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Will divorce rates spike after coronavirus?

When this time of sheltering in place is over, will couples run from each other?
When this time of sheltering in place is over, will couples run from each other?motortion - stock.adobe.com

Some cities in China have reported a spike in divorce applications, now that more people are leaving their homes after months of quarantine. Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi Province, for instance, was flooded with requests last month, according to the English-language Chinese newspaper the Global Times and Bloomberg Businessweek.

The news might imply that too much time trapped with a spouse can end a marriage.

That begs the question: What will happen here? When this period of social distancing is relaxed in the United States, will married people run for the hills — and from each other?

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According to family lawyers and mental health professionals around Boston and beyond, the answer is a complicated maybe.

“This is such an unprecedented situation that’s hard to predict,” said Boston University psychology professor Steven Sandage, whose speciality is couples counseling. “Many of the couples I work with clinically … there isn’t one prototypical experience. In some cases, couples are having to adjust to a whole new structure of life during this crisis. Their space is restricted. In some cases, couples need to collaborate under conditions provoking a lot of anxiety.”

Sandage, who practices at BU’s Danielsen Institute, said the pandemic’s economic impacts could play a role in divorce rates, too. Unhappy couples might want a divorce after this period of lockdown, but it might become unaffordable if jobs disappear and families are faced with a recession.

“My read of the past is that sometimes under financial stress, it’s harder for couples to get divorced, especially in certain high-cost areas like Boston,” he said.

Psychologists interviewed about COVID-19 and divorce trends made it clear that every couple is different, and that the outcome of this period of social distancing will have a lot to do with how a couple was doing to begin with.

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David Shumaker, an associate professor of psychology at Suffolk University, said that for couples with underlying problems, being confined in the same house might expedite a breakup.

“Unfortunately,” Shumaker said, “… if there have been longer standing, simmering tensions in a relationship, or resentments that have been managed by having some some separation — some ability to negotiate outside of the relationship ... when you don’t have that ability and that’s blocked off, I think that can really create pretty intolerable dynamics.”

Both Sandage and Shumaker said they can’t use history as precedent to determine what trends the United States might see over the next months and year. It’s easier and more socially acceptable to get divorced now than it was after the 1918 flu pandemic, for instance.

Catherine Cohan, of Penn State,has studied how relationships are affected by natural disasters and terrorism (she co-authored a study about divorce and 9-11 in 2009), and had a few thoughts about how COVID-19 might affect marriages in the next year. “Although the COVID-19 pandemic is unique as far as the disasters that are typically studied (natural disasters, terrorist disasters, man-made technological disasters), I think we may see some similar outcomes at least in terms of divorce and mental health problems. I predict increases in domestic violence and divorce over the next year.”

When it comes to decision-making and how couples might change their paths after COVID-19, Cohan points to her 2002 study about the effect of 1989′s Hurricane Hugo on relationships — whether people affected by the disaster chose to get married, divorced, or have children. Her research showed that within a year after the natural disaster, there were more big decisions made in general. It wasn’t just that people wanted to get divorced; they wanted to get married, have babies, make changes. “When we consider that all three outcomes increased, the pattern of results suggests a fourth perspective, that a natural disaster mobilized people to take action,” she wrote when she published her research in the Journal of Family Psychology.

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Cohan does point to the practical piece. It’s more difficult to get married right now because everything’s closed; that could rebound when stay-at-home advisories are lifted. Similarly, in China, divorce applications increased once people could leave their homes to file them.

Boston-area family lawyers interviewed for this story said that at the moment they aren’t bracing for a wave of divorces. Their immediate issues are about custody, family plans for social distancing, and the fact that courts are closed for cases that aren’t deemed emergencies. David Friedman, a family lawyer with Verrill Dana, said he’s trying to help couples who live across state lines and are trying to see their kids without compromising anyone’s safety.

Maritza Karmely, a Suffolk Law professor and member of the Family Law Task Force against Domestic Violence, said it’s too early for the lawyers to know what will happen, but she sees two possible paths for couples affected by social distancing. “One is [people who have been] wanting to end a relationship for a long time [saying], ’This is it. You know, I’ve reached the bandwidth point of this. I can’t do it anymore,” she said.

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“But I also can imagine the exact opposite happening. You think about how we’re all at this place where globally, everything has changed. We have a completely new normal in terms of life and death, and maybe the pettiness becomes less important and you start to see the bigger picture. It makes feasible to imagine and remember what brought you together in the first place.”

(Karmely noted that she was speaking of couples in safe relationships. She recommends SafeLink as a resource for those not in safe relationships.)

She said she’s seen relationships in her own orbit going well. “There’s a lot of finding games that you never used to play before, cooking when you didn’t used to cook before, so it almost seems like it’s bringing some relationships closer together.”

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Resources for couples

BU psychology professor Steven Sandage said it can be daunting for couples to find help right now, especially if they’ve never been to couples’ counseling. He offered these links.

* Commonwealth Psychology

* South Shore Family Health Collaborative

* New England Center for EFT

* Therapy Training Boston

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* Psychology Today