Are Marriages Another Casualty of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Lockdown policies may increase the risk of dissolution for some marriages.

Posted Jul 19, 2020

As lockdowns are being lifted and family courts start to resume their normal work hours, many family lawyers are reporting a surge in clients who are seeking to divorce their partners.1 A similar spike in divorce cases was seen after the court system assumed normal hours in other countries like China.2 After seeing this trend, many people have asked the question: Are marriages yet another casualty of COVID-19? Or is this just a temporary surge because of the backlogs in some courts that emerged due to the pandemic?  

There are several reasons for us to believe that union dissolution increased during COVID-19. COVID-19 increased the number of couples who are experiencing financial hardships, which may have contributed to higher divorce rates. The pandemic and the closing of the economy temporarily eliminated 22.2 million jobs in the U.S. and 2 million jobs in Canada.3, 4 Several more people were furloughed and could not collect their full paychecks. Unemployment insurance and government subsidies have not been able to mitigate the adverse economic consequences of COVID-19. Couples facing financial troubles have a significantly higher risk of divorce.5

Lockdown policies to curb the pandemic may have also placed a strain on some couples' relationship quality. Many individuals have been forced to work from home and have seen their leisure activities canceled. Partners have significantly less “me time” and “personal space” as a result of the pandemic. The drastic reduction of personal space may strain a couple’s relationship.2

Added household responsibilities may be another factor contributing to the deterioration of couples’ relationship qualities and heightening their risk of COVID-19. Safety concerns may have precluded couples from outsourcing the household chores (e.g., cleaning, washing) that they typically subcontract out. Many couples were also tasked with the responsibility of homeschooling their children. According to a recent report, the mean number of hours that couples with children in several countries spend on household chores has nearly doubled from 30 to 57 hours after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.Juggling full-time work responsibilities with the added household responsibilities may have proven to be stressful for many couples and increased their risk of divorce.

Rising gender inequalities within the household may also increase their risk of divorce. Women appear to be bearing the brunt of the added household responsibilities. Preliminary results from the University of Melbourne’s “Work & Care in the Time of COVID-19” survey show that women are assuming more than two-thirds of the extra burden emerging due to COVID-19.Women's dissatisfaction with their union may have increased as they continuously assume disproportionate shares of the extra household responsibilities that emerged during the pandemic. Some women may have harbored feelings of resentment towards their husbands as fulfilling the extra responsibilities may have meant making career sacrifices. Growing dissatisfaction with their marriage and resentment towards their partners may increase their risk of union dissolution.

There are, however, also reasons to believe that the spike is temporary and will vanish once the court systems “catch-up.” The pandemic may have strengthened the marriage bonds of some couples by solidifying the boundaries between their nuclear families and all others. The lockdown policies have provided couples the opportunity to spend more time together, to communicate more frequently with one another, and to spend time with their children. Couples also had to rely much more on each other to solve problems that emerged during the pandemic. These activities may have brought families closer together.

Empirical studies have shown that couples may postpone their divorce during times of financial hardship and uncertainty because they may need to capitalize on the economic benefits of marriages, such as splitting rent, and because they cannot afford the legal fees and court costs that come with a divorce.9 A pandemic may further diminish a couple’s ability to separate by limiting their capacity to search for a new home. COVID-19 may reduce the risk of divorce at least temporarily.

Only time will tell if some marriages became casualties of COVID-19. Whether or not this is the case will depend largely on a variety of factors, including the duration of the pandemic, whether we need to go back into lockdown, how fast schools reopen permanently, how much an economic hit we take from COVID-19, and more importantly, the initial quality of the marriage.

References

1. Bowden, O. (2020, July 19). Divorces have increased during the coronavirus pandemic and lawyers are expecting more. Global News. Retrieved from: https://globalnews.ca/news/7188797/divorce-couples-coronavirus/

2. Prasso, S. (2020, March 31). China’s Divorce Spike Is a Warning to Rest of Locked-Down World. Bloomberg Business News. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-31/divorces-spike-in-china-after-coronavirus-quarantines

3. Thorbecke, C. (2020, July 2). Unemployment rate at 11.1% in June, another 1.4 million workers filed jobless claims last week. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Business/unemployment-rate-111-june-14-million-workers-filed/story?id=71557562

4. Evans, P. (2020, July 10). Canada added almost 1 million jobs in June but still almost 2 million down from pre-COVID-19 level. CBC News. Retrieved from : https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/canada-jobs-june-1.5644672

5. Killewald, A. (2016). Money, Work, and Marital Stability: Assessing Change in the Gendered Determinants of Divorce. American Sociological Review , 81, 4: 696–719 DOI: 10.1177/0003122416655340

6. Krenz, M., E. Kos, A. Green, and J. Garcia-Alonso. (2020, May 21). Easing the COVID-19 Burden on Working Parents. BCG Consulting Group. Retrieved from: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/helping-working-parents-ease-the-burden-of-covid-19

7. Work and Care in the Time of COVID-19. University of Melbourne. Retrieved from: https://melbourneuni.au1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_8d0AaumfQREdjYp

8. Liu, Yi-Ling. (2020, June 4). Is Covid-19 changing our relationships? BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200601-how-is-covid-19-is-affecting-relationships

9. Cohen. P. N. (2014). Recession and divorce in the United States, 2008-2011. Population Research and Policy Review 33(5): 615-628. doi:10.1007/s11113-014-9323-z.