Marital Crises during the COVID-19 Pandemic

According to the media, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many marriages have broken down and the divorce rate has escalated.  The question is, “What accounts for the change from a psychological point of view?”

What we need to recognize is that the pandemic is a severe crisis on multiple levels.  At once, there was a threat to our lives and our very existence.  We lost our freedom, we lost our basic need to be with people and even with the loved ones in our lives.  We were suddenly locked in our houses and out of our jobs and daily routines. Economically many people were in crisis due to losing their jobs or the threat of losing them.  At once, our entire lives entered a stage of shock.  Everything that was once normal became abnormal.

As a consequence, the brain automatically adapts to a life which is in crisis and signals that we are in survival mode.  Unconsciously, the brain applies defense mechanisms to protect our existence.  It is important to recognize that every person applies different defenses based on his or her psychological and physiological structure and life history.  The outcome is that the person, due to feeling endangered, does not behave in the way they normally do. They are more vulnerable and more focused on their own needs. They are in survival mode and mentally, emotionally and possibly physically in disequilibrium.

A marriage in crisis can stem from this vulnerable situation. Each person has their own unconscious, and unique and specific defense mechanisms. In crises like these it is possible that each individual is not responsive to the other and they are disconnected emotionally from the needs of one other.  A sense of loneliness, loss, abandonment, anger, confusion as to what’s wrong with each other, constant misunderstandings and doubts about the marriage in general, all are a direct outcome of this painful experience. Each spouse is stuck in their own subjective experience, without the ability to step back, see, understand and learn the other’s subjectivity and they are very often not capable emotionally to do so.  At times both fall into and are stuck in a cycle where they are not able to empathize, listen, be responsive and to support one another.

The key to unlock this cycle is to recognize that a relationship is a system – in this case a chaotic system that is created by both parties and to recognize that this is an outcome of the input of each spouse. Each brings his/her own subjective perceptions and has no awareness of the other. In this process there is no sensitivity or empathy to each other’s suffering and why they are behaving the way they are.

To heal the relationship one has to recognize his/her own part by asking “What did I do to affect the system that it became so chaotic?” “Which kind of emotions did I bring to the foreground that affected the system?” “What can I do to fix it?” and “What can I change in me to make it better?” Not in order to blame each other but to look at oneself in the context of the whole. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that if one part of the system goes through change it affects the whole system. In this case, if one spouse brings to the foreground positive emotions and more responsiveness, it affects the whole relationship.

It is important to recognize there is potential to know aspects of each other in a different and new way. The Corona crisis is horrifying but it has the potential for possible growth at levels that might never have happened otherwise.

About the Author
I have 35 years experience in the field of Psychology and have practiced for many years in both the United States and Israel. I have a B.A. and M.A. in Social Work from the University of Southern California (USC) and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at the California Graduate Institute (CGI) with a psychoanalytic orientation. After completion of my Ph.D., I did a post-doctorate with Robert Stolorow, Ph.D., the global leading authority in Intersubjective Systems Theory. Since 1983, I have been practicing psychology using the Intersubjective Systems Theory.
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