Updated: Jul 10
"In Sickness and in Health" - The COVID-19 Pandemic and Divorce
Apart from the Black Plague, which killed untold millions of people in Europe, North Africa and the Near East in the thirteen hundreds, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the world more than any other widespread illness up to the present time. COVID has changed how and where we live, how and where we work, how we interact as human beings (at least six feet apart), how we travel (or don't), how we educate our children and even how we bury and mourn our dead (remotely). It has touched every aspect of our society. So, is it any surprise that the COVID pandemic has also affected the marriage and divorce rates in this country?
At the height of the pandemic, people found it almost impossible to get married, unless the couple were willing to forgo the reception they had always dreamed about. Wedding venues, farm settings, vineyards and beaches were closed to hopeful brides and grooms. Assuming you and your intended spouse wanted to go forward with your wedding and you could find a Justice of the Peace, priest, rabbi or clergyman willing to perform the ceremony, you still needed to wear those blue masks. And forget about the "you may now kiss the bride."
For those couples who managed to "commit matrimony" in spite of these restrictions the hardest trick was to stay married. All of the reliable statistics show that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a substantial uptick in the divorce rate across the globe. Like many of the divorce causes we have been exploring in this 5 part series of blogs, the pandemic did not, in and of itself, cause people to divorce but rather exposed weaknesses in the relationship and, often, combined with other divorce related circumstances hastened the death of the marriage.
Researchers, social scientists, and especially divorce attorneys, started to see the effect of the pandemic shortly after its appearance in 2020. Here in the United States, around the time that quarantining started, the number of people looking for divorces was 34 percent higher from March through June of 2020 compared to 2019, according to information collected by Legal Templates, a company that provides legal documents, such as separation agreements and other divorce forms.
Interest in separation and divorce continued its upward spiral even as the quarantine peaked on April 13 of 2020 — just about 15-20 days after the vast majority of states began their mandatory lock-downs. Additionally, early survey data showed that 31 percent of the couples admitted the lock-downs had caused irreparable damage to their relationships.
Surprisingly , COVID seemed to hit newly-weds particularly hard . Twenty percent of couples who sought divorce were married within the past five months or less, compared to the just eleven percent in 2019 – thereby doubling the rate. Thus, it appears that many of the newly-married did not really mean to commit to a lifetime of marriage "in sickness and in health."
For example, one soon to be bride recently caused an internet sensation when she demanded that her vow eliminate the "in sickness" part, in favor of being faithful "in happiness" only. Explaining her reasoning, the prospective bride said "this is harsh, but I hate taking care of sick people." She went on to say; "I just don't want to feel obligated to take care of anybody sick for years of my own and only life..." Not surprisingly, her fiance' was extremely troubled by her attitude and balked at the idea going forward with the wedding.
While the United States is one of the global leaders in divorce rate, we were not alone in the "splitsville spike" occasioned by the pandemic. Other countries noticed a similar surge as well. In Qatar, the divorce rate showed an increase of 88% in May of 2021 compared to the same month in 2020. In a country with only a handful of divorces (12) in the year prior to 2020, there were 230 divorce cases in the month of September alone, an unheard of number. Similarly, in December 2020 one of the leading divorce firms in Great Britain found a 122% increase in divorce inquiries, while an internet company observed an increase in online searches for ending a relationship. The pandemic crisis has inspired a significant surge in the number of divorces in other parts of the globe, including China, France, Canada, Italy, Sweden and Brazil.
Why is it that the COVID pandemic has had such a negative impact on marriages around the world? There are a substantial number of reasons. Let's take a look at some of them.
Quarantining - As noted above, mandatory lock-downs began during the spring and summer of 2020. Suddenly, husbands, wives, children and other family members began spending time together on a 24/7 basis. Prior to the COVID pandemic a typical family unit would spend 30 to 45 minutes together in the morning and only a few waking hours together at night, some of which was punctuated by singular activities such as television watching, gyms, work-outs or time spent on the computer or other electronic devices. And weekend time was further reduced by errands, chores, hobbies and nights out with the guys or the girls. But the pandemic has been a whole new experience.
The lock-downs allowed people time to reflect on how well they really knew their spouses and whether they really wanted to continue the marriage. In many instances the increased time together turned one spouse’s little annoying habit, peccadillo or personality problem into a full blown “I can’t take it anymore” obstacle that cratered the relationship.
As Robert Anderson, an American playwright, once observed; “In every marriage more than a week old, there are grounds for divorce. The trick is to find and continue to find grounds for marriage.” Simply put more and more Americans could not figure out the grounds to stay married.
On top of this since people had more time on their hands and could not go anywhere, many turned to the internet where they found information and advice about the process of separation and divorce, along with the forms necessary to terminate the marriage - as explained above.
Increase in Stress, Depression and Domestic Violence - Even after the mandatory lock-downs diminished and ended, spouses continued to experience heightened stress, anxiety and depression from dealing with COVID related isolation, illness, the deaths of family members and friends, loss of employment, loss of savings and other economic misfortunes. Getting out and getting away from each other became even more challenging. Unfortunately, episodes of domestic violence also increased dramatically. There is a growing body of evidence that the COVID pandemic made intimate partner violence not only more common but also more severe.
Often, victims of domestic violence were unable to extract themselves from their households due to government restrictions, isolation from family and friends, economic forces, such as lack of employment or savings, and family court closures. It is not an overstatement to say that Domestic Violence became a pandemic within a pandemic.
Nor is this phenomenon limited to the United States. Surveys around the world have shown domestic abuse spiking since January of 2020. The United Nations group U.N. Women, found that when the pandemic began, incidents of domestic violence increased 300% in areas of China; 25% in Argentina, 30% in Cyprus, 33% in Singapore and 50% in Brazil.
Economic Fallout - Another of the divorce stressors occasioned by the COVID pandemic is the combined economic crunch visited upon spouses and their families. Across the United States people experienced loss of employment, devastation of their savings and retirement accounts, threatened home foreclosures and evictions from their rental units. These circumstances not only heightened the stress experienced by spouses but also a re-evaluation of where they were going with their lives and with whom did they intend to travel.
Differences in Parental Views and Decisions - One of the common experiences over the last few years is the diverse range of views that people had about the pandemic itself - ranging from a "historic health crisis" to "a global hoax." The increased family time together often highlighted the parents' differing views about how best to protect children medically and how to educate them, thereby increasing the tension and acrimony in the marriage.
Former stay at home parents who were used to be handling the decisions relating to the children alone were now literally confronted with the newly stay at home parent's view of life, health and education. These differences in turn became another marital stressor - a circumstance which continues to separate parents post divorce, as explained in my recent blog "COVID 19 Vaccinations, Children and Custody."
As with many issues in life there are two sides to every coin. Some commentators have suggested that COVID has had little to no effect on the divorce rate in the United States and indeed brought spouses closer together. Such pundits have pointed to the per capita decrease in the number of divorces granted during the pandemic years. Of course, such numbers are skewed by the decreasing number of marriages consummated during this period, as explained above, and the fact that the family and divorce courts were largely shut down during the height of the pandemic (thereby making divorce impossible) and are still struggling to catch up with the back-log of divorce cases ever since.
I, for one, unhappily take the position that years from now we will have collected sufficient information to prove empirically that the pandemic significantly increased the divorce rate. For now, I will rely upon the simple fact that since 2020 there has been a noticeable, huge increase in requests for divorce consultations all across the United States.