Family ties in tough times
Almost half of survey respondents say pandemic strengthened relationships
Brendan and Amy Mahan know how lucky they are. Just like nearly every other American, the Mahans have had a lot of stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But, the parents of 11-year-old identical twin boys have found ways to effectively deal with the uncertainties and “new normal”, mainly by prioritizing their relationship.
“Having to ride out those emotional storms and having to support each other and communicate through them, you’re bound to come out stronger, assuming you’re turning towards one another and not ignoring or turning away,” Brendan said. “If you’re having those hard conversations with consideration, grace and dignity, then you’re going to deepen that relationship.”
The Mahans, who are both 43, live in Shrewsbury. They have similar sentiments as the 47% of 3,000 respondents to the recently-released 6th annual American Family survey who say the pandemic has deepened their commitment to their relationship. That’s compared to 9% who disagreed.
Thirty-two percent of the respondents said there is less than average tension among members of their household. Sixteen percent said the pandemic has caused their families more tension.
“Absolutely. How could it not?” said Brendan when asked about pandemic-related stress. “Everything from the boys struggling with virtual learning … boredom and uncertainty about what’s going on with COVID.”
Some other surveys have reported different findings, including that the stressors of the pandemic are tearing families apart.
Unlike many families who have heightened stress caused by financial strain, unemployment, homeschooling and quarantine conditions, Brendan said his family is uniquely suited to deal with the pandemic-inflicted turmoil.
Amy is a biotech laboratory scientist in Lexington, a new job that she took on in March at the beginning of the state of emergency. Unable to go into the office to work, she felt a lot of stress and uncertainty about how well she was doing her job and even if the company would survive the pandemic.
Brendan, a former sixth-grade English teacher, reduced his self-employment as an ADHD coach so he could take on most of the obligations at home, including homeschooling and entertaining twins Gavin and Nathan, who are in the sixth grade.
“Theoretically, I should also be cleaning the house. But, there’s not enough time,” Brendan said. “If there’s ever any contentious area, that’s where it is. My wife will say 'the house is getting messy and we need to clean this weekend.'"
The pandemic has helped bring the family closer in many ways. They eat dinner together more often. Brendan and the boys, and sometimes when Amy is available, commit to one adventure a week to break up the monotony of being at home. Their most recent was a visit to the abandoned railway tunnel off Route 70 in Clinton, near the Wachusett Dam.
“We had to get out of the house. My sons needed time away to manage the stress and pressure of COVID. If we didn’t go on one adventure a week, things got more stressful at home,” Brendan said.
Dad and sons do projects together, including using PVC pipes to build hands-free sanitizer stations. During the nice weather, the family has grabbed pizzas and watched movies in the backyard with one other family who socially-distanced on the opposite side of the yard. Every Thursday evening, Brendan has run a Dungeons and Dragons game via Zoom for his boys and four of their friends.
When Amy gets home from work, she feeds the boys and takes them to kempo lessons, while Brendan conducts virtual ADHD parent coaching groups in his basement office. After everyone is done, the family settles in for a half-hour cartoon show the boys like and then they are read to and readied for bed, allowing the parents some much-needed couple time.
“It doesn’t always go smoothly. But you always have to prioritize relationships over the other stuff. That’s how you come out of it stronger. Those social skills and that relationship awareness is critical for keeping the family together,” Brendan said, acknowledging that it’s different when a family is struggling financially. He said the family tries to help those who are less fortunate. Brendan said he keeps bags containing bottled water, fruit, granola bars and toiletries in his car to hand out to homeless people they encounter. They have helped a friend out financially and when he and the boys pick up pizza, they get extra slices to give to the homeless.
Mary Ludy, a psychotherapist and a marriage and family therapist in Worcester, said families are stressed, but are finding ways to come together to manage it.
“People are expressing to me that as much as they’re stressed by the pandemic and the political climate that they’re putting more effort into getting along at home and communicating well," Lundy said. "Good communication strengthens relationships.”
With therapy sessions available virtually via telehealth, she has seen a 33% increase in the number of clients seeking help with communication and conflict resolution skills.
Tension and conflict around which parent tends to the kids the most or if a parent is given priority for the amount of time they need to do their job seems to be major concerns.
Generally, her advice to parents is to be easy on themselves as far as managing all the demands that they’re trying to juggle.
“I have found that a lot of parents have felt very much under pressure and had high expectations to take on new roles and responsibilities as far as their kids’ education,” Ludy said. “What I’m seeing right now is they are easing up on themselves and relieved since school started. It’s much more like classroom learning now, even the remote learning.”
Dr. Timothy Hoffman, a marriage and family therapist in Spencer, said he is not surprised that so many people who responded to the survey said their families have grown stronger during the pandemic. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed said the pandemic made them appreciate their partner more, while 10 percent disagreed.
“I’m not surprised. I’m suspicious,” Hoffman said, questioning whether the relationship is better because of effective marriage counseling and not due to overcoming struggles of the pandemic. Hoffman said when people take surveys, they tend to want to please the people who are asking the questions.
“I think there is truth in that in tragedies people often come together. Look how wonderful we did for a bit after 9-11 for a common cause,” Hoffman said. “... Today, there's also such animosity regarding politics... We’ve got to have that sense of compassion. That’s so lacking today.”
Other surveys have reported different findings than the American Family survey, a joint project of the Deseret News, Utah’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper, and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. Being forced to spend 24/7 together during the earlier months of the pandemic and confronting major COVID-related stressors have driven a wedge between some couples.
According to Legal Templates, a company that provides legal documents, the number of divorce agreement sales was 34% higher March through June than the same period in 2019.
The data also revealed that the quarantine destroyed marriages in less than three weeks, newlyweds were hit hardest, couples in southern states along the Bible Belt were far more likely to seek a divorce, and the rate of divorcing couples with children increased compared to 2019.
“It’s clear from our data that the COVID-19 crisis has increased divorce rates across America — particularly in newlyweds and couples with young children.
Unfortunately, the stressors presented during these unpredictable and unprecedented times were too much for many couples to handle.
It’s possible that divorce rates will continue to rise as economic, financial, social, institutional, and psychological turmoil from the COVID-19 virus unfolds,” the group wrote.
Hoffman said “forced togetherness” can be artificial and harmful. He and his wife of 46 years vacation together, but they also take a week apart from each other. It's important for couples to have private, separate time apart, Hoffman noted. Families should rely on faith to get them through these tumultuous times similar to what has happened countless times before.
“Like World War II. The churches were packed. People relied on the faith that was already there. When trouble comes, they fall back on the tried and true,” said Hoffman. “The tried and true is that there’s nothing like family. It’s the most important unit in our society. If we have strong families, we have a strong society.”