The Breaking Point

Supporting Fragile and Separating Couples

Julia Mayer
A couple on a couch faces away from each other

“He’s right downstairs, but he might as well be in another city,” Janine said of her husband Dan, during one of our mid-pandemic sessions. “He doesn’t even clear the table, let alone offer to cook or do the dishes. And I’m the one who has to monitor the kids during online school.”

Janine had been my client for about six months before the pandemic hit. She’d been anxious and unhappy and couldn’t figure out why. She knew she and Dan had drifted apart, but she’d let herself believed theirs were the typical problems busy couples faced, like resentment over housework and a lack of time together.

When they were both suddenly working from home while taking care of their young school-age children, the cracks in their marriage showed. Dan decamped to the basement and resisted all interruptions. When Janine asked for more help with housework and childcare, he said he had to focus on work because his company was considering layoffs.

As the months passed and the pandemic worsened, their relationship became increasingly tense, and the emotional distance between them seemed insurmountable. In some ways, Janine and Dan were having what could be a common reaction to the pandemic. Over the past year and a half, couples have faced so much stress that they’ve tried to avoid rocking the boat with regard to their relationships whenever possible. This has often played out as avoidance of all things emotional in an attempt to sidestep bickering.

But for some couples, that’s been a challenge. Silent agreements from before the pandemic, in which couples overlooked bad or annoying behaviors, addictions, affairs, or lack of intimacy, have fallen apart with nowhere to escape to. Many miserable couples may even have stayed together because of pandemic-related issues like financial precarity and increased childcare needs. And during all this, when couples have argued, they’ve had nowhere to go to cool down or call a friend. I’ve had clients sit in their cars or walk outside, even in winter, to have a private appointment with me.

Since last year, divorce lawyers have been anticipating a surge in divorces as a result of the pandemic. While a rise in divorces in the United States is yet to bear out, the forced confinement and manifold stressors have undoubtedly magnified the weaknesses in fragile relationships.

As clinicians, we need to keep alert to the struggles couples have had during the pandemic and find ways to support those who couldn’t hold together under the pressures created by this grueling year.

When couples are doing well, partners often take turns supporting each other through stressful times. But when both are overwhelmed at the same time, then their bond is tested. Can they tolerate one another’s behaviors, regressions, irritability, and irrationality while trying to manage their own? If the relationship is strong enough, the couple will make it through. But for those who had struggles before the pandemic, whether addressed or not, the increased stress levels experienced may have pushed them to the breaking point.

As clinicians, we can readily evaluate whether couples communicate in ways that show their resilience: Do they turn to one another for support? Do they pay attention to each other? Enjoy each other? Can they step back and take perspective, show generosity, use humor and empathize even while stressed? If they can, even if they are struggling, there’s plenty of hope. And they can’t, we can support them through their separation by helping them grieve together.

Looking for Hope

When Janine and Dan looked for a couples’ therapist, they couldn’t find someone who wasn’t overbooked. Instead, Janine would sometimes ask Dan to join one of our video sessions. I saw this as an opportunity for us to work on strengthening their bond. At first, he’d sit glumly next to her in silence.

“Janine, what can you do right now to show Dan that you support him?” I asked during one session.

She looked at me questioningly.

“Can you do or say something that will give Dan the sense that you are there for him no matter what?” I tried again.

Janine awkwardly put her arm around his shoulders and gave him a squeeze. He flinched. I asked him to show support for her and he shrugged, and with his arms crossed in front of him, said, “I make sure we are financially stable. To me, that’s the best support I can provide.”

From this tiny interaction, it quickly became clear to me that they couldn’t be vulnerable with each other. They didn’t have the caring language or actions built into their relationship to fall back on. Conveniently, Dan’s work schedule kept the distance between them and both could feel resentment around that. That had probably worked adequately for them before the pandemic.

In the next joint session, I tried to help them trust each other enough to be able to work on their emotional closeness.

“This may feel uncomfortable, but I’d like the two of you to hold hands and look each other in the eye for a minute,” I said.

They hesitantly took hands. When I said they could stop, Janine breathed a sigh of relief and Dan looked down.

“How did that feel, Dan? I asked.

“I felt like I was looking at a stranger,” he said, slowly.” He looked like he might cry.

I turned to Janine and asked the same question. “I wanted connection, but I couldn’t feel it,” she answered.

Their tension came to a head when Janine asked Dan to take off a couple of days to oversee the children’s schooling while she ran a video conference for her work. Soon afterward, Dan announced that he’d found a small apartment that he’d use as an office so as not to be disturbed by the family. He then started staying overnight at the apartment on occasion, and she was on her own with the children.

In our next session together, I acknowledged that Dan’s apartment created even more distance between them, and then I asked ““What do you need from each other to work toward feeling closer again?”

“I’d like a hug now and then, and more time together,” Janine responded resentfully.

“Dan,” I asked. “What about you? What do you need for things to be better between you?”

“I guess I need some understanding,” Dan said, without conviction. “I need time to myself and, Janine, you know I’m under a lot of pressure at work. I need to concentrate. I’m used to the office. I can’t spend all this time with you and the kids.”

“Do you miss having time alone with Janine?” I asked. “Did things change for you because of the pandemic?”

Dan shrugged, and looking down, acknowledged after a long pause that he’d been staying because of the children, but that he hadn’t felt that he and Janine were truly connecting since long before the shutdown. Janine began to cry. I asked Dan to comfort her. He reluctantly put his arm around her.

“I feel guilty,” he said. “I don’t mean to abandon her, but I just can’t stay with things this way.”

If their difficulties had only been tension caused by the pandemic, and both members of the couple had been willing to work together to build in connection and better communication, we would’ve made more of an effort to address the specific stressors for each of them and to work to improve their support for one another. For many such couples, the shutdown was a chance to connect more closely and approach the pandemic-related issues as a team. Many have strengthened their relationships by having gone through this frightening, unpredictable time together and have developed a deeper sense of intimacy as a result.

Moving Toward Grieving Together

As spring began, Dan announced that he was going to live at the apartment full-time. Janine, though distraught, admitted that she hadn’t felt much closeness with Dan for years. Despite feeling relief, the end of the marriage was still devastating for her.

As we work with clients losing their long-term relationships after a difficult year, it’s important to keep in mind:

Grief is at the heart of so many situations. We need to look for grief in our clients, as well as remember how difficult it can be for people to allow themselves to grieve their losses. The loss of lives, a year in school, the loss of friends, jobs, and for some couples, the loss of their partnership, their way of life, what they thought had been good enough. For couples whose relationships have ended this year, not only do they have to manage reentry into a new world, they have to go through separation and possibly divorce, a process that is on its own, extremely stressful and filled with grief.

We need to help our clients to attend to the large and small losses that require grieving. I make sure to ask clients how they feel about what is happening to them and around them, as well as how they feel in their bodies. “Are you noticing tightness in your chest? Trouble taking a deep breath? Are you escaping into your phone too much? Binge-watching shows? Drinking more? Do you have trouble concentrating? During the pandemic, many reported fear, anger and frustration as well as confusion about what to do about those feelings. I’d suggest that they contact family and friends to talk, get exercise, listen to music, learn a new skill, meditate, whatever feels like care.

When I ask clients in troubled relationships if they are grieving losses, often, they’ll stop to consider it, and their grief will pour out. For many, it seems like a revelation. They had no idea they had all that feeling pent up inside them. Most feel relieved afterward. If they struggle to access them, I’ll ask about how they felt early in the pandemic. “Do you recall feeling afraid? Did you have trouble sleeping? Were you unsure what the future would hold?” If we can begin to talk about the feelings, we can usually access the grief. Then the goal is to experience the feelings without judgment, to help integrate them.

We can help separating and divorcing couples grieve the end of their relationships together if possible. I try to meet with both partners to help them process the losses they’ve already felt and those that will be ahead, so that both individuals can move on to whatever comes next for them in a healthy way. I explain that if they hold on to anger, resentment, and disappointment, they will remain stuck in those feelings. Couples separating can help each other to redefine their relationship going forward. Can they be friends, or at least peaceful acquaintances?

It’s important for them to preserve the good: to think about what brought them together, to consider the kids, to remember the characteristics they appreciated in one another. I’ll ask each of them what they most value in the other, even now. I’ll ask them to remember specific occasions when they were happy together. I may ask what it was like for them when they first met. They were once close and happy, perhaps for many years. If they can move past their anger, they can hold onto what was good as they move forward despite disappointments and betrayals.

We can help separating couples develop a cooperative relationship going forward, if they have children, extended family or mutual friends. If they will have shared occasions with family or friends, it is beneficial to them as well as those they care for, to move past the conflict and build a cordial, supportive relationship with one another. This is easier said than done. I usually point out that their decision to separate affects those they love and care for. I’ll suggest that they can best care for those connections by making the effort to put their differences behind them. I’ll ask them to think about how they want their relationship to look a few years down the road, how they’d like to look back on it and how they can make that happen.

I asked Janine and Dan to meet with me together once they decided to separate. At first, Dan was defensive and Janine outright blamed him. But as we spoke during what turned into a series of four sessions in which I slowed things down to help them take time to reflect, both were able to begin to remark on their relationship, what went wrong and how, as well as to remember happy occasions.

After some prompting, Dan said, “I remember how happy I was at our wedding. I was so grateful that you were marrying me.” He choked up briefly, but went on. “And some of my best memories are of when the kids were little, learning to walk and talk.” He paused. “I know I got very caught up in my work. I wanted to be a good provider.”

“I know it was so important to you, especially given your dad’s job losses,” Janine said, nodding. “I didn’t want to get in the way of that, but you just got busier and busier and I felt neglected. I know I just became this great big nag. I feel bad about that.”

“I felt like you couldn’t understand what I was feeling, and you were so busy with the kids that you weren’t even interested,” Dan said, shrugging.

Once they’d remembered what had been good, it was easier for them to begin to see past their anger. I asked them how they could take care of one another as they proceeded through the difficult process of separation and divorce. They looked at each other.

“I don’t want to fight,” Dan said. “I know I haven’t been there for Janine for a long time. But I’ll try to be more supportive.

Janine nodded and said, “That would be nice. It’s going to be a hard adjustment.”

It was a good start, and for the first time in a long time, I had hope for them.

To help separating couples move past their animosity to forge a new, respectful way of relating, often, I’ll ask questions like, “Is it possible to shift to a new way of relating to one another? “Can you imagine your future relationship five years from now?” “What do you want your children to take away from watching their parents’ divorce?” If couples can remember what was good, stay mindful and agree to try to move forward both together and apart, they have a good chance at having a good divorce.

As our fourth couples session ended, both Dan and Janine agreed to try to support each other for the sake of their children, family and friends, but also so that they might move on more easily and successfully.

At the end of the day, couples who have broken up during or after the pandemic will have to ask themselves if the relationship ending was a positive or negative outcome. For Janine, it was extremely difficult at first. She had to grieve the past and the future she’d imagined having and she had to develop a new perspective on her life. Ultimately, she realized that her marriage to Dan had so often felt frustrating and she slowly became hopeful that she might create a more satisfying life either on her own or with someone who can better meet her needs.


Julia L. Mayer, Psy.D, is coauthor, with Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D., of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships. – and How to Overcome Them.

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