The COVID-19 pandemic presented many couples with an unprecedented challenge. Beyond the often-lethal impact of the disease itself, many couples also experienced job loss (particularly women), immense stress as a result of parenting kids through remote learning, and a correspondingly diminished sex drive. Any of these factors alone might deepen an already cracked marriage, but it feels as though there’s also something deeper and more philosophical, happening in the divorces taking place this year.
According to Matt Lundquist, clinical director of Tribeca Therapy, the pandemic created an existential maelstrom which, in most cases, exacerbated issues couples might have previously ignored (or tried to ignore). Alongside that enormous stress, many people in long-term marriages have found themselves at a crossroads. “I think this has been a forced moment of profound reflection,” he says. “People are thinking a lot about what matters to them, what they want in the world, what they tolerated living without that they don’t want to tolerate living without anymore.”
Family attorney Alton L. Abramowitz, with SSRGA, says he has witnessed a similar ethos among his own clients. It’s not so much that he’s seeing more divorces, he says; rather, the ones he’s seeing are more (to put it politely) impassioned. “People are reexamining their lives, and thinking: Is this the way I want to live for the next ten, 15, 30 years?” he says. “There is this pent-up desire to move on with their lives.”
The Cut spoke to four recently divorced people about how COVID impacted their marriages and why they decided to move on.
“He had promised he was sober, and then I found empty bottles.”
When I look back, the issues that led to our separation absolutely existed long before the pandemic, but the best way I can describe what shifted for our house is the lack of coping skills and distractions. All of a sudden, last March, we were in a very small house with our kids in lockdown, and everything was under one small roof. Both my husband and I are really active in our own communities, in our social spaces, in our families, so our whole lives were very much busy, busy, busy. There was an underpinning structure that held up so many of our obligations, and then that structure fell apart.
My ex’s alcoholism was definitely in the works in the few years before the pandemic started, but then the lockdown made that [our main issue]. I’m trying to raise the kids with kindness is king, we’ve gotta get through these stressful times together, and that was not the energy coming from someone who was really struggling with addiction. People get drunk and say stupid things. I’m a grownup. I understand how that works, especially in stressful times. He’d be drinking and saying hurtful things and not remembering them the next day, but before [the pandemic], the next day, he would be at work, and I would be with the kids. We weren’t together. There was a sweeping under the rug. In the pandemic, the next day, we were both sitting there the next morning, in the aftermath, and this was all we had on our agenda.
I caught him stashing bottles around the house. He had promised he was sober, and then I found empty bottles. In the same week my ex-husband’s drinking came to a head, last May, both of our mothers reached out to us, struggling, venting about how challenging it was in lockdown with our dads. In the moment, I saw that as divine timing. My own father has addiction issues, and it was not lost on me that I’m calling my mom, and she’s crying to me about this exact issue 20 years down the road. The mirroring for me, in that moment, was stark. If it hadn’t been for that, I think it would have been easy to decide we could deal with it. But it has been 21 years. It’s been a really good try.
I remember being 11 and going to my mom saying, “This is bullshit. Why do I have to behave and [my dad] doesn’t?” My mom said to me then, for the first time, “It is bullshit, you’re right.” I had a similar moment with my 11 year old last summer. It was this brain-exploding moment where my son is coming to me and saying this is unfair; I feel like I was just that kid. It was like time traveling.
It was a gift to be able to go through this personal crisis now. If it weren’t for this pandemic, we would have had a family wedding seven days after I told my ex-husband he had to leave the house. It would have been constant: people asking where he is, what’s going on. Instead we had nothing. We had almost six whole months before we even had to say anything to anybody who wasn’t on the inside. That’s such a gift from where I’m standing now, to have had the space to do this crazy, world-flipping-upside-down thing.
— Maya, 39, Montreal; married 16 years, together 21
“She wanted me to become the breadwinner eventually, and I didn’t know how to get a six-figure job.”
Before the pandemic, I was working for myself as a wedding photographer, and I was planting seeds for screenwriting and writing a book. I had fought really hard to have that level of self-determination in my career and my day-to-day life. Then with the pandemic, that was ripped away overnight, because weddings were no longer happening. My income for the rest of the year was just shot. I collected unemployment for a while, but we had a good amount of debt entering 2020, and the benefits weren’t enough to “stay on track” with our financial goals. So I took a remote job with my wife’s company as a sales person. The CEO loved my wife and hired me because my wife insisted upon it. It was my first introduction to corporate life.
I’d been avoiding corporate structures for my entire adulthood, but that was my wife’s world for the past 20 years. She has had a very successful career and has been the golden child at any organization she works at. This was me stepping fully into her world and taking on a role that is the fucking antithesis of who I am. It was the worst year of my life, mostly because of this job. It really cracked open some big questions in the differences between me and my wife around capitalism, to be honest.
Money is not a primary goal for me. It’s just a means to an end to do the things I want to do. So it really pulled us into this deep question of what does success look like for us individually, and as a couple? How much money is enough money? She wanted me to become the breadwinner eventually, because she was tired of being the breadwinner, and I didn’t know how to get a six-figure job. I couldn’t see that path forward as an artist. How do I hold my integrity and my morals and authenticity and also hold in mind that someday I’m supposed to out-earn my partner?
All those questions came to a head. We worked equally closely with the CEO of this small company. The CEO loved my wife and hired me because my wife insisted upon it. We had the opportunity to hit some bonuses and pay off our debt, and I wanted to do that for her — and for us. I tried really hard to do my best, and it just wasn’t cutting it. The work environment was making me crazy and depressed. I’m not a quiet person, and I’m very opinionated; I ask a lot of questions. The CEO hated that. And despite touting her progressiveness and eagerness to “change the world,” she still couldn’t even manage to use my pronouns, and often caused big scenes when she would realize she was misgendering me.
By January, I realized I was having a huge moral crisis around being part of this company that just upholds the hierarchies within organizations. I don’t believe that’s the way of the future; I don’t believe in having CEOs. At some point I was invited to a culture committee within the company, and I said as much — that I thought we should try a decentralized power structure just within the culture committee. And that broke everything open. The CEO lost her mind. My wife ended up siding with her and said people aren’t ready for that. I felt really betrayed.
The blowup at work went unresolved. In February I told my wife I wanted to separate. We’re poly, and open to living in very different places, so we explored options. I told her I didn’t want to be in a romantic relationship but was open to staying married and being business partners. But I want to be in separate locations. I came to California in May with the goal of being here for four months. At the same time, we’re developing a TV show together, and it’s been getting all this attention out of the blue. It brought up all these questions of how we were going to work together and be together, or not. After a month apart, I realized how much happier I was being alone. I quit my job. In an effort to save our marriage, my wife told me she’d quit her job, and that she was done in the corporate world and ready to simplify — all the things I’d wanted to hear for seven years, but it was too little too late by that point.
She’s moving out to California, too. I told her I didn’t want to live together, or if we did, that I’d need my own room. I went to look at places and had a panic attack. I’d gotten this space from her, but it was being cut off at the knees. We’ve had a tiny bit of time to sit with all of this since, and she’s still moving out here, but the goal is to work together, and hold onto our friendship. We’re not in a rush to get divorce paperwork done, but our loose thought is by the end of this year.
— Parker, 30, Southern CA; married four years, together seven
“One thing the year highlighted was the question: What do we have in common? How do we make the most of recreational time?”
We had our daughter after a year of dating, and that totally flipped our expectations. We both admired each other, and we could have been a good match for each other, but we expected so much of each other right away. We were in our 20s, and that was especially hard on me, taking on the role of being a mom. We were stubbornly supportive of each other and proud to get through so much together.
Before COVID, I had been a nurse for three years, and I was working as a home care nurse when it hit, which was a lot. I was driving from house to house and listening to NPR, hearing them proclaim the pandemic and not knowing how to walk into someone’s house who is 90 years old and living independently. It was really stressful. He works in waste-water management, so his job never stopped either. We were bouncing our daughter between her grandparents and essential-worker child-care programs. We were both essential workers through the pandemic, so we didn’t have the classic story of being in a house together for the last year.
There wasn’t much we could do as a couple alone — or we didn’t take the opportunity. Another thing the year highlighted was the question: What do we have in common? How do we make the most of recreational time? I found myself getting back to skiing and snowboarding, which I’d kind of forgotten I like to do, and that’s not part of his background. At night, after we’d had super-busy days, he would always go to the basement, watch TV, and have a drink, and I didn’t always want to do that.
I have a friend who, this winter, told me she and her husband went on a date, and I just felt this dread. I thought: We should go on dates, but I don’t want to sit across a table from him — as terrible as that is. We could coast through the pandemic, but it just didn’t make sense anymore to try to push our relationship to work. We’re both in financially stable points, and the world is opening up, so we can go look at apartments, and hang out with other people. It opened up the opportunity to say, “Now’s the time.”
I became a mother in my 20s, and there are so many insecurities that go along with that. But as a woman, as a mother, as a person who can get out into the world, I’ve had really wonderful opportunities to meet people. I’ve met a group of women who are all divorcées just by hanging out by the lake. They’ve been jumping in the lake since January, and they just started inviting me. That connection couldn’t have come at a better time.
— Emily, 34, Minnesota; married five years, together ten
“We tried an open marriage, and I was dating women like crazy.”
I was married in August 2019, and at the end of 2019, I had this revelation that I think I’m very gay. I was very honest with him, and told him I felt like I needed to explore it. I had a crush on a girl, and I asked if it would be okay if we made out. He said yeah, so I made out with a woman for the first time. That was it. He told me I could see women, just not bring them to the apartment.
We separated for the first time in January 2020. I had my first girlfriend almost a week after moving out and was totally overwhelmed. At the end of January, I told him I wanted to be with a woman for real, and that we should divorce. Then the pandemic hit, two months after my sky had already fallen. I was in total denial. The girl I was dating at the time had a very different reaction. I’m hyper-social and extroverted, and we quickly learned that she’s very comfortable being at home a lot. I was super depressed, a lot to deal with. I felt like if I swallowed what had happened, I would die. I couldn’t just stop going outside and seeing friends. She said I couldn’t see anyone. So it imploded. She broke up with me in the first week of April 2020.
My now-ex and I had still been talking, and he asked if we could try an open marriage. Everyone was destabilized and searching for stability; I had been dumped, couldn’t see anyone, was super depressed. We needed some semblance of familiarity in a brave new world of unknowns, even if that semblance of familiarity was tainted with heartbreak. It felt right at the time, because I still loved him. I thought maybe I had overreacted, because I’m a very impulsive person. I think the pandemic kept my ex and I together for longer than we would have been without it.
We got back together in April. We were in marriage counseling, we read The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. I cut off all my hair as soon as the salons opened, which was really symbolic. I felt like I needed to be seen for who I was.
We tried an open marriage, and I was dating women like crazy. I was not being as safe [COVID-wise] as I should have been. I didn’t enjoy it. I felt shitty all the time. Our lease was up in September, so I suggested we put our stuff in storage and move to [his hometown]. In the back of my mind, I thought I’d see him in a new light if he was where he grew up. I’ve always wanted to be a mom, and still do, so I thought being in the Midwest and seeing more people with the houses and the kids, I’d be excited about that. But I wasn’t. We still had sex, but I’d go into the bathroom and cry afterward.
I was seeing four therapists at the time — it was messy. One of them said, “You do realize if you get pregnant, that’s not going to turn you straight.” I saw myself in the dad from the musical Fun Home — he’s gay, but in this heterosexual marriage, and it’s unfair to his wife. There’s this song “Days and Days,” and I was listening to it, and I was like, Holy shit, I’m doing this to my husband.
In October of last year, I left him a second time. That was the worst day of my life, hands-down. I’m still recovering. He’s such a good person. It was just really sad. I did love him. I do love him. But I love him like my brother. He’s not my lifelong partner.
After I left [my husband’s hometown], I was researching where Americans could go outside the country during Covid. Costa Rica opened November 1, so that was it. I was gone over six months; I just got back at the end of May. I traveled all around the country to process and heal. My friends were like, “You’re running away from your problems,” and I was like, “No, I’m not, there’s no way I can face any of this if I don’t have time alone in a different environment.” And I met a girl; I have a Costa Rican girlfriend now. We’re doing long distance. She’s actually visiting in a few days to get the vaccine (and see me!). She’s amazing. I feel judged a lot, and that’s been hard for me. But I have my own space now, and it’ll get better. I hope eventually to forgive myself.
— Lisa, 32, New York; married one year, together six
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity, and names have been changed.