Tyler Foggatt, associate editor of The New Yorker magazine’s, “The Talk of the Town series,” recently contributed (March 23) an essay titled “Cooped Up.” She notes that China, the first country to shut down due to COVID-19, is now in the process of opening up. More than ten million people in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, were under lockdown. She writes, “When restrictions were eased, earlier this month, the city’s [Xi’an] divorce rate spiked.” Marital conflicts, often existing underneath the radar, bubble to the surface and sometimes explode during periods of quarantine (forced togetherness).
According to Foggatt, American psychologist Lawrence Birnbach predicts that the divorce rate in the U.S. will rise as the current pandemic unfolds. Two of his patients, married to each other and self-quarantined together, reported they have argued more than ever, mostly having to do with how thoroughly (or not) one person washes their hands and wipes down surfaces.
I think many of us can relate to this. Long before the current health crisis developed, my spouse and I went about our lives quite differently. At times we clashed. Keeping our distance from each other—even before social distancing became the “right” thing to do—was effective inasmuch as that strategy kept things from boiling over, at least most of the time.
A couple of weeks ago, I pulled Susan Wiggs’ novel, The Oysterville Sewing Circle, off my local library’s shelf—a luxury I no longer enjoy since the public libraries in my neighborhood have closed. The story focuses on Caroline, a young, up-and-coming fashion designer working in New York City. An unscrupulous bigwig in New York’s fashion industry—rich and powerful—steals Caroline’s clothing line, leaving her humiliated and without a source of income. Broken by it all, Caroline goes home to Washington State to heal and re-group. She soon gets back to designing clothing, using her own logo, a spiral-like seashell.
When Caroline gets back on her feet, she goes back to New York, but soon discovers that the same powerful fashion designer who stole her line of clothing is now after her trademark, the seashell logo. Caroline is poised to earn a handsome sum of money, but the unscrupulous designer forces her to choose between remuneration for her work or keeping her own logo. Caroline’s friend, Willow, asks Caroline, “Is keeping the logo a deal-breaker for you?”
Caroline wavers. She wants to stand on principle, retain her integrity and her logo, however, when she considers the bigger picture—her two children, the people she’s hired in her small company (C-shell), and the amount of time and money she’s spent growing her fledgling enterprise, she says, “The truth is, I need this opportunity more than I need to keep a little detail on my garments. If I have to change the logo, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
Willow responds. “This is how it starts. We settle. We make compromises. We…don’t really notice the erosion, or we rationalize it away. We tell ourselves it’s for the greater good.”
Just to be clear, Willow is not referring to the kind of compromises (even sacrifices) individuals are asked to make today regarding COVID-19 such as staying home and other altered behavior—behavior sometimes enforced to keep the larger community safe. I believe she’s talking about people who are in positions of power (either individually or as part of a systemic structure) using that power to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Those with less power often feel squeezed, constricted, and eventually empty.
Heterosexual marriage in a patriarchal society such as ours (and probably most, if not all, the world’s societies today are in that category) assumes men have “power over” others in the family unit because men are at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. “It’s just the way things are,” we tell ourselves. Some men may not even be aware of their privileged status, but nonetheless they benefit from power given to them by the structured “givens” within patriarchy.
Women and men are created and shaped by different social narratives so the ways women and men are expected to (and most often do) behave in society are vastly different. Women, in spite of the several waves of feminism over the past century that have advocated for women’s full agency, are still expected to “make nice” and defer to the patriarchal system’s (often) punitive enforcement of its own privilege. Women watch themselves squeezed and shrunk as they gingerly handle the interactions with men in their lives.
To be sure, those people on the margins of patriarchal societies (such as women) find ways to resist, but resistance takes a toll. It’s exhausting. In addition, marginalized people may not always be able to resist oppressive situations without endangering themselves—domestic violence is a good example. Women are expected to (and often do) compromise their integrity, squeezing themselves empty in order to keep a fragile peace, believing it’s for the “greater good” as Willow explains to Caroline in Susan Wiggs’ novel.
When it becomes impossible to avoid skirmishes due to the inability to put enough distance between people cooped up in quarantine together, the valve that ordinarily lets off enough steam to keep things running—sort of, anyway—can no longer handle the pressure and that’s when the explosion happens. No wonder psychologist, Lawrence Birnbach, foresees an increase in divorce in the United States as the current pandemic unfolds and stricter isolation gets put into place.
Divorce to my way of thinking—at least under the circumstances Lawrence Birnbach speaks about—is a symptom that reflects the inequality of power within traditional marriage. Living in close quarters for an extended period of time with nowhere to go can exacerbate whatever troubles simmer under the surface of a relationship. I admit I am feeling a bit squeezed these days.
Time will tell whether or not Birnbach’s prediction comes to pass.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.