Finding Hope in the Middle of Relationship Storms

In Print Issues, Success by Joanna Scott

Since the pandemic began, headlines have certainly been full of a wide variety of highlights and lowlights. Our humanity has been in disarray for over a year now, and we have felt it in every aspect of our society: socio-economically, politically and let’s not leave out one of the hardest hit aspects of our lives, partner relationships. I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic, so following love stories is one of my favorite ways to pass time on Instagram. A few months into COVID-19, these same love stories began falling apart at a startling pace. Some of these women are leaders and influencers I looked up to. I had read their books, listened to their podcasts and devoured their coaching on marriage and partner relationships. After decades of commitment and long after vows were spoken, the new divorces and breakups left my heart stunned to say the least.

A few months ago, a local friend asked me to grab drinks, so we met downtown at a cozy spot and settled in. Honestly, we hadn’t connected very much through the pandemic, so it was wonderful to sit in-person with her and catch up. After we ordered, there was some surface chit-chat, but then I could feel it. I could tell something was wrong in her energy, body language and tone of voice. When someone is in pain around us, we don’t have to be an empath to observe, pause and pay attention. My friend, whom I’ll refer to as Sarah, touched my arm and with a shaking voice shared why she had set up our dinner date. Her husband of 13 years was done. Her beautiful, wide eyes said it all. There was no recourse and no coming back from his decision. She had been completely blindsided and felt alone. What does one do when the partner that you’ve grown up with no longer wants to be with you? Despite her pain, there were times the spark came back in her eyes. Even though she had been knocked down, I knew she would get back up again. It will be a long journey to heal, but I wholeheartedly believe she has the gumption to do it.

Watching the number of influencer relationships fail is one thing, but having close, personal friends and loved ones go through divorce hits even harder. This brings us to the question we’re all wondering … Why has the tipping point changed in our world and society among marriages? What relationship dynamics have shifted so dramatically that couples would rather go through the pain of divorce than stay together? Weathering the pandemic season for couples and families is something we’ll never forget. It brought out our best features and our worst traits simultaneously.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the new stressors from last year:

  • Virtual or hybrid learning for students
  • Working from home
  • Economic stress
  • Weight of surviving/thriving as entrepreneurs during a pandemic
  • No breaks = Family time 24/7
  • Indoor dining shut down
  • Gyms shut down

Needless to say, many of the relationships that were already in trouble decided their marriages were done. A relationship coach reviewed the ups and downs of the pandemic on relationships in a recent NY Times article that interviewed multiple divorce lawyers.

“In those first seven or eight months, divorces were certainly on the rise,” Mr. Wilson said. “My theory is that those getting divorced at that time, were couples already in troubled relationships, but due to the fact that they were getting breaks from each other, they were able to endure it.

“Then the virus emerged, and those same couples were forced to spend more time at home together and interact more often,” he said. “Suddenly, they felt as if there was no escape, and wanted out.”

Josh and I met at the young age of 14 at a go-kart event for the local church youth group we attended. He was dating my friend, but when I saw his cute, tall, nerdy self, it was love at first sight. Rather, it was best friends at first sight. We remained BFFs through all the ups and downs of our high-school years and only officially started “liking” each other (yes, I’m using all the 1990’s words here unashamedly!) our final year of high school. When people ask how long we’ve been married, they’re always surprised to hear it’s been 25 years! We often hear, “I want a relationship like you and Josh!” or, “You guys just have it all together as a couple.” To avoid appearing rude or inconsiderate, we politely nod, but know deep down that while we have worked endlessly on our relationship, it’s far from perfect. We are both equally spirited, strong, achievement-oriented people who still get into fights we’re not proud of, have differing perspectives and views, do not act as selfless as we should, and even hurt each other unintentionally. Don’t get me wrong, we are deeply devoted to one another and have put decades of work into developing a healthy relationship, but Josh and I also experienced the same difficult stressors everyone else did during the pandemic, which brought bright spots and also times that felt super low.

Repeatedly, after every divorce or breakup announcement, I began asking myself this question, “Are we next?”

Who’s to say it can’t or won’t happen to us? We have issues we’re working through like the next couple, so the thought that we’re exempt from marriage failure seems overly optimistic. However, leaning into this fear on a daily basis was producing anxiety in my heart and creating an unhealthy mindset I needed to shake. What if I replaced the fear of the unknown with healthy habits that help us thrive through the storm?

A Cleveland Clinic article suggests that many couples are actually coming together throughout it all. “The study showed that couples were reporting more time spent together at home, more time doing activities together and actually, the division of housework has been more even than it has ever been before. This all shows satisfaction across the board,” says Dr. Albers. “Fifty-six percent of the study’s participants said the pandemic made them appreciate their partners more, and 47 percent said it helped deepen their commitments to their relationships.”

Contrary to the narrative that has taken over our social feed, a lot of couples are actually figuring this crazy life out.

Healthy Habits

One of my favorite books is Atomic Habits by James Clear. His philosophy involves creating systems that lead to long-term change through healthy habits. In one chapter, he discusses how there are three levels of change and how identity is where it all begins.

“True behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes a part of your identity.

The goal is to not read a book, the goal is to become a reader.

The goal is to not run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.

The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.

Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are either consciously or unconsciously”.

If the goal is to have healthy, thriving, exciting marriages or partnerships, we need to figure out which behaviors (habits) will get us there. These pro tips are not for the faint of heart, but I believe will set you up for open, honest conversations with your partner.

Here are a few next steps that have helped our relationship:

Begin with a relationship audit conversation. This needs to be a quiet, safe place free from distraction. No eye rolling, raised voice or mean words. Ask your partner these three questions: a) How would you rate our relationship the past six months (1-10 scale) b) What are some of my behaviors that you love? c) What are some behaviors I can improve?

Negotiation of Values. To develop new, shared values, a highbred value/belief system

Friendship Boost. Work on your friendship! Find fun, non-stress related activities

Laugh together

Intentional date nights or trips away

Do one thing everyday that makes your partner feel loved

Careful, shared boundaries with the gender each of you are attracted to

Recover incomplete conversations and find closure

Recognize signs of burnout in yourself or partner

Find an incredible clinical counselor to guide you through this messy life

There is Still Hope

Deep, deep love for all my fellow ladies reading this article that have been through a divorce or really difficult breakup. This message is not “don’t get a divorce,” but rather the reality of how our relationships are being affected by an increasingly stressful world and how to find hope through it all. If you have been through something hard with your spouse or partner lately, please know you’re not alone. Please remember we are all fighting through relationship challenges and need to move towards vulnerability so we can support one another. I’m humbly rooting for you, dear friend, whether you’re divorced, single, widowed, married or dating. We’re all in different spots needing the same grace.

“I do not understand the mystery of grace, only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” – Anne Lamott