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Pandemic divorces are tragic. The data tell a more complete story

SHARE Pandemic divorces are tragic. The data tell a more complete story

Illustration by Alex Cochran

Divorce applications are surging during the pandemic, according to a new report by the BBC that takes a look at coronavirus-related strains on relationships around the world. But the heartbreaking numbers deserve some context — overall, the pandemic has strengthened the American family.

The BBC report cites claims from divorce lawyers in the United Kingdom and the United States that inquiries are up significantly, with one law firm in Washington, D.C., recording a 70% increase this October as compared to last October. And it quotes Brad Wilcox, a sociology professor from the University of Virginia, who argues many at-odds spouses wouldn’t have wanted to further upend their lives with a divorce while in the midst of so much other uncertainty. He thinks next year’s return to stability won’t bode well for those marriages:

“Some couples had difficulty getting divorces amidst the lockdowns,” Wilcox says. “My perspective is that we’ll see a decline in divorce this year in 2020, and probably a slight uptick in divorce in 2021 as things return to more normalcy.”

The BBC also quotes Dr. Marni Feuerman, a Florida therapist, who says that pandemic-related lockdowns simply brought into sharper focus patterns already present in relationships.

“The pandemic has caused stress for everybody. There’s a collective trauma,” Feuerman says. “But couples that were strong beforehand are even stronger. They already knew how to use their relationship as a resource at a time of stress. The couples who have been worst affected are those where there were problems before this started.”

That many couples are stronger now lines up with the Deseret News’ own findings, together with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU, in this year’s annual American Family Survey. We found 56% of American couples said the pandemic made them appreciate their spouse more deeply, while only 10% disagreed. In addition, 32% of families reported less tension within their household, and only 16% reported more — while a substantial 47% of couples say they’ve deepened their commitment to their relationship during the pandemic (versus only 9% who disagree).

These numbers show that despite heartbreaking stories around the world — like that of Rafaela Carolina Ferreira Schmidt, who lamented her “12 beautiful years” of marriage to Richard Cunha Schmidt before their lockdown-prompted divorce — most American families are well-positioned to come out of 2020 stronger than they were before.

Hope may also spring from the promise of better marriage education classes. Evidence suggests that large-scale, government-funded classes usually don’t see positive results, but some experts are optimistic that reimagining the design and administration of these classes could lead to better and more long-lasting marriages.

Well-established practices such as premarital counseling, as well as innovations like targeting marriage education to youth (many of whom, according to one expert, have never seen a healthy marriage before), are showing promise for stronger marriages. Others say that marriage programs that go beyond teaching communication and conflict-resolution skills and provide resources that address the underlying causes of marital stress — like unemployment, racism and poverty — could be effective at keeping couples together.

Many of these experts are also hopeful about further experimentation and innovation, such as tailoring classes to suit an individual couple’s needs or easing access through online instruction.

The future seems positive — both for those couples whose pre-pandemic strength was deepened during lockdown and for those who’ve realized they may need intervention and education. That’s good news for the essential strength of the American family and its institutions.