What's Tony Thinking

Marriage in the Time of COVID


A couple days ago, I had a note from a friend who is single. He said that he was envying his married friends. “It must be easier for them in a time like this,” he thought. But after checking that assumption with some of his married friends, he concluded that wasn’t a bed of roses either.

(today’s photo, social distancing outside our window yesterday)

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal had a bunch of experts and luminaries speculate on how the virus and all the measures we are taking to respond would effect various arenas of American life. Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia speculated that this crisis will stress marriages. Don’t you love experts?

He went on to make a distinction between two types of marriage. One in called “the soul mate model,” in which marriage is primarily about “an intense emotional and romantic connection between two people.” In this model a marriage should last only as long as that connection “remains happy and fulfilling for both parties.”

The other model he called “the family-first model of marriage.” Here marriage is “about romance but also the kids, money, raising a family together.” Wilcox thought that marriages in model one would have a hard time, many not surviving this crisis, while the “family-first” marriages would fare better. Wilcox: “The silver lining here is that — in the face of so much trauma and economic dislocation — most marriages will not collapse, and many will instead emerge stronger and more stable as husbands and wives develop a new appreciation for how much they love and depend on their spouse — and how much they, and their kids depend on them keeping their marriage together.”

Wilcox continues,

“In times of trial and tribulation, most people — and most spouses — don’t become more self-centered, they become more other-centered, more cognizant of how much they need their family members to navigate difficult and dark times.” That sounds right to me. And hopeful.

The distinction Wilcox makes between the two models or types of marriage seems to me a little too sharp. Most marriages are some of both. Still, it is a useful distinction.

Early in the crisis Jennifer Senior also wrote about marriage. Senior’s approach was a little more in the advice-giving genre. One of her points, drawing from therapist Esther Perel, is that different people will process crisis, fear and grief differently, even in a marriage. Here’s Senior:

“Partners, even those in long-term relationships, have very different coping styles when it comes to uncertainty. I called Esther Perel, the noted therapist and host of the podcast “Where Should We Begin.” She described several stylistic differences that might be relevant right now. Among them:

“How partners approach information in moments of crisis. One may binge; the other has a defined sense of when enough is enough, and turns off the tube.

“How consumed partners become by an emergency. One may be preoccupied with risk; the other may focus more on maintaining the rhythms of a normal life.

“How partners move through the world when disaster strikes. One takes a structured, purposeful, proactive approach; the other is more passive and fatalistic.”

She concludes that it’s important to remember, “You’re both right.” There isn’t one right way to do this. Noting that spouses handle things in different ways also rings true to me. She adds, “And we should remember, too, that differences are helpful. Contending with this crisis is going to require a wide variety of strengths.”

It’s a time for cutting one another some slack. But also a time for gratitude for all our relationships whether marriage, wider family, friends or fellow citizens. Keep the faith.



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