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Should I Stay, Or Should I Go? Marriage Therapy In The Time Of COVID-19

Like most mental health professionals, marriage therapists are experiencing a surge in people seeking counseling.

For 90.5 WESA’s series on the pandemic’s impact on mental health, Sarah Boden spoke with a licensed marriage and family therapist. Brianna Totty practices at the Center for Relational Change in the North Hills. She said that the events of the last 18 months have, in some cases, changed how we relate to the people we love most.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Boden: With the delta variant, natural disasters and continuing inequities, it seems like a new calamity is always around the corner. How is this impacting the way some couples connect?

Brianna Totty: Things got real for couples. Couples, I think, had to face a lot of tough topics that probably our parents and grandparents didn't really have to face. And [they] also probably have had to deal with a lot of things that were easier, maybe swept under the rug or overlooked when we weren't in lockdown, and when the world wasn't on fire.

Boden: What are some issues that maybe were easier to ignore or avoid prior to the pandemic?

Totty: Communication. Before the pandemic, people were able to go to work and to have social interactions. And now we’re under lockdown orders, and I see your face every day, all day. That becomes magnified, and people are forced to have conversations.

Boden: What are some of those conversations?

Totty: Oh, my gosh. You know, I'm thinking about one particular couple, and it was about the equity in the relationship. One partner was doing a lot of the domestic work and the other partner, from their perspective, was not pulling their weight. I think the pandemic also put a strain financially on a lot of couples. [Also] equity, intimacy...

Boden: And were you hearing from more couples looking for therapy?

Totty: Yes. The downtime really gave people the opportunity to slow down and to really be like, “Yo, we have to take some inventory here. We have to shift our focus if we're going to stay in this relationship.”

Boden: What does taking inventory of your relationship look like?

Totty: [Asking] "What's the purpose of us being in this relationship? What are our goals? How are you fulfilling me? Am I adding anything to your life? What wounds have I not healed, and are coming through? What traumas have I experienced?"

Boden: Really early in the pandemic, like summer or late spring of last year, I read some articles predicting that, “Oh, we're going to see this wave of divorce because everyone's going to be spending way too much time with their spouse, and they're going to realize what a mistake they've made with their life.” That didn't happen. We haven't seen a huge surge in the divorce rate at all. In fact, we haven't seen an uptick in the marriage rate either, I think, because everyone's just kind of waiting for things to settle. Going forward, though, do you think we're going to see an increase in the divorce rate?

Totty: I'm not sure. When I am with my couples and the first thing that I say to them is that, “I am not here to keep you guys together and I am not here to break you guys apart. My job is to give you guys the tools that you need to be able to make that decision for yourself.”

Boden: We've talked about a lot of the challenges. What are some of the most valuable lessons that your couples have gained?

Totty: Authenticity. Also, that what matters is what's in front of us. In a lot of ways we live in the future. Right? “What am I going to eat for dinner? What am I going to wear? What am I going to do six months from now?” And I think the pandemic was like, “Yeah, that's not promised.” And also that there's still room to shift, grow and to do things differently.

Boden: That's a gift.

Totty: Yeah. Yeah. And that we don't lose that capacity.

This story was produced as part of "Pittsburgh's Missing Bridges," a collaborative reporting project by the Pittsburgh Media Partnership. 

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
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