We are living in strange times…

There is ample evidence to support this adage. Previously unseen levels of widespread quarantine. New terms like “social distancing”. The rampant spread of a pandemic causing death and hardship around the world. Unemployment and market volatility unseen since the Great Depression.

Perhaps the most telling evidence that we live in strange times is an article about how to save marriages authored by a divorce attorney.

In truth, I may be more qualified than most to write such an article. In divorce law we see couples struggling through marital difficulties that could have been avoided. We spouses who have been pushed over their limit when day-by-day grievances grow to something they no longer recognize as a functional relationship.

There is another well-known saying in divorce law: When times are bad, business is good. A “stay-home” order and quarantine requirement put marriages to the test. Happy couples are trapped together for long periods of uninterrupted time… perhaps twenty-four hours a day. Even after quarantines end, more people will work from home than ever before.

Under such circumstances the most minor misunderstanding came become difficult to tolerate. According to a recent article by Sheridan Prasso in Bloomberg Business (China’s Divorce Spike is a Warning to Rest of Locked-down World, 3/31/2020) the rate of uncouplings and accounts of domestic violence surged in China as lockdown orders eased, with attorneys reporting surges in their caseloads of as much as 25%. With this being the case, what can couples do to protect their marriages as we move forward from these difficult times?

The Gottman Institute has provided a framework for couples to build strong relationships. Psychologist John Gottman coined the phrase “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that predict the doom of any relationship. They are:

  1. Criticism;
  2. Defensiveness;
  3. Contempt; and
  4. Stonewalling

It is crucial that couples find ways to minimize these destructive forces, especially during the difficult times we currently face. How can we avoid these pitfalls? In my experience, there are several tools that successful couples use in everyday life that we can all put into practice.

First, communicate rather than criticize. It is very easy to jump to a default response of questioning your partner’s actions or pointing out their faults. There is never a good time to fall into the trap of being critical of loved ones, but it is especially dangerous now. Instead, take time to give extra thanks and appreciation when partners help share the burden.

Next, make a concerted effort to listen to your partner. Listening and taking the time to understand what your significant other is experiencing is the greatest gift one can give right now, and in my experience as a divorce mediator and attorney, it is the clear dividing line between couples who stand the test of time and couples whose relationships break. Too often we fall into the trap of focusing on our own point of view and waiting for our turn to talk rather than truly listening and digesting what our partner is going through. Sometimes both sides “win” an argument by taking the time to understand each other’s views and needs and reaching true understanding of one another.

Next, make your needs clear and ask for what you want. Too often in my practice I see couples who are both good people who at one time desperately wanted to make their spouse happy. But over time both felt a distance grow between them as the other party no longer anticipated their needs the way they used to. This circumstance is amplified as we are trapped with our spouses at home. The truth is that we all grow and change, and our spouse is rarely the same person that we married years ago. Growth is a good thing! Challenges arise because none of us are mind readers. Couples that communicate their individual and shared needs and expectations rarely end up in my office negotiating how to divide their retirement plans.

Finally, schedule alone time. This doesn’t mean time as a couple away from the children (although that is important too). This doesn’t mean time lying in bed next to one another surfing on smart phones. The last adage I will leave you with is “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” We aren’t getting to experience much “absence” from our spouses during quarantine. It is vital that couples create time away from one another. Solitude is healthy. Even spending time in a separate room from your spouse can help.

As we face the coronavirus, our relationships will be challenged. Not everyone will get through it. It is important that we all do the little things that are in our control to preserve our most precious things… our families.