phase. This is considered healthy because it's much more sustainable than the passion-driven highs and lows of those first years. But we can fall into ruts and forget why we loved that person in the first place. The qualities and quirks that we used to love about our partner has over time, become irritating and frustrating. When that happens, we stop admiring and respecting those behaviours and actions. 

Recreate the spark

One of the ways to revive that part of the relationship is to make your relationship novel again, like how it was in the honeymoon phase.

New or novel experiences elicit a high level of neurotransmitter activity in the brain. When you engage in new experiences with your partner, feelings similar to those you both experienced when you were initially dating can become activated. This happens because dopamine and norepinephrine levels — our brain's reward system – tend to increase dramatically when you engage in new experiences.

I've had people say, well what can I do? Even in a pandemic, there are plenty of things we can still do that is novel. Couples therapist Dr. Brian Gersho suggests people be creative, cast a wide net, and don't hold back.

For example:

  • Try a new hobby, craft, or skill.
  • Play a new sport.
  • Take musical instrument lessons together.
  • Enjoy outdoor recreation activities together such as hiking, fishing, bicycling, etc.
  • Try to create new food together.
  • Don't plan anything and see what happens.

Just make sure that these are things that other partner will not despise and flat-out reject. Make sure it's a plan you make together. And, schedule your date nights/outings in advance and allow each partner to take turns planning the activity.

This may seem oversimplified in the middle of everything feeling like it's falling apart around you. I want to make clear that I am not diminishing the pain of divorce or suggesting that a divorce can be fixed with a list of novel ideas. For some, divorce is the right decision for them and their families. 


Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member. She is based in Kitchener, Ontario.