Feeling Squeezed by Esther Nelson

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.

Categories: General, Relationships, Women's Power, Women's Voices

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19 replies

  1. Interesting thoughts. Here in Greece there is an out of the house culture for men and for adult and semi-adult children in the coffee houses. Houses or apartments tend to be small so getting out provides space. It has been noted that in traditional families women are happy to have the men go out because then they can rule the roost. If “he” were home, he would control the tv and issue commands like bring me coffee etc. So I wonder how people are coping here when no one can go out and get away. And of course in this situation “Mom” may be expected to be the servant to all. Sigggghhhh.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This prediction doesn’t surprise me. I’ve seen many friends end up divorced when the man retires and is suddenly present in the home all the time where he use to be just a ‘night guest’. I’m wondering if this will be the catalyst for next wave of feminism. It’s all something to think about.

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  3. Very interesting. I’ve been divorced since 1973, so I haven’t had to worry about a man in the house making demands or unintentional mischief or even just being annoyingly present. You know what I think? The pandemic–and everything good and useful, like libraries and bookstores and beauty salons being closed–is going to make us all crazy. I had to do a bit of grocery shopping yesterday. The store was crowded with people who had so much piled so high in their shopping carts that they could hardly see over their stuff.

    Good luck and blessings to all of us! Let’s all stay safe and comfortable. And as sane as we can.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. People! Can’t live with them or without them. People living alone and people living with others are struggling right now. And yes how awful suddenly to have a ubiquitous husband when you are used to autonomy and they are imperious, patriarchal or ill-tempered. Thank goddess for cats and other four-leggeds. Thought-provoking post as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for commenting, Elizabeth. Your point is well taken regarding the difficulty we humans have living together as well as living apart from one another. I do think marriage fueled by patriarchy with its inherent hierarchical structure leading to domination is flawed at its very core–disadvantaging women. Whereas in “better times,” women (and the structural givens of patriarchal marriage puts women at a disadvantage) can adapt and resist more effectively–meaning she can keep some sense of integrity about her–during periods of stress it erodes away. Because patriarchal institutions have no difficulty using violence to achieve their “ends” (domination), divorce is way to get out from under the constricting bands of marriage. Of course, there are probably many, many women, for lots of reasons–poverty, sickness, political/familial constraints–who are not able to even entertain the thought of escaping from their marital situations. I was fascinated with the data from China showing the huge uptick in divorce rates after an extended period of “forced togetherness.”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well said. And rates of domestic violence and child abuse have shot up, and given that PornHub is offering its streaming services free, then rape will also go up, both now and after the pandemic. What a world.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thoughtful as always, Tia E! I will be curious to see how same sex marriages will fare as well. 😘


    • Thanks, Mijita! I wondered about that very thing (same sex marriages) when I was writing this essay. Am sure living in close quarters without respite for an extended period of time can be hard on many no matter what the relationship. Are the expectations in heteroxesual marriage different from those expectations in same sex couples? Heterosexual marriage (structurally) has ways of being and doing codified and written into law which individuals in society absorb. I think that makes a difference. Would love to hear comments about this.


  7. Thank you for naming this reality. I wish people had better tools with which to work things like this out. Relationships are so much hard work, and as you say, women are working at least twice as hard. Must we also carry the burden of the relationship labor as well? One pattern in our patriarchal society is how men are often ‘content’ just to let things muddle along, and see it as a kind of chore or burden when women try to point out that there is relationship work to be done, whether with them or the children or the wider family. Sometimes I wonder if these issues should be addressed and considered directly before people become partnered. It used to be the job of the priest/pastor/etc to do this kind of pre-marital counseling, and in some places, it still is; it would be good if women can feel supported and empowered from the beginning with the help of spiritual leaders. We need to do all this relationship work when we can, so that it doesn’t cause an avalanche during a pandemic, when the kids grow up and leave, during retirement, or during other unexpected moments of stress and crisis.


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