Phillip Lee M.D. Diane Rudolph M.D.

Nurturing Great Relationships

Relationships

How the Coronavirus Can Damage Relationships

Relationships may be badly strained under quarantine.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

Death and financial upheaval are of course the primary concerns in the COVID-19 pandemic. But people aren’t the only targets of the virus—relationships can die too.

The Daily Mail says, “divorce rates spike across China after ‘couples spend too much time together during coronavirus home quarantine.’”

“The coronavirus is driving up divorce rates in a Chinese city,” reports Business Insider.

The first question is, what is happening? 

Is it that couples who would otherwise have remained happily married are torn apart by the extensive and enforced time together?

Or is it that couples who would otherwise have eventually gotten divorced anyway are simply getting divorced sooner?

Is the quarantine a catalyst, something that makes a certain reaction that was going to happen anyway happen faster?

Or is the quarantine its own COVID-19, killing marriages that otherwise would have lived?

We don’t have, and probably will never have, the data to fully answer that question. We are not going to be able to enter 100 couples into the quarantine group and 100 matched couples into the control group.  

The answer, though, is probably a mixture of both. Some of the quarantine divorces would likely have happened later.

But also likely is that some of the quarantine divorces would never have happened, hence the “spike.” (Adjusted for divorce court and everything closed for weeks for the virus).

What happens in quarantine that leads to divorce?

Quarantine together is a magnifying glass on the relationship. If it’s really, really good, then it will be spring break, a walk in the park.

If it’s really bad, already at each other’s throats, then the number of negative interactions will spike like the bad coronavirus curve on TV.

The biggest question is, what happens to the middle group? The Goldilocks group says not too hot, not too cold. (But unfortunately also not just right.) 

For the Goldilocks group, there is an increased number of land mines, and increased demand to watch where you walk. 

The difficulty in marriages stems from the spread of “you’re no good” arguments.

In normal life, these arguments sound something like this...

“You never take out the garbage.”

“You make such a mess.”

“You never help with…(kids, cleaning, economizing…)

“You’re always late (or early, or tipsy, or eager to leave or insisting on staying…)

“This is how you stack the dishwasher!”

These sound trivial until you’re in them. They are amplified and extended by coronavirus.

“You think it’s safe to eat that!?”

“Could you take off your shoes?! We’re hiding in this apartment all day and then you bring in the virus!”

“I’m in this apartment with the kids all day. What do you think that’s like?” (A pre-virus argument, amplified.)

“Don’t cough like that. It's disgusting!”

In the age of COVID-19, there are arguments about where to get food, what it’s safe to eat. Eventually the arguments spread to even the most mundane.

“We watched your show last time.”

“I don’t feel like fooling around again.”

The big question in marriages, both before and during coronavirus, is can you and your partner get on the same page? In the age of the coronavirus that’s a bigger challenge. 

But there are rewards also. As Milton says, “Out of evil comes good.” Marriages that figure out how to defuse the landmines of coronavirus will continue stronger and will be more impervious to the ordinary potholes of relationship.  

Be slow to “jump on your high horse” and quick to see your partner’s point. Your partner may follow your lead, which your partner is far more likely to if you set the tone. Then, in terms of marital discord, you may actually emerge immune!

References

From their book, Argument Addiction: When You Win You Lose (Lisa Hagan Books, 2019)