Sofia Vergara, Joe Manganiello, Reese Witherspoon, Jim Toth, Jason Momoa, and Lisa Bonet. These are a few of the high-profile, celebrity couples who called it quits in 2022 and 2023. Was COVID-19 a factor in the decision to end their marriages? Did the pandemic have a significant impact on the U.S. divorce rate? A cursory look at the numbers suggests that divorces, like every other activity, were down during the height of the pandemic, then spiked as restrictions were eased. Does the spike represent a true increase due to the additional strain the pandemic placed on relationships? Or are we simply meeting a pent-up demand as life returns to normal?
Momoa and Bonet hinted at a COVID impact in a joint Instagram post on January 12, 2022, announcing their divorce: “We have all felt the squeeze and changes of these transformational times… A revolution is unfolding, and our family is of no exception… feeling and growing from the seismic shifts occurring.” The couple had been married four years, half of which was spent under pandemic conditions.
As for Vergara and Manganiello, the couple had been married since November 21, 2015, seemingly blissfully. In fact, in December 2022, Vergara (51) wished Manganiello (46) a happy birthday on Instagram, writing “Feliz cumpleaños mi amor. It’s going to be an amazing 2023 for you.” Shortly past the midpoint of that amazing year, Manganiello filed for divorce. Did COVID sink their relationship, or was this just a gentleman scratching his Seven-Year Itch?
In March of 2022, Reese Witherspoon had “gushed on Instagram” in a post to husband Jim Toth, “Happy Anniversary JT!! �’� 11 years of adventures, love & laughter. I feel so lucky to share this wonderful life with you. �’�.” The following March, a public statement emitted a distinctly different vibe. “We have some personal news to share… It is with a great deal of care and consideration that we have made the difficult decision to divorce.” Whatever changed over the course of 12 months, we may never know. We do know that predictions of a COVID resurgence did not pan out, and the last remaining restrictions fell by the wayside.
Still, the couple attempted to put the sunniest public face possible on their breakup, writing, “We have enjoyed so many wonderful years together and are moving forward with deep love, kindness, and mutual respect for everything we have created together. … Our biggest priority is our son and our entire family as we navigate this next chapter. These matters are never easy and are extremely personal. We truly appreciate everyone’s respect for our family’s privacy at this time.” Witherspoon had been married previously to actor Ryan Phillippe for eight years and, upon meeting Toth, had expressed gratitude at finding a man who was so willing to accept her two children from that marriage.
But celebrities are rarely a true barometer for society at large, and one could argue that the rich and famous were not nearly as inconvenienced by COVID restrictions as average Americans. So, what kind of effect has COVID-19 had on divorce rates nationally?
One early study, conducted by researchers at Bowling Green State University examined marriage and divorce data through 2020. Those researchers found that marriage and divorce rates were declining before the pandemic. The study, entitled Marriage, Divorce, and the COVID-19 Pandemic in the U.S., states that “From 2010 through 2016, the adjusted marriage rate had been relatively stable. At the national level, it ranged from a high of 32.7 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women in 2010 to a low of 31.0 per 1,000 in 2013.” But that rate declined each year from 2017 to 2019, when the adjusted marriage rate reached a low of 28.5 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women.
But the divorce rate also declined. “From 2011 through 2019, the national-level adjusted divorce rate … went from 17.4 divorces per 1,000 married women down to 13.5 divorces per 1,000 in 2019.” Given that drop, researchers expected a decline in divorces in 2020, the first full year of COVID-19. Indeed, there was a drop, but it was much greater than anticipated. “We expected 714,997 divorces would occur in 2020. However, only 630,505 did so.” That was a 12 percent shortfall, coincidentally matching the percentage reduction of marriages in 2020.
However, we should not conclude from this study that COVID and its restrictions were good for marital relationships. It could just be that COVID restrictions made it difficult to pursue a divorce, for many reasons:
- COVID restrictions made it more difficult to see an attorney
- COVID disrupted employment for many people, making it a bad time to contemplate divorce
- COVID placed burdens on parents, who had to turn their attention to their children
Therefore, we could expect many couples to put a pause on the topic of divorce, and then go forward with the process after restrictions were lifted and life started getting back to normal. Anecdotal evidence seems to support that line of reasoning. Marriage counselors and divorce attorneys are reporting increased activity since fears of COVID eased.
And there’s good reason to have expected COVID to strain personal relationships. First of all, COVID introduced high levels of anxiety over a range of issues, such as:
- Children’s developmental health and education
- Confinement and isolation
- Economic security
- Restrictions of normal activities
- The danger of the virus
- The welfare of loved ones
Married couples had plenty of issues on which they might be divided, such as:
- How strict to be with safety protocols
- How to operate their business
- Spending priorities while money is tight
- Whether to have their children vaccinated
- Whether to take the vaccine
Then there’s the simple matter of being forced to spend more time in tight quarters with someone and having the weaknesses in your relationship exposed. All of these factors can strain a relationship to the point where a couple feels the only solution is to dissolve the marriage.
But is it too soon to be acting out of pent-up COVID anxiety? Individuals who have come through COVID have to assess whether the tension in their relationship was a product of the circumstances, or whether the circumstances brought to light fundamental, unbridgeable differences in their relationship. It’s possible that having made it through COVID, your marriage can be stronger. Maybe all you need is to take a deep breath.