COVID-19 has put added pressures on family life. CNS photo/Zita Ballinger Fletcher

Pandemic throws a curve at couples

  • June 13, 2020

Couples struggling in their marriage have been hit with a double whammy by the COVID-19 lockdown, according to a counsellor with Catholic Family Services Toronto.

On top of the pressures they are already dealing with in trying to make their marriage work, said Dominique Lemelin, they now have the added pressures piled on by a society that has been in lockdown for three months in trying to combat the coronavirus.

Have they kept their job? Are they working from home? How are they caring for their kids who would normally be in school?

“These are things they didn’t have to negotiate before,” said Lemelin.

Normal routines have been disrupted and for many, it means they are in close quarters with their spouses pretty well 24/7, and for some that brings on added stresses. From the division of chores and who does the meal preparation to who looks after the kids, these issues are constant.

“Things can be better or things can be worse,” she said. “If there’s some unresolved issues either personal or within the marriage, then that couple may not be doing so well.”

When the lockdown began in mid-March there was much light-hearted talk about how the divorce rate would skyrocket. It raised the old truism that familiarity breeds contempt. It’s a truth Lemelin can’t dismiss.

“The addition of multiple stressors can make an already volatile situation even worse,” she said.

But it’s a truth Peter Jon Mitchell can just as easily dispute. The acting family program director with the think tank Cardus believes the crisis will highlight the value of the marriage bond in a way that will surprise many. Marriages won’t merely survive, he believes, but thrive.

“Most couples will lean into their relationships, not pull back,” said Mitchell.

The stress factors Lemelin points to are indeed a fact, said Mitchell. But the experience amid the stress “highlights the important bonds we have within our families,” he said.

“As we face those challenges it’s quite natural that we’ll turn to those closest to us in order to adapt to new routines around household tasks, caregiving responsibilities and paid work from home,” he said.

Cardus has compiled a Canadian Marriage Map with estimates showing across North America divorce rates remained stable or even declined during our last major crisis, the 2008 recession. And data also showed a similar pattern in the Great Depression of the 1930s, said Mitchell, “though social norms around divorce were more restrictive then.”

Mitchell is sure pre-existing relational tensions in some cases will worsen, and there is certainly the risk of increased domestic violence. Each person in counselling has their own reason for seeking help and their ability to cope in the situation varies in many ways. But they are trying, and that’s a good thing, said Lemelin.

She can’t say she has noticed a rise in divorce or separation amid the pandemic — though she said domestic violence is on the rise based on added calls Catholic Family Services has received — but that could have more to do with the circumstances of a lockdown “because people can’t go anywhere.” It’s an added issue in Toronto where the high cost of living prevents many from leaving a toxic situation. Apartment hunting is difficult at this time and housing costs are prohibitive for many.

“It takes an added incentive to work through because where are you going to go anyway,” she said. “You can’t leave, and that’s a big issue with domestic violence. Some of these people can’t afford to leave.”

Lemelin continues to work with her clients who she was seeing before the lockdown, holding video-conferencing sessions.

It’s not ideal, and others are doing sessions by phone, but Lemelin wants to be able to see the people’s faces to better judge the situation, often for safety reasons.

“I want to see the dynamics, I want to see what’s going on,” she said.

Some couples put counselling on hold as the pandemic hit, but many are starting to make their way back, said Lemelin.

“As this has prolonged I’m seeing people come back because they’re struggling with coping.”

The results vary.

“Some are adjusting great, they’re able to co-operate, to find projects they can do around the home. They haven’t taken a huge financial (hit). And then others really are not. It really varies on how severely this has impacted them and how equipped they are to deal with the changes,” said Lemelin.

“If they’re struggling with problem-solving, all those negotiations become more difficult. And if you’re struggling with emotional issues these problems become more difficult.”

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