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I can hear her soft voice, with its slight Long Island intonations, murmuring in the next room as she comforts her many struggling psychotherapy clients about the pandemic during their telehealth appointments with her. My office—once our adult son’s childhood bedroom with YA titles and high school notebooks still on the bookshelves—is the next room over and she can hear me trying to sound smart and resolute during my endless consulting calls.
I don’t mind hearing her voice in the background all day and she doesn’t mind hearing mine. It’s a constant reminder that we are getting through this national health crisis as a team.
Not that we weren’t a team before. Julie and I have been married for 30 wonderful years, though not without the usual life travails for most long-time couples—some early minor money worries, raising two kids, and providing care to our parents at the end of their lives. She puts up with my working too much; I put up with her working too much.
We’ve been together for more than half of each other’s lives and have been each other’s best friends for that whole time. But enduring the pandemic together is changing us. We are more grateful for one another. We are closer and more supportive. I daresay we love each other even more.
This is not what you might expect. Couples have been cooped up for months in often cramped spaces; many are stressed and irritable because of layoffs and consequent financial strain. A prominent divorce attorney I know told me her business boomed in 2020 with irate spouses who have gotten on each other’s last nerves.
A much publicized July 2020 report (https://legaltemplates.net/resources/personal-family/divorce-rates-covid-19/#divorces-increase-in-couples-with-children) from Legal Templates, an online site that offers do-it-yourself legal documents, reported that downloads of its divorce forms went up 34% from March through June in comparison to the same period in 2019. Newlyweds and couples from southern states seemed to be printing out the forms the most.
I don’t doubt there’s a COVID divorce phenomenon—for some. But other statistics suggest other trends as well. The University of Virginia’s well regarded Institute for Family Studies (IFS) published a survey in September 2020 that found the pandemic had increased the appreciation for their partner of 58% of spouses and that 51% of them had a deeper commitment to their marriages (https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-good-and-bad-news-about-marriage-in-the-time-of-covid).
According to the IFS, “the share of married men and women ages 18-55 saying their marriage is in trouble declined from 40% in 2019 to 29% in 2020.” Its interpretation of these statistics pointed out that similar trends have been evident during other national crises, such as the Great Recession of 2008-09. In times of trouble, most spouses turn toward one another for succor. When the world seems to be in chaos, they find refuge in the familiarity, dependability and strength of their tried-and-true relationship.
I would extrapolate further from the IFS results: I believe spouses—particularly those over age 50 in long-term, satisfying relationships–generally cope better with adversity.
As Julie and I cite in our new book, AARP Love and Meaning Over 50 (www.loveandmeaning.com), partners who learn to lean on one another during the many stressors of the last third of life tend to live longer with better health, including less cancer, heart attacks and surgery, and greater financial security. They don’t suffer the detrimental effects on health and mental health increasingly associated with social isolation. This is especially true for men.
Less intentionally than instinctually, Julie and I have turned more toward one another during COVID. When the pandemic or 2020’s confinement, politics, mass protests, mass fires, multiple losses, and economic hardships get us down, we talk and listen to one another and try to plot our course forward together.
We turn off the frequently dismal news and then kid around and entertain each other. We lean into each other’s arms and pat each other on the back to keep going. Alone, as solitary individuals, we would probably have been anxious and utterly unhappy during this health crisis. Together, we are steadfast and strong and grateful, even if still a bit anxious.