An Expert Explains Why The Pandemic Broke So Many Couples Early On, And Why Many Are Staying Together Now

The pandemic has been rough on all aspects of life, but it certainly did a number on relationships. Whether people called it quits over a disagreement about quarantine plans, because they were spending too much time together and didn’t like whom they uncovered, or the complicated times exacerbated problems partners were already having, there was an undeniable surge in breakups in 2020.

However, it seems the tide is changing. Divorce attorneys say that they’ve seen a plummet in dissolutions of marriage in the new year, and there are couples who came together and managed to be solid in the frenzy of COVID, or stayed together despite the stress of working together and living together 24/7. To get some clarity on why people went from shedding their relationships in a frenzy to embracing them through the worst, we spoke with Tori Williams, a licensed mental health counselor at Humantold, which offers a network of psychotherapist services for those seeking affordable ways to improve their mental health and overall well-being. She shared what has been connected to both motivations to stay together or call it quits amid the pandemic, as well as advice for how to handle other rocky times (hopefully not another complete upheaval of life, though) should they come a couple’s way.

ESSENCE: There was conversation last year that quarantining during the pandemic was leading to breakups and divorces. Why would you say that the situation was testing some couples more than others? 

Tori Williams: I think the pandemic forced us all to slow down and be. Some for better, some for worse. Most of us lived and thrived in our chaotic lives. The pandemic was its own type of chaos, and just like it only further highlighted some of what we already knew existed (in a social context), it did the same for all types of relationships. Slowing down meant becoming more aware, listening, and honestly reflecting on what’s working and what’s not. On top of the fact that the pandemic heightened our individual mental health struggles. Depression, anxiety etc. is real and can be very ugly. We think we are ready for what some of that could look like, until it’s right in front of us. When we love people as only one version of themselves, it’s hard to see them as something else.

Divorce rates have reportedly been dropping this year so far in comparison to last. Why do you think more people are looking to make it last — or at least last longer?

Again, the pandemic put a lot of things into perspective. Who would have thought that in this lifetime we would experience a whole pandemic, changing life as we know it? I saw people on all types of apology tours, trying to right their wrongs because this horrible disease came and reminded us that we are all on borrowed time. It showed us who and what mattered. It’s true that an awareness of tragedy, in this case a lot of loss and death, calls relationships into the spotlight for healing and makes us confront our purpose and meaning within and outside of them. As much as some of us hate to admit it, we need/desire love and companionship. Physical isolation quite literally took lives during this pandemic. We’ve all lost enough as it is. I don’t think anyone truly desires to be alone so I believe that along with the realization that COVID does not discriminate in its impact, [it] gave us the strength and grace to hold on to our partners despite the petty stuff that may be going on.

Even if they didn’t split, a lot of couples struggled to share space for so long and unveiled the habits and behaviors of their partners that they weren’t so privy to before. What are the best ways to communicate with a partner to keep your differences from becoming too much?

For me generally, the best way to communicate is to do so honestly and compassionately. Communicating means speaking the truth even when it hurts but understanding that loving this person means accepting them just as they are and not who you want them to be. But in a practical sense, keep the conversation going. That one conversation you had on your first date or after the first fight will not cut it.  As you grow and evolve your perspectives change. What you think today, may change in six months. In communicating, focus on how you are feeling about the differences rather than placing blame onto your significant other for whatever the issue is. I find that folks are much more receptive to problem solving when there’s focus on the “I” rather than “you did xyz” to me. It’s hard to recover and begin to work through challenges when one party feels accused.  Communicating in this way allows both of you to have your needs met.

Many have made it through lockdown and now we’re seeing people get vaccinated. Hope is here. But should things somehow take a turn or a situation like this pandemic were to happen again sooner than later (God forbid), what things would you say couples need to do or prioritize in order to get through challenges that could arise from the stress of the world around us?

Communicate/hold space within reasonable limits, honor boundaries (yes, they do exist in relationships), prioritize self-care/hobbies spend time individually and as a collective and if you can, seek your own mental health support. Having a partner should not be a substitute for professional therapy services. The one good thing to come out of the pandemic is that mental health services are now more accessible as they are being offered on virtual platforms. If it’s within your means, consider professional help. You and everyone and everything around you will thank you for it.


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