To Have and to Hold, in Quarantine and in Health

Do global pandemic and marital strife go together? Some experts think so, but, thanks to reality TV and cross-stitching, several spouses are making it through.

s millions of people in the United States begin self-quarantining, in order to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, China, the first country to shut down, is in the process of opening back up. In Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, more than ten million people were placed under lockdown. When restrictions were eased, earlier this month, the city’s divorce rate spiked. One official blamed it, in part, on the quarantine. “Many couples have been bound with each other at home for over a month, which evoked the underlying conflicts,” he told the Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid. Perhaps global pandemic and marital strife go together; in the 2011 film “Contagion,” Gwyneth Paltrow dies a horrible death from a virus after cheating on her dutiful husband, Matt Damon.

Lawrence Birnbach, a psychoanalyst who practices in Greenwich Village and in Westport, Connecticut, predicts that the divorce rate will also rise in the U.S. as the pandemic unfolds. (He co-wrote a book with his wife, called “How to Know If It’s Time to Go.”) Two of his patients are married, and are self-quarantining together, and both have reported trouble at home. “They’ve been arguing more than usual because one person doesn’t take precautions exactly the way the other one wants them to,” he explained. “ ‘You didn’t wash your hands long enough. You took the subway. Don’t you care about me?’ ” (Birnbach’s wife had told him to stop touching doorknobs.)

Laura Wasser, a Los Angeles divorce attorney who inspired, in part, Laura Dern’s character in “Marriage Story,” weighed in: “A quarantine experience, particularly where there are underlying issues of resentment and poor communication, could be devastating to a marital relationship.” She compared the situation to couples who, after enduring the forced togetherness of the holidays, seek divorce in January—a busy month for matrimonial lawyers.

Does every quarantine scenario have to resemble Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat”? Might some couples grow closer? “That takes couples with real empathy,” Birnbach said, adding that that quality was in short supply. Wasser was more optimistic. “It could be an excellent opportunity to reconnect with your spouse,” she said, noting that, if a couple is on lockdown, it could reanimate their sex life.

How about some case studies? Katherine Codekas and Matt Smith, both fifty-seven, and both divorce lawyers, have been married for twenty-one years. In February, they were trapped together for two weeks in a not-large suite on board the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that was quarantined in the port of Yokohama, Japan, following a coronavirus outbreak. “We got along famously,” Codekas said. “There were no outside influences to argue about. No ‘You gotta get groceries’ or ‘You gotta clean the litter box.’ ” She passed the time by watching “Say Yes to the Dress”—a show that she had never seen before, and which she called “completely mind-numbing.” Smith spent his days on social media, trying to contact the outside world. Codekas’s main tip for the quarantined: carve out a space of your own, away from your partner. “When Matt was on Skype, I went into the closet,” she said. Think of it as a quarantine within a quarantine.

Tyler and Rachel Torres were one of the youngest couples on the Diamond Princess. Both twenty-four, they were on their honeymoon when they were forced into quarantine. Rachel cross-stitched a Christmas ornament; Tyler tried to learn how to juggle. Mostly, they just talked. “Tyler lived through Katrina, and we had talked a little bit about that before, but not as in depth as we did during quarantine,” Rachel said.

“We also joked about what it would look like to escape from quarantine,” Tyler said.

Greg and Rose Yerex, a Canadian couple in their sixties, tested positive for the virus on the cruise, but they were asymptomatic. “We felt fine,” Rose said. Still, they were put in quarantine and couldn’t leave until they each produced two negative tests at least twenty-four hours apart. “We learned to talk to each other again,” Greg said. “We’ve been married thirty-four years, and we’d drifted into some pretty serious bad habits.” He went on, “Being put together for twenty-four hours a day for two weeks, we wound up learning a lot about each other’s fears, hopes, and dreams.”

Despite being cleared by the Canadian public-health agency, the Yerexes, who are now back home, in Port Dover, Ontario, have continued quarantining—voluntarily. “Greg and I decided that there’s a lot of fear out in the community and that people would feel more comfortable if we quarantined for another fourteen days,” Rose said. “We have an acre of property. We can go outside in the yard. We can wander around the house. It’s pretty cushy.” 

Tyler Foggatt