Lockdown might not be a picnic, but it doesn't have to be miserable either, says this marriage counselor.
There’s a lot of talk about the effect of quarantine on couples. Some people are thinking of this time as a sort of honeymoon, while others worry that divorces will skyrocket after lockdown ends. What’s the truth? We asked Marco Scarmagnani, a marriage counselor from Verona, Italy.
Honeymoon or hell? How are couples really doing?
There is a problem of polarization, and not only during the times of COVID-19. For a couple of decades now, marriage has been described in an extreme and polarized way: either it’s a disaster, or an unrealistic garden of roses. Think about TV: Every series or film must contain at least a little violence, infidelity, problematic children, and/or significant mental illness. Then, advertising goes the opposite direction and paints a picture of unrealistically perfect families. We read the same thing in the newspapers: perfect love or grave misfortune. Normal couples don’t make the news.
What does this have to do with real couples?
A lot, because real couples are immersed in this flow of news and are influenced by it. Often they can’t find models to refer to, and are shaped by these narratives. So they perceive themselves either as failures or with having a duty to be perfect. Real couples, on average, are neither pathological nor perfect.
And during this quarantine, what’s happening?
The same mechanisms occur, but amplified and reinforced by the fact that couples are forced to be together all the time. Marriages and families are put under stress. Lock a husband and wife in a house for two months, with real worries about the future and with children — whether young children who need to be taken care of, kids who need help with their homework and who suffer because they can’t see their friends, or teenagers who want to run away from home. It’s a massive stress test for a couple, and it needs to be treated as such.
What does that mean?
That this is clearly a time of “crisis.” And crises in a family “manifest” the difficulties that already existed, forcing the spouses to take them in hand, and to name them. When life goes on and we’re busy all the time, the crises go unseen, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. And that’s the way it should be — we can’t spend life “in crisis.” We have to process it in small doses.
What do couples need at this time?
I can tell you what needs I see in my practice, that is, the needs of the couples who come to me. First, some classical emergencies have practically disappeared, simply because there is no opportunity for them to arise, such as problems with in-laws, whom nobody is seeing now except perhaps through video chats. The urgency now is the increase in conflict. Couples tell me that they’re arguing too much or too long, or too intensely, perhaps with the children as spectators. Incidentally, this is a problem that I think is quite understandable; it happens in every social context when things get too tight.
Why are they fighting?
Obviously, because their spouse has defects, and it irritates them. All of us have small and large defects, but now spouses are constantly seeing each other’s faults because they’re together and interacting all the time. It’s can feel unbearable.
Do we exaggerate when we see each other’s flaws?
Absolutely not. Recent studies have found that this is not the problem. The problem is in the imbalance: We see clearly the other’s faults, but we grant extenuating circumstances to our own. We consider our own flaws as due to our circumstances, while we attribute full responsibility of our spouse’s flaws to them. The Gospel metaphor of the straw and the beam should be reread every day.
How can we stop arguing?
It’s not possible to stop completely, so let’s start from the assumption that all couples argue and we must learn to do it properly. A good start is to apply these three rules: Don’t win. Define the boundaries. Cut it short.
Going back to flaws, do you think we can learn to love our partner’s flaws?
It depends on the meaning you give to the word “love.” Because if by “love” you mean a warm fuzzy feeling, an attraction—practically speaking, if the question deep down is: Can one “fall in love” with defects?—the answer is no. If instead we give the right meaning to the word “love,” which is a deliberate, persevering action (see Amoris Laetitia, 94) then yes, one can love defects, and love one’s partner, and thus grow and help each other to grow.
We should work on our own reactions so that the defect upsets us, not so much because it bothers us, but because it’s an obstacle to our spouse reaching their fullness, to them fulfilling their vocation. Of course, this is a process that requires a capacity for discernment, and for purification, which will surely do us good.