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The New “Marital Partnership”

It’s more than a friendship but less than a marriage.

Key points

  • The pandemic lockdown has transformed many marriages into marital "partnerships."
  • Some couples are choosing to stay in a partnership for the sake of their children.
  • The stress of the pandemic is alo putting couples at increased risk of experiencing infidelity.

For some couples, it’s because the fault lines in their marriage have widened into an abyss during the Covid lockdown. For others, it’s because of infidelity brought on by the increased stress of the pandemic. For others, the stress of being cooped up together and working from home has transformed a previously healthy marriage into a roommate situation.

Whether the root cause is the stress of the pandemic or a marriage that doesn’t live up to the expectations of one or both spouses, the marital “partnership” is a trend that is popping up more and more frequently in my clinical practice.

“I feel like we’re in a partnership for co-parenting our children, not a real marriage,” a 42-year-old woman named Julia told me. “My husband and I spend a lot of together, but it’s not quality time,” she continued. With three children attending school online and both parents working from home, Julia and her husband had little time or energy to have quality time together, much less have sexual intimacy. One of their children was having real trouble with his virtual classroom, often missing a class because he said it was too boring. Both parents had to spend more time monitoring his classwork and homework. By the end of the work day, both she and her husband were too exhausted to spend quality time together, let alone have intimacy. At this point, Julia is staying in the marriage only for the sake of the children. She plans to exit the marriage when the children leave the nest.

The number of married couples seeking relationship counseling has surged during the pandemic lockdown. Covid has been a trauma for many people, but especially for couples that have children at home. Many have fallen into what they call a “partnership” for the purpose of co-parenting. Some, like Julia, plan to leave their marriage eventually. Others hope that post-Covid life will restore sexual intimacy and quality time.

Another situation in which a loving marriage has become a co-parenting partnership occurs when a spouse has cheated. Although the first instinct of the betrayed wife or husband is to seek a divorce, often this spouse has a change of mind for the sake of the children or because of reluctance to make major life decisions in the midst of a pandemic. The betrayed spouse may decide to remain in a co-parenting partnership while working through the betrayal in marriage therapy.

While the betrayed spouse may hope that trust will be restored and the partnership will once more become a real marriage, she or he starts out by creating rules and boundaries for the new “partnership” relationship. The betrayed spouse may insist on separate sleeping arrangements or even separate living spaces when financially feasible. They have their meals separately, sometimes getting together for meals or outings on special occasions for the sake of the children.

“I don’t want my children to come from a broken home like I did,” an attractive 45-year-old woman named Barbara told me. “But I know that affairs are a two-way street. I want to make sure that my husband doesn’t cheat again so I want to work on our relationship problems.” Barbara and her husband, Frank, are both in individual therapy as well as in couples counseling. For now, Barbara wants a partnership for the sake of the children, not a real marriage. She and Frank sleep in separate bedrooms. While Barbara hopes that trust will be restored in their relationship, she is not certain that it will happen. She’s taking it one day at a time while she and Frank attend therapy and work on the issues that spurred his infidelity.

According to researchers at the University of Tennessee who authored a paper titled “Infidelity in the Time of Covid-19," the increased stress brought on by the pandemic is putting couples at increased risk for infidelity. Data they have collected during the pandemic have shown that people in the United States are engaging in behaviors that are associated with a high likelihood of experiencing infidelity.

In my practice, I have seen more couples seeking counseling for infidelity than ever before. But the majority of these couples still love each other and are doing the hard and often painful work of restoring a loving and trusting marriage.

I have been seeing a third type of marital partnership that is not due to pre-existing marital problems or to infidelity. This occurs when Covid lockdown has caused the couples’ relationship to be stretched thin by the demands of work, home, children, and the extra precautions of cleaning, masking, and sanitizing. Habits that didn’t bother spouses previously have become nerve-wracking, and fights spring up about stupid unimportant things.

Spouses who are both working from home seek separateness in the little free time they have, often choosing to text or talk with friends in the evenings instead of spending time with their spouse. Marriage becomes a kind of roommate situation, more about the division of labor than about romantic evenings. Neither spouse wants to leave the marriage but one or both are frustrated by the asexual partnership their marriage has become.

There is no doubt that the pandemic lockdown has been a collective trauma, much like an earthquake, a war, or a hurricane. The new marital partnership in its various forms is part of the collateral damage.

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