Marriage Wasn’t Built to Survive Quarantine

Stress isn’t a reflection of your relationship — your relationship is a reflection of unprecedented stress

 

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he standard wedding vows are so often repeated in popular culture — TV shows, commercials, Tyler Perry movies — that it’s easy to disregard the meaning behind the recitation. It wasn’t until I was actually standing at the altar, in front of my soon-to-be wife, that it dawned on me just how morbid and absolute those words are.

In sickness and health.
Till death do you part.
Sickness.
Death.

The words are so heavy that it’s amazing they reach our ears instead of tumbling directly to the floor. Their weight only gets more daunting with the final affirmation: “I do.” After I got married, I found myself thinking about my mortality; other than student loans, it was the first decision I’d ever made that I knew I’d live with for the rest of my life.

Like so many other people, mortality has been on my mind a lot over the past couple months. Certainly more than any time since my wedding day almost a decade ago. In the midst of a pandemic, life feels more like a death lottery than an actual existence. Yes, I’m isolating; yes, I’m being careful. But I also know that things happen, and a cough could leave me dead in a matter of two weeks. I know that sounds dramatic, but I spend every day thinking — no, planning — for what can happen if things go bad. And the people I’ll leave behind.

Everything seems fragile. The future feels like trying to grab a handful of steam. No matter how hard I close my eyes, I can’t envision what life will look like in six months. What does schooling look like? What does outside look like? What do obituaries look like? And every time I talk to my wife, I wonder: What will our marriage look like?

Before I go on: My marriage has been fine during this quarantine. My wife and I have been in the house with each other and our kids pretty much 24/7 since March 12. That’s 35 days. Three million seconds and change. Not that I’m counting. But we haven’t had any arguments, big disagreements, or nights where I’ve been relegated to the couch. We’re good. Great, actually. (Also, I wrote this — like most things I undertake in life — with her permission.)

Maybe my anxiety over my own marriage is just another thing I’m convincing myself to worry about in a time of constant instability. But I’m taking solace in the idea that even if things feel dire by June, it will be a passing storm.

With that said, I don’t know what our marriage will look like after 30, or 60, or 100 more days of this. It’s quite possible that by day 50 we won’t be able to stand to look at each other. The more I hear from friends who have had blowups with their partners, rifts and scars forming between them, the more I wonder what it would mean for us to come out of this with our relationship irrevocably changed. Add that to the fact that China has reportedly seen a post-quarantine divorce boom, and it’s clear that this is uncharted territory for all of us. We’re used to our lives having layers or circles that don’t always overlap; some provide comfort, some excitement, others a stress release. Now they’ve all collapsed into themselves, and we’re just beginning to learn how to navigate this new boundaryless life.

In theory, I have all the confidence that my wife and I would be fine if we had to stay away from work and spend time together for a few weeks. In fact, that sounds like paradise. Even with the kids bouncing around the house. But that’s not what this is.

Before I got married, I thought about all the various trajectories my life could follow, about how my future wife and I could handle each path. Do we like each other enough to spend time together? Would she be able to take care of me if I’m sick? How would I take care of her if she’s ill? How can we help each other reach our goals? Can we get along as parents? Sickness. Health. Death do us part.

But I never considered that we would be in this. Surviving together, keeping at bay the omnipresent fear that we are carrying highly contagious, possibly fatal pathogens that could rob us of the ones we love most. All while working from home and homeschooling two kids. Fighting against insomnia and panic attacks. Hardly able to leave our house for anything other than a carton of eggs. My wife is the only person of driving age that I’ll have a meaningful face-to-face conversation with until the summer. I can’t go to a bar when she gets on my nerves. She can’t go shopping when she needs to get away. We can’t go see our friends to vent. We can’t even go on dates without the children. We’re facing a future strewn with uncertainty: sickness, unemployment, financial insecurity, parental chaos, death actually parting us. And if the worst happens and one of us does get sick, we’re looking at weeks of caring for the other person while trying to avoid catching the virus — all while handling the kids and work and schooling solo.

This isn’t how marriage is supposed to look. And it damn sure isn’t how marriages were made to work.

Shelter-in-place orders have only started rolling out nationwide in the past few weeks, so many couples are in the early stages of the marathon. Counselors I spoke to say they’re just now getting the first taste of quarantine-themed therapy sessions — sessions that are mostly focused on general fears and anxieties about the virus itself. Over time, though, they’ll start to see relationship struggles, and we’ll find out how close we are to China.

But for now, the counselors have reassuring words about staying the course and persevering through this storm. “Everybody deals with this differently,” says Jacqueline Del Rosario, PhD, who runs BestMarriageKeys.com, a website for interactive marriage preparation and training. She admits she even had to figure out a rhythm in her marriage early on. “Week one at home, I had free-flowing anxiety,” she says. “I think I was driving my husband crazy. I had to deal with my emotion and talk it out with him. We need to have the space to talk and comb through what we’re feeling. This time may present a glaring truth that you have things to work out. Then it’s up to you to work them out — and if your foundation is strong, you can do that.”

Maybe my anxiety over my own marriage is just another thing I’m convincing myself to worry about in a time of constant instability. But I’m taking solace in the idea that even if things feel dire by June, it will be a passing storm.

“If you do the things necessary to keep a strong relationship, your marriage can be made to endure whatever is happening, through good times or these trying times,” says Nicole Daniels, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist based in White Plains, Maryland. “Some people may actually find that there are things they can work on in their marriage during this time to really strengthen their unions.”

There’s just so much stress that it feels like a strained marriage after quarantine shouldn’t be a referendum on the nature of the relationship as much as a sign of the strain this time has placed on it. Every annoyance is now magnified. Every dustup can turn into a light to the powder keg. On the bright side, when the sheltering in place is all over and we eventually find vaccines and can go about our lives, we will be able to move on knowing we won’t be in this type of marital position ever again (hopefully). We can go back to our routines and maybe put this dark chapter of our marriages behind us with an understanding that we can avoid being trapped in our house with our spouse for two consecutive months ever again.

“I’m hearing that people are worried more than anything,” Daniels says. “Having coping tools is so important. If they were already struggling in their marriage, and they’re continuing to have difficulties, I would just say they would need to keep up the work they used to get to that good place and remember this will pass.”

These next few weeks of isolation, as well as any others that roll through our lives between now and a widespread vaccine, are going to be painful for myriad reasons. We’re going to come out of this thing altered in ways that will challenge and terrify us. Our marriages won’t be spared from this. But it’s crucial to remember that your response to a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe shouldn’t be a reflection of your marriage; instead, your marriage is a reflection of the crisis and the toll it’s taking on all of us.

It’s not only people who experience sickness and health, after all — it’s relationships, too.

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