While most people celebrated this summer’s easing of lockdown restrictions by getting together, many couples welcomed freedom by separating—for good.
COVID to the rescue? That’s what happened in China. When that country lifted the novel coronavirus pandemic’s self-isolation rules in March, divorce rates increased exponentially. In one city, divorce rates went from one or two a day to eight or nine after lockdown. Anecdotal reports from Europe suggest a similar rush on separations. It mirrors a 21 percent increase in divorces in Hong Kong, after the 2003 SARS epidemic forced a lockdown there.
Some of those might be a backlog after months of not being able to get divorced. More likely, it’s a symptom of the intensity of constant companionship. You promised to stay together in sickness and in health, not 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For four months. With no breaks. Oh, and the kids are home too.
But more than just too much time together, the pandemic has magnified the different ways in which men and women deal with stressful situations.
“From the very moment that you’re born, biochemically the brains of men and women are a little bit different,” says Dr. Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist, director of the Weill Cornell Women’s Brain Initiative and the author of The XX Brain, a new book on the female brain. “It’s not just about reproduction. So many things happen in the brain are supported by hormones.”
That includes dealing with stress. Mosconi says medical research is only just moving beyond, what she calls, “bikini medicine,” the belief that the only things separating the sexes hid behind the three triangles of a bikini. Instead, Mosconi’s research shows men and women’s brains react differently to almost everything, including medicines, nutrition and risks—like deadly viruses and food shortages.
Early COVID-19 research bares this out. An online survey of nearly 7,000 people from 10 different wealthy countries found that men had a significantly lower perception of risk associated with the coronavirus than women.
This gap is the main cause of marital strife, especially during times of high stress, says John Gray, the author of the Men are from Mars, Women and from Venus series of books.
“It’s a crazy time for people,” he says. “Right now relationships are compromised. They’re in a wheelchair.”
He explains it like this: Women deal with stress by talking about it. Feeling supported and listened to raises estrogen levels, a feel-good, stress-reducing hormone. Men deal with stress by solving or fixing the problem, which raises testosterone levels and lowers stress. When they can’t fix a problem—say, a deadly virus—testosterone dips and men detach, ignore or retreat. So, when the pandemic came along, women want to talk about it and men minimize it: “It’s no big deal.” Both feel like the other isn’t hearing them out, and the conflict intensifies—the classic couple’s argument, says Gray. Add a lost job and it spirals even further.
And then there’s food shortages. Because women are the nourishers, they’re more aware of the need for food. Plus, blood sugar levels drop more dramatically in women’s bodies than in men’s, Gray says.
“When my wife says to find a restaurant, it’s a code blue,” he says. “Women need to eat more regularly then men, so a potential food shortage concern them more.”
The best way to maintain a happy marriage, says Gray, is to proactively work against these forces. It starts with taking care of yourself. He recommends regular exercise, meditation and learning something new.
Keeping estrogen and testosterone hormone levels high will also help. For gals, that means feeling safe and supported. For guys, it’s feeling useful and successful. To accomplish both Gray prescribes a game he calls Genie in the Bottle.
For 20 minutes, the wife gets to ask her husband to do anything and the husband has to do it with enthusiasm. The asks have to be small and immediate: clean the dishes, never leave your dishes in the sink again. Obviously, women will love this, but, Gray says, within a few minutes the guy will feel good, too.
“When you make your wife feel happy, you feel successful and it bumps up your testosterone,” he explains. “You’ll feel like a king.”
Then the challenge presented by COVID-19 is not the virus, or the lockdown, but about how couples respond. Reports of domestic violence and calls to crisis lines have increased with the pandemic and lockdown. At the same time, Gray says, some may find working from home actually rekindles a relationship.
“Every crisis is an opportunity for growth,” he concludes. “For some it will be justification to end a relationship. For others it will lead to a more resilient marriage.”