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Divorce Rates and COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic, in its magnitude, duration and unpredictability, is different from anything we have experienced in our lifetime and people all over the country are being affected by COVID-19 in a multitude of ways they could not have seen coming. Schools, restaurants, retail stores and public gathering places are closed for the foreseeable future, sporting events are cancelled across the board and the whole world has been locked down.
Millions of people have been laid off and had their income unexpectedly slashed as a result of the nationwide lockdown and cities and states across the country are forced to contend with strict social distancing and stay at home orders that leave them unceremoniously cut off from their friends and loved ones, some of whom may be ill. Unfortunately, the challenges don’t end there. Faced with an unprecedented level of financial and emotional stress stemming from COVID-19, many married couples have turned to divorce as a solution to their problems.
Table of Contents
- Impact of Coronavirus on Marriages
- Adjusting to a New “Normal”
- Divorce Rates Rising in China
- Coronavirus Taking an Emotional Toll on Couples
- Domestic Violence During COVID-19
- What is Domestic Violence?
- U.S. Domestic Violence Cases on the Rise
- Who is at Risk for Domestic Violence?
- Divorce Rates Have Been Declining
- Divorce Attorneys Prepared for Wave of Divorce Filings
Impact of Coronavirus on Marriages
While some believe that we may see a baby boom following COVID-19, others predict that the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic will include an uptick in the U.S. divorce rate post-COVID-19, brought on by the stress of spouses being confined to their homes and forced to spend a great deal more time together, one-on-one.
It isn’t difficult to imagine that the lack of freedom caused by the coronavirus quarantine, coupled with the significant financial and emotional fallout of the pandemic, will take its toll on many marriages. Couples are faced with feelings of uncertainty about their health, employment and financial stability created by the novel coronavirus and this uncertainty is compounded by the current need for isolation, which is a situation that many have not experienced before.
Adjusting to a New “Normal”
According to a recent CNBC report highlighting the potential consequences of this prolonged period of “self-imposed confinement,” divorce lawyers typically see a surge in divorce cases after the summer and during the holidays, when families are confined to their homes together for longer periods of time than normal, and the same could be said for the coronavirus quarantine.
More time spent together in quarantine can put added strain on relationships, especially those where problems already exist, and push the divorce rate up as a result. For couples with underlying problems, being confined to one space with the other person could theoretically expedite a divorce.
Experts remind us that every couple is different and the impact of the quarantine on individual marriages will have a lot to with how the marriage was doing to begin with. “This is such an unprecedented situation that’s hard to predict,” says Steven Sandage, a Boston University psychology professor who specializes in 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.”
Divorce Rates Rising in China
According to reports, some cities in China have already seen an increase in divorce applications for married couples. COVID-19 originated in China and the people there have been in quarantine longer, which means their experiences may be a litmus test for what we can expect to see in the United States in the coming months.
Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi Province, for instance, has seen a record-high number of divorce filings as a consequence of COVID-19, leading to backlogs at government offices. “Marriage registration offices in some districts of Xi’an […] have seen an unprecedented number of divorce appointments since reopen on March 1,” reported the English-language Chinese newspaper the Global Times in early March. “As a result of the epidemic, many couples have been bound with each other at home for over a month, which evoked the underlying conflicts.”
Coronavirus Taking an Emotional Toll on Couples
Humans are inherently social creatures and therefore naturally seek the companionship of others to cultivate their good health and happiness. As social creatures, going to work and/or school, socializing with colleagues and visiting with friends and loved ones play a critical role in our physical and emotional well-being.
Having many or all of these things put on hold for the foreseeable future, albeit for the benefit of our nation’s health, can have a profound effect on couples who suddenly find themselves cooped up in their homes with no way to release their stress and frustration except to take it out on their spouse. Says Catherine Cohan, Ph.D., author of the study “Divorce following the September 11 terrorist attacks,” about COVID-19 and divorce, “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.”
Domestic Violence During COVID-19
Despite its similarities to natural disasters, terror attacks and other crises that have affected our way of life in the past, COVID-19 is unlike anything we have seen before and that makes it difficult to say for certain how the crisis may affect marriages nationwide. It seems likely, though, that feelings of uncertainty spurred by the pandemic, combined with forced confinement and mounting financial stress, will push some marriages to a breaking point.
And in marriages or domestic partnerships where abuse or violence already exists, COVID-19 isolation may increase anxiety and pressure and, along with that, the risk of domestic violence. Domestic violence is a driving force behind many breakups and divorces and with tensions rising during the quarantine, the divorce rate is also on the rise in the United States.
What is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence is any kind of violence or abuse that occurs in a domestic situation, such as in a marriage or domestic partnership. Domestic violence can be physical, psychological, sexual, financial or emotional and it can affect anyone of any gender, age, race or sexual orientation. It may be a pattern of behavior intended to scare, intimidate, physically harm or manipulate an intimate partner and while this behavior can vary from person to person, it is typically used as a means of asserting power over that partner.
Domestic violence is a widespread issue that can pose a serious risk for victims, especially during a crisis like COVID-19, where victims may be trapped at home with their abusers with limited access to medical care and resources and restrictions on their movement. In fact, domestic violence victim support agencies have taken to calling domestic violence during COVID-19 a “shadow pandemic,” a term used to illustrate the violence that is going on beneath the quarantine.
With one-third of the global population on lockdown and billions of people staying at home to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, the protective measures put in place, while necessary for public health, may be making things worse for victims of domestic violence.
U.S. Domestic Violence Cases on the Rise
Domestic violence is rooted in power and control and the stay at home measures in place during the coronavirus pandemic give abusers the perfect excuse to isolate their partners from their friends and family members and the resources that could potentially help them. Domestic violence hotlines and law enforcement agencies across the country have reported a spike in the number of domestic abuse calls that they attribute to the coronavirus quarantine, a pattern they predict will continue for the duration of this period of isolation and perhaps after.
Says Susan Myres, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, “If you are stuck in a little apartment and one of you has been laid off or maybe both of you have been laid off and you’ve got kids and it’s loud and you’re tired and everybody is on high adrenaline fear, if you don’t have good coping skills, it’s not surprising that domestic violence is on the rise.”
What experts are seeing is that whatever underlying problems already existed in the relationship are intensifying, due to the pressure of being stuck at home together and the stress of the pandemic and quarantine.
Who is at Risk for Domestic Violence?
Remember that just because you are stuck in quarantine does not mean your partner is suddenly going to become abusive. Arguments happen in a healthy relationship. You aren’t always going to agree with your spouse and that is okay. But if your spouse frequently has abusive outbursts or screaming tirades, pushes you, calls you names or makes threats, you could be at risk for domestic violence.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are a number of individual, relationship, community and societal factors that contribute to the risk for “intimate partner violence perpetration” in a marriage or household. These factors include, but are not limited to, the following
- Low income
- Low self-esteem
- Anger and hostility
- Depression and/or suicide attempts
- Poor behavioral control/impulsiveness
- Emotional dependence and insecurity
- Being a victim of physical or psychological abuse
- Economic stress
- Marital conflict
- Marital instability
- Jealousy or possessiveness within an intimate relationship
- Social isolation/lack of support
- Dominance and control of the relationship by one partner over the other
- Poverty and related factors (i.e. high unemployment rates, overcrowding)
- Poor neighborhood support and cohesion
- Low social capital
- High concentration of retail alcohol outlets in a small area
- Societal income inequality
- Weak health, educational, economic and social policies or laws
- Traditional gender norms and gender inequality (i.e. women should stay at home and not enter the workforce)
- Cultural norms that support aggression towards others
The protective factors for intimate partner violence perpetration, according to the CDC, include social support, high friendship quality, neighborhood cohesiveness and support, and a coordination of resources and services among community agencies. Unfortunately, many of these protective factors have become more of a challenge during COVID-19.
Divorce Rates Have Been Declining
If the coronavirus quarantine does result in a surge of divorce filings when stay at home orders are eventually lifted, it would be the opposite of the current trend. According to a study from the American Sociological Association, divorce rates in the U.S. have been declining since 2008, especially among younger couples. Currently, the divorce rate in the U.S. is between 40% and 42%, but we could see this number begin to trend upward in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Although information about the effect of pandemics on divorce rates is limited, predictions can be made based on the outcomes of other disasters, like Hurricane Hugo in 1989 or September 11, 2001. When it comes to determining whether married couples might decide to divorce after COVID-19, Cohan says that after a natural disaster or other crisis, there are more big decisions made in general, whether those decisions involve getting divorced, getting married or having children.
In her 2002 study about Hurricane Hugo’s impact on relationships, Cohan wrote “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.”
Divorce Attorneys Prepared for Wave of Divorce Filings
Divorces and other non-essential legal proceedings have been put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic. But when the COVID-19 confinement ends, divorce attorneys predict that there will be a wave of divorce filings by couples looking for a way out.
“This is what we are hearing around the country,” says Myres. “We are fielding calls right now from people who are tired of being in the same house with each other.” She notes that another reason for the spike in divorce following the COVID-19 crisis could be “the fact that people are coming to terms with their mortality and want to make positive changes in their lives.” And for many people, that means filing for divorce.