How pandemic lockdowns affected marriages

  • June 1, 2021

BY Shannon Fan – JRN 217

Since spending so much time in quarantine, newlyweds Vicky Wang and Jack Hou say that they’ve learned a lot more about each other than when they were just dating. 

Their experience is common, and in some cases – not in their case, fortunately for them – that increased knowledge is leading couples to break up. Most famously, Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce after 27 years of marriage. The pair announced their split in a Twitter post on May 3, saying “we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple.”

Divorce has been increasing in the U.S., China and Sweden. Data put out by British law firm Stewarts suggests a 122% increase in inquiries about divorce between July and October 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. 

Janice Roven, family law attorney at Roven Law Group, a Manhattan firm, found that the more time couples spend together without an outlet on bad days, the more their unresolved marital issues accumulate.

 “On top of other stress factors caused by the pandemic, couples can’t resort to their old coping mechanisms,” Roven said. “There’s no going out with your friends or going to the gym to help you escape your problems.”

In the worst case, tensions can lead to violence. Called a “pandemic inside of a pandemic” by the New England Journal of Medicine, domestic violence incidents increased 8.1% after many jurisdictions imposed pandemic-related lockdown orders. What’s even more alarming is that this percentage is almost certainly an underestimate. 

 “Many victims weren’t able to reach domestic violence services,” said Daniel O’Leary, psychology professor at Stony Brook University. “It’s not easy for victims to get help with a lot of people around, and during Covid-19, the whole family was around.” 

The New England Journal of Medicine reported that in the U.S., calls to domestic violence agencies dropped by more than 50%.

 Experts in the field said that rates of partner violence had not decreased but rather that victims were unable to safely connect with services.

By April 2020, the interest in divorce had already increased by 34% in the U.S., with newer couples being the most likely to file for divorce. According to the National Law Review, a full 20% of couples who had been married for five months or less sought divorce during this time period, compared with only 11% in 2019.

Despite these numbers, Wang, who married her husband in October 2019 after six months of dating, wasn’t too worried for her relationship. (Both Wang and Hou are pseudonyms; the couple asked that their real names not be used to protect their privacy.)

“We’re both not the dramatic type,” she said. “If there’s a problem, we try to solve it, and neither of us get very emotional about it.”

Hou agreed that their relationship has remained fairly stable during the pandemic.

“We got married pretty quickly because we were already living together and we were both at the age where we wanted to get married so we thought, why not do it?” Hou, a software engineer at Amazon, said.

This has proved to be the right decision so far as their marriage has been working out. 

 “I don’t think it has so much to do with how long you have been married but your personalities and how they mesh together,” Wang said. “There are couples who have been married for decades that have gotten divorced during the pandemic and newlyweds, like me, who didn’t. So I think it’s more about what the issue in your relationship is and how you handle it.”

However, a year into the pandemic, Wang reflects that she has seen a different side to her husband. 

“The biggest difference is that your partner is there all the time,” she said. “After a fight, you see them slicing up fruit, and it makes you think, ‘Why are you eating fruit when I’m angry?’ And then I’ll FaceTime my mom and he can hear me talking. You see all of your partner’s habits, and sometimes you might not like it.” 

But there’s also a positive side to these everyday interactions. “We’re more comfortable together now and we understand each other better. It’s taken me from feeling like he is my boyfriend to he is a part of my family,” Wang said. 

Though it’s no surprise that the beginning of the pandemic has placed pressures on close relationships, new data shows that there has been a sharp decline in marriage and divorce, contradicting data taken at the beginning of the pandemic. 

A study done in 2020 by Bowling Green State University’s Center for Family and Demographic Research analyzed the marriage and divorce rates in five states: Florida, Arizona, New Hampshire, Missouri and Oregon. The study found that if these trends “were repeated nationwide, the U.S. had an estimated ‘shortfall’ of 339,917 marriages and 191,053 divorces.”

Even though the divorce rates are down, it doesn’t mean that couples are happy in their marriage.  

“Courts being closed have been a contributing factor to the decline in divorce,” O’Leary said.  “Financial insecurity is another factor. It’s not just the question of divorce lawyers but two households also cost more than one.”

O’Leary adds that he believes marriage and divorce rates will jump up again once people start heading into their pre-pandemic lives. 

“My daughter was supposed to get married this year but it got postponed to next year,” he said. “I think a lot of people are in the same boat of waiting for the courts to open back up again so they can take the next step in life events.”