Does It Make Sense To Break Up During COVID? Experts Weigh In
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
This pandemic has put many relationships through the ringer. Being forced to spend every waking moment together in the midst of heightened stress has pushed many couples to the edge, and many may be finding that they don't enjoy spending life together as much as they had once thought.
But some experts are recommending people who are considering breaking up take things a little slowly.
Why a crisis may not be the best time to break up.
"The truth is that we are currently in a global crisis that is affecting everyone, and that stress could provoke the calmest person to react in ways not characteristic of himself due to the need to cope," relationship counselor Shena Tubbs, LPC, tells mbg.
In general, crisis does not tend to be the best time to make big, life-changing decisions. Linda Carroll, LMFT, advises couples to avoid making decisions about the relationship when you're in an intense emotional state such as anger or despair. These emotions—which may actually be the result of the crisis at large rather than the relationship specifically—may cloud our ability to make rational decisions.
We may also think we want the relationship to end, when really we just want this stressful situation to end. "People can be stuck in a loop and think they want out of the relationship when what they want is to be out of the loop," Carroll tells mbg. "Then they reconnect, and they are fine again."
It can also be hard to tell whether the conflicts or tension you're seeing in your relationship right now are the result of being in an extreme and totally unprecedented situation or they're actually indicative of something fundamentally dysfunctional about the relationship.
"If a relationship is already strained, then this pressure could definitely push it to rupture," Tubbs notes. "However, it's also true that even the healthiest couples have conflict, and not having an escape to take care of one's self, breathe, and maintain your identity can get overwhelming."
Even the healthiest relationships can feel intolerable under stress.
"Every relationship has a fragile edge, that if pushed can split us apart," Carroll tells mbg. "Everyone."
Even the most successful, long-lasting couples still have irreconcilable differences and pressure points that can periodically cause tension. If pushed in the right way, Carroll believes that every single relationship is capable of crumbling.
The problem is that when we're stressed, all we see is what's wrong—and we can sometimes lose sight of everything that's right. In particular, spending so much time together day in and day out can drive any two people to resent each other. "Some people have a really good relationship, but when there's too much stress and focus on it, then all they see is what's wrong, and they feel like they gotta get away from each other," she explains.
If the relationship was working well before the pandemic, Carroll says to be cautious about assuming it's totally dysfunctional just because it's cracking during this crisis. We're all cracking right now.
How to know if you should really break up.
"There is no black and white," Tubbs explains. "Each couple and each individual will need to assess what they are feeling … [and evaluate] what is currently working for them and what is not."
Carroll recommends taking things slowly and not making any rash decisions right away. Unless there's physical or emotional abuse happening, there's no need to rush. As we all adjust to living through a pandemic and lockdown measures eventually ease, you may find that the intolerable situation was, in fact, contextual.
"Those that had ruptures that were created (or exposed) may need to seek outside counseling to repair," Tubbs adds. "Others who, when they have their space again, naturally recover—kind of like siblings who fight when they're younger, but when they get their own rooms, the house gets more peaceful."
One strong sign you should break up is if you've realized something about your partner or your relationship that you know you cannot live with—for example, having completely differing values about an individual person's responsibility to protect public health, or a refusal to be compassionate and forgiving in the midst of hardship, or a suddenly revealed capacity for interpersonal violence. (If abuse is involved, you absolutely can and should leave an abusive relationship. No matter how stressed someone is, there is never an excuse for violence.)
In all other cases, it may be worth giving the relationship some time to see if it can heal as we adjust to this pandemic. Meantime, Tubbs recommends directly talking to your partner about your concerns to see if there are things you can both do to strengthen and fix your relationship.
"Your partner is not a mindreader, and they are also undergoing their own stress as well," she says. "Only via active communication and checking in can couples stay connected and whole."
The bottom line.
Some couples will break up because of COVID-19 and will absolutely be better off, Carroll notes. In general, remember that you don't need to have a "good reason" to leave your relationship. If you want to leave, that's reason enough.
But as you're weighing the decision of breaking up, just be sure you're not trying to end your relationship when really what you're craving is an end to this pandemic.
As Carroll once wrote at mbg: "Just remember that love is a feeling and that a relationship is an agreement that has many seasons. We disappoint one another, hurt one another, and sometimes even bore one another. However, those times that seem impossible in the moment can give more trust and resilience to the relationship overall."
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