“People are just calling left and right,” says James Colvin, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Asheville. “Last week I must’ve had seven or eight calls. I hate turning anyone away but I had to do that.”
Relationships have always had to navigate disputes, both large and small. But in his 30 years of counseling of couples and families, Colvin says “nothing even comes close” to the trauma and upheaval that his clients are experiencing.
If one could take a coronavirus tracker to map the emotional health of the country, symptoms would emerge; anxiety, stress, isolation, depression, uncertainty and COVID fatigue. Amid this murk, partnerships are being tested left and right from job losses, financial worries, illness, prevention of illness and lockdown isolation.
A survey of 1,2000 married and engaged couples who are co-quarantining, conducted by the wedding site The Knot, found that 40% of couples report spending more than 20 extra hours per week with their partners as a result of COVID-19. The increase in time together can lead to more conflicts about communication, sex, money or, really, anything. Difficulties of the new normal are bleeding into relationships.
“The fact is that everyone in the world right now is dealing with collective trauma and grief related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Stacey Curnow, a licensed clinical mental health counselor based in Asheville. She opened her private practice less than a year into pandemic and now is juggling 20 clients a week and has a three-month waiting list.
“People are anxious, they’re scared,” says Curnow. “People are facing [uncertainty] without their normal coping strategies or support systems, and to make matters worse, the rules and the guidelines keep changing.”
Anxiety and conflict
Unemployment and other changes to our working lives caused by consequences of the coronavirus have also shaken up couples. The unemployment rate in North Carolina jumped from 3.9% to 13.5% from March to April 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The unemployment rate has steadily decreased since that spike and reached the pre-pandemic rate in November 2021.)
Remote work also became a fact of life for some families. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in July 2020 that 1-in-4 people teleworked or worked from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Full-time workers, as well as workers with higher levels of education, were more likely to have teleworked.
Couples who may be newly working from home together, or where one person is unemployed and the other works from home, are finding they have to adapt. “When people are in the house all day long hearing each other on the phone or Zoom, there isn’t that normal break and rhythm that couples used to have,” Colvin explains. “It creates more stress. We’re not used to living like that.”
Colvin says he has seen couples become short with each other. “The little habits that might have been cute are no longer cute if you see it repeated like a hundred times a week,” he says.
Differences in belief
Anxiety often leads to conflict, says Curnow. Ways of mitigating the COVID-19 virus, including social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccinations, can all be potential sources of anxiety.
“I’ve worked with couples who have argued about vaccines,” Curnow notes. “In one example, the husband felt concerned about the negative impact getting the virus could have on their personal health and the health of the community. The wife felt concerned about the impact the vaccine would have on her own health and felt confident that her immune system was sufficiently strong to protect her from the virus.”
She helped the couple understand their partner’s viewpoint and accept it. “We have to define the problem first and find a collaborative solution that works for both of them,” she explains. “In this instance, the wife realized that she’d feel awful if she learned that she had unknowingly infected someone else like her elderly parents.”
Ultimately, the wife in this scenario decided to be vaccinated, Curnow says.
Paula Zerfoss, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in couples therapy, says the majority of her clients are on the same page when it comes to vaccines, but there were clashes over social distancing in the early part of the pandemic.
“Issues like should we get together with family for the holidays — that brings out stress normally, but the pandemic exacerbated the situation,” she explains. Another relationship stressor Zerfoss witnessed was couples who jumped into a committed relationship hastily in order to form their own COVID bubble.
“Everything was being squeezed into a very hurried period of time,” she explains. “Couples were stumbling over how to adjust to their partner’s personality. … These kinds of conflicts are coming to the surface much more quickly, particularly among couples who moved in together after only two months.”
A 2020 report by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation states 1-in-4 U.S. adults said worry or stress related to the coronavirus has had a major impact on their mental health. Among women, Black adults and adults ages 18-29, that proportion rose to nearly 1-in-3.
Matt Vaughn, a licensed professional counselor in Asheville, says depression, anxiety and substance abuse are issues already he sees in his daily practice. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought those problems to the surface more quickly, he says.
“One thing I see is that the virus has increased the intensity of whatever you were struggling with,” he says. “If you’re struggling with alcoholism, then these past two years have just increased the intensity of that struggle. COVID is bringing things to a head, and forcing couples, families and individuals to confront their issues.”
The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on families, particularly with regard to paid work, has been sharp. Day care disruptions and remote learning have all put added pressure on caretakers. A 2021 report compiled by Zogby Analytics about NC child care providers found that since February 2020 almost half of surveyed for-profit and public centers and programs have closed at some point.
“I feel so sorry for families with two jobs, and two kids in the pandemic and no extended family support,” says Colvin. “I have a number of couples like that and the stress level is unbelievable.”
How to deal
A couple’s decision to get counseling should be seen as a commitment to the relationship, rather than a negative, counselors say.
Zerfoss says she’s seen positive growth among the couples she counsels. “There is an increased commitment and appreciation of being able to spend more time together,” she explains. “They realize the importance of their relationship, which is really gratifying to see. … The whole COVID thing has put life on a more tenuous track.”
Vaughn concurs that seeking mental health support — whether as an individual, couple or family — is a good thing. “Therapy is not going to solve all your problems, but if you are more at peace with yourself, then whatever is thrown at us, we’re going to be able to navigate it better,” he explains.
Resiliency and gratitude are two of the positive effects Colvin has seen among his clients. “People say they appreciate life, friends and their religious community a lot more,” he notes.
But, he adds, relationships are still navigating the rough waters of the pandemic with no safe harbor in sight. “It’s like being in the middle of the ocean,” he says. “Even if you’re approaching the end of it, you’re still in 10 feet of water and you’re not on solid ground. We’re closer to the shore, but we’re not there yet.”