She called me from a one-bedroom apartment two weeks ago, her voice quiet and shaky.
“I just cannot take one more minute with him,” she said. “I have to get divorced. Why did I wait? Now I will never be able to get out!”
As a clinical psychologist specializing in divorce, I typically get three to five calls a week from people thinking about ending their marriage. But since the coronavirus pandemic first erupted in China and spread all over the world, including New York City where I live and work, I’m now getting these calls three to five times a day.
As The Post reported, divorce inquiries among top New York City matrimonial lawyers rose 50 percent during the first week of the “pause” order in New York — double the calls they typically receive. Even “Full House” star Mary-Kate Olsen filed for an emergency divorce from her husband Olivier Sarkozy on May 18, claiming she was afraid she’d lose all access to her belongings and her apartment during the pandemic.
This coronavirus divorce surge was first seen in China. Steve Li, a divorce lawyer in Shanghai, which went into lockdown on Jan. 23 after the virus emerged in Wuhan 430 miles away, told Bloomberg News that his caseload has increased 25 percent since his city eased restrictions in mid-March. Meanwhile, the central Chinese city of Xian, and Dazhou, in the Sichuan province, both reported a record number of divorce filings in early March, creating major backlogs at government offices.
Evidence from past pandemics shows that divorces increase even after a virus subsides. A study in Hong Kong found that a year after the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, 2004 divorces in that city were 21 percent higher than 2002 levels, Bloomberg News reported.
Why do pandemics lead to divorce? Because a lockdown means spending 24/7 together. On weekdays, the typical dual-income couple sees each other for 30 minutes in the morning and two to three hours in the evenings. Time spent together on weekends is greater, but usually diluted by errands, activities and visits from friends. Now many of these couples are at home all day long, watching each other all the time!
While the usual issues, including a lack of intimacy, affairs and disputes over parenting styles, are still leading to divorce during the pandemic, I’m getting lots of complaints about how differently people’s partners are responding to the COVID-19 crisis. One woman told me she is exasperated by how controlling her husband is about the cleanliness of their apartment. “He literally wipes up my sweat when I am working out!” she sighed. Another regular complaint I’m getting: “I cannot believe how irresponsible he is being about social distancing and not taking this seriously.”
Once people see they have fundamentally disjointed ways of handling this crisis, it underscores other differences in the marriage. “Joe” called me the other day and said he was furious at his wife when she came home with their two kids and his daughter told him, “Daddy, we had such a great time with Oliver and Jane at the park.” He could not believe his wife had allowed their kids to have physical contact with other children. “How can I trust her judgment?” he asked me.
Another client, who called 311 on the bar next door for not following social-distancing rules, told me she felt unsupported when her husband shrugged his shoulders over the event and said, “Everyone needs to let off some steam.” Another woman said her “paranoid” partner won’t allow her to go shopping without him and they have to be rigidly careful, including wiping down every box of food before placing it in their recyclable bags. She told me she feels trapped.
Divorce rates increase during other times of stress, of course. A chronic illness, the death of a child and deployment in a war are all factors. But lockdown puts what’s missing in a marriage on full display. Patience is short. In the past when you might have excused your partner’s behavior and said, “They did not mean it. They meant well,” it’s now harder to feel compassion for their mistakes.
Research shows that how partners communicate, work through arguments and problem-solve will allow a stressor to either wreck a marriage or sustain it.
For the most part, the pandemic is dragging all our issues out of our dusty closets and requiring couples to talk about their frustrations, desires and needs. The good news is: If you face this challenge and are willing to work through it with your partner, you will likely come out of this pandemic stronger than ever before. And the couples who break up during lockdown were likely headed that way anyway.
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen is a contributor to Psychology Today and the CEO and founder of “Afterglow: The Light at the Other Side of Divorce,” an online divorce course offering a free 14-day guide for couples who are facing tough decisions.
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