The COVID-19 pandemic has been a pivotal time for relationships and marriages around the world. Getting our routines shaken up tends to shake up our relationships as well, and there’s nothing like a (hopefully!) once-in-a-lifetime world disaster to give us perspective, illuminate blind spots, and prompt us to reassess our choices.
Health author Katie Heaney (2021) recently investigated stories of how the COVID-19 pandemic shook things up enough for some couples to get divorced. Let’s take a look at these real-life stories with an eye towards what engaged couples can learn from them in order to avoid the same mistakes.
Addiction is a relationship killer.
One now-divorced woman told the nightmarish story of looking the other way when confronted with her husband’s alcoholism…for years before the pandemic began. He would say hurtful things and misbehave in front of the kids. Because he was working and she was raising their kids, they spent little enough time together that it was easy to rationalize and overlook his alcoholism. However, when COVID-19 forced them all to spend more time together under one roof, it became impossible to ignore (Heaney, 2021).
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon anecdote, especially among millennials. Millennials are the generation most likely to die as a result of alcohol or drug abuse (Yerby, 2019).
Addiction issues are incredibly destructive to relationships. One partner’s addiction can cause them to behave irrationally, spend copious amounts of shared money on the addiction, and detract energy from the relationship. It can diminish trust and lead to intimacy issues. It can interfere with the couple’s ability to undertake adult responsibilities, such as raising children. The list goes on.
Perhaps worst of all is the vicious cycle often caused by addiction:
1. The addiction is the source of arguments between the couple
2. As the addiction remains, arguments about it become more and more frequent, heated, and potentially violent
3. The partner with the addiction turns to the substance as a way to cope with the stress of frequent arguments
4. Both the addiction and the arguments become worse, fueled by one another in an ugly feedback loop (AAMFT, 2021).
And, among couples who seek professional help for marital issues, those for whom addiction plays a role are more unhappy than others (AAMFT, 2021).
If you are in a partnership in which you or your other half struggles with addiction, you may be asking yourself if this means your relationship is doomed. The answer is no, not necessarily! However, it does mean you have some hurdles ahead that are best addressed as soon as possible rather than overlooked. If the partner struggling with addiction is unwilling to seek treatment, then it’s unlikely that the issue will improve and the relationship will suffer as a result. However, if they seek treatment and take it seriously, the couple just might have a chance at overcoming the addiction and healing the growing divide between them.
Remember that there are also programs available to support the partners of those with addictions, such as Al-Anon (Al-Anon Family Groups, 2021).
Addiction is not the only marital issue that can be overlooked and snowball into an obstacle that cannot be transcended. We may overlook many problems in favor of avoiding conflict…for now. A lesson from this COVID divorce story is that all issues are best addressed as soon as they come up, tempting as it may be to cover them up with distractions.
He was an artist. She felt at home in corporate America. It took a global pandemic to reveal the stark divide between them. A recently-divorced man recounted the story of how the pandemic made him see that he and his ex-wife diverged on important values (Heaney, 2021).
After COVID made his work disappear overnight, he took a job as a salesperson at the company where his wife worked, and an ongoing conflict came to a head: His wife was tired of her position as the primary breadwinner, and wanted him to eventually fill that role. The only problem was that as an artist, he wasn’t likely to ever earn as much money as his wife was accustomed to, and he hated corporate life. When he tried to challenge the hierarchical structure of the company in a bid to make it into the kind of working environment in which he could be happy, the CEO was upset and his wife sided with the CEO. It quickly became clear that his progressive values were at odds with his wife’s more traditional values (Heaney, 2021). Neither was necessarily right or wrong, but the difference in values revealed through these events was a divide that proved too big to cross.
The pandemic shook up this couple’s status quo enough to make it clear that their values around finances and capitalism were very different. Despite sharing similarly progressive and unconventional values in other areas of their lives, they had completely different visions for their futures when it came to finances and career goals (Heaney, 2021).
So, what can engaged couples take from this story? Don’t make the mistake of assuming that shared values in some areas of your relationship necessarily equal shared values in every important area of your relationship. When you are planning your future together, make sure you talk about your financial and career goals. Make sure you are truly 100% ready to accept one another’s paths even if they don’t line up perfectly.
It isn’t necessary to share all values with your partner, but taking a good look at where you’re headed in the future as individuals and as a couple can help you avoid surprises down the road. Finances can be one of the stickiest issues to talk about, especially if you and your partner have different earning potential and different values financially, but not talking about them means avoiding a conflict and potentially letting it become bigger with time. Here are some questions to ask one another when it comes to financial and career goals:
-How much money is enough money?
-If you had to choose, would it be more important to increase your income over time, or to have an income source that pays only enough to get by but matches who you are and what you think is important in life?
-Who will be the primary breadwinner, if anyone?
-What will we do if one of us is without work for some time?
-How do we feel about income sharing?
Discussing these important questions can help ensure that you don’t wind up in the same position as the couple in the article! Your and your partner’s answers to these questions will also provide the foundation for many important aspects of your prenup.
Lack of Commonality
Another woman interviewed had married young following a surprise pregnancy. Pre-pandemic, she and her husband had a vibrant social life. During the pandemic, their social landscape changed completely. Whereas they had been used to socializing in groups, they had to get used to socializing as a couple again. Alone. It forced them to reassess and see that they had been coasting through the relationship without truly enjoying one another’s company. The pandemic provided the perfect opportunity for them to step back and realize that it was time to move on romantically (Heaney, 2021).
Pregnancy is not the only reason to get married in a rush. Oftentimes, family/societal pressure, financial pressure, and codependency lead couples to marry before they have truly explored how much commonality exists between them. A good rule of thumb is to wait to get engaged until you have been together for at least 3 years. This is because limerence (otherwise known as the honeymoon phase) can last around 3 years (Sack, 2012), and you’ll want to take off those rose-colored goggles before you think about marrying someone. 3 years is also enough time to see someone in a range of different life circumstances, get truly comfortable with one another, establish norms, and see how much you really have in common.
While many couples do have a lot in common when they get married, many also make the mistake of sliding slowly into complacency. A common mistake couples make after marriage is thinking that marriage seals the deal and means that the ‘pursuit’ phase of the relationship is completed. There’s a feeling of shifting from “I want this person” to “I have this person”. Contrary to popular belief, partners in a healthy relationship do not take their union for granted and continue to pursue each other for the rest of their lives.
It is natural to shift your attention to other goals in other areas of your life after comfort develops in a partnership (usually after limerence ends). However, making this transition without awareness can erode connection and commonality if a couple does not make an intentional effort to stay connected. It can happen slowly, so that you do not notice it until the gap between who you used to be as a couple and who you have become as a couple is so vast that it becomes difficult not to notice.
Make the effort to continue to cultivate common interests that the two of you can pursue together–just the two of you. Sometimes, building a ritual can help. Play badminton every Tuesday, or go on weekend getaways once a month to undiscovered spots in nature to dance naked around a fire and jump in a lake, if that’s your thing. The important part is to build rituals that match your shared interests + who you are as a couple.
Sometimes, couples drift apart and lose commonality despite the very best of intentions. We humans living in western societies have far more opportunities in life than ever before, are living longer, and are watching the world around us (and ourselves, as a result) change rapidly. As a result, some unions that might have lasted a (much shorter) lifetime in a different day and age are simply outgrown today. And that’s ok. There is nothing noble about struggling to “make something work” if it simply doesn’t fit anymore. Indeed that’s one of the reasons couples arrange for prenuptial agreements.
These stories of couples who didn’t make it through COVID offer valuable insights for couples who are taking steps towards marriage.
-Address issues when they come up, even if it would be easier to delay.
-Don’t minimize serious issues like addiction.
-Make sure you understand and can really accept one another’s values in areas of divergence, especially surrounding career and finances.
-Nurture common interests on purpose, especially after the honeymoon phase ends
-Write a prenup just in case you outgrow the relationship, and do everything in your power to foster ongoing connection in your relationship so that the odds of this happening are slim.
Marriage can be one of the greatest challenges of a lifetime, but looking at other couples’ mistakes and treating your relationship with intention and awareness will stack the odds strongly in your favor. The rewards of a happy marriage outweigh its difficulties by many orders of magnitude.
Al-Anon Family Groups. 2021. Coping with an Alcoholic Spouse or Partner. Retrieved from: https://al-anon.org/newcomers/how-can-i-help-my/alcoholic-spouse-or-partner/
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Substance Abuse and Intimate Relationships. Retrieved from: https://www.aamft.org/Consumer_Updates/Substance_Abuse_and_Intimate_Relationships.aspx
Heaney, K. 2021. Divorce is Down, But Will it Last? Four recently divorced people talk about how Covid impacted their marriages. Retrieved from: https://www.thecut.com/2021/06/how-the-covid-pandemic-affected-marriages-and-caused-divorce.html?&utm_source=fb&utm_medium=social_paid&utm_campaign=content_low&utm_content=1P_sitevisitors&utm_term=covidimpactonmarriage_6254958939807&fbclid=IwAR0iUWC8MU1Kh7-9tNTioQ3amSLxUT7E39L-ox5Phdqh5wdamndOz6lXtj4
Sack, D. 2012. Limerence and the Biochemical Roots of Love Addiction. Retrieved from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/limerence_b_1627089.
Yerby, N. 2019. Report: Millennials are Most Likely to Die From Alcohol, Drugs, Suicide. Retrieved from: https://www.addictioncenter.com/community/millennials-alcohol-drugs-suicide/