Most people think it’s conflict and argument that lead to divorce. In fact, it’s the decreasing affection and the lack of emotional responsiveness that lead to separation and divorce. In this episode host Jaime Davis discusses the impact of COVID on marriages with licensed marriage and family therapist Caroline Landen.
Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.
Jaime Davis: Welcome to Episode two of Season Four of “A Year and a Day.” I’m your host, Jamie Davis. Today, I’ll be speaking with licensed marriage and family therapist. Caroline Landen. Caroline is the clinical manager at awakenings counseling and the clinical director at counseling near me. Caroline has specialized training in trauma, trauma, recovery, sex therapy, attachment theory, and emotionally focused therapy. Caroline and I will be discussing the impact of COVID on marriages and relationships. Hi, Caroline. Thanks for joining me today.
Caroline Landen: Thanks for having me.
Jaime Davis: So tell our listeners about your practice.
Caroline Landen: So I specialize in couples and sex therapy at the Awakenings counseling center in Raleigh. We also have a location in Durham, Chapel Hill, Greensboro, and because of the pandemic, we’re now also on Telehealth. So at Awakenings, I offer couples sex individual sessions, as well as couple intensive weekends. In addition to the work I do at Awakenings, I’m also the clinical director at counseling near me. And we started counseling near me with the desire to offer the community good counseling. That was not only close by, but also affordable.
Jaime Davis: That’s great. In the past year, have you noticed any changes in the reasons that couples are seeking counseling in general more couples seem to be seeking counseling overall?
Caroline Landen: Couples are reaching out because they’re exhausted just like the rest of us. So as individuals, if we’re exhausted and there’s two people in a couple, and they’re both exhausted individually, the couple’s going to get exhausted as well. The exhaustion seems to have increased anxiety, depression, disconnection. Um, if anything, those are the main reasons couples are reaching out to us. We still see some of the, you know, I’ll call them normal, normal things. Um, probably a decrease in infidelity. Overall, I think people have been home with each other. Um, that does mean an increase in couples reaching out for sex therapy, as well as this kind of last ditch effort of, should we be together? Is this going to work? I don’t know if I can do this anymore. Those kinds of reasons couples seek counseling.
Jaime Davis: So in your experience, how has COVID impacted marriages?
Caroline Landen: So COVID has exposed some of the cracks in our foundation with our marriages. When the pandemic sent most of us home, any of those cracks in the foundation started to get tested. Um, I don’t, I don’t think a year ago, any of us would have realized that we would still be having this exact conversation a year later.
And so in times of crisis, we look towards our relationship for comfort. And one of the most impactful relationships we have is that with our significant other, for most of us, we’re seeing the person we’re married to as who they are at work. All of a sudden we realize we’re married to just one more question, woman, let’s circle back guy. We start to see each other in different places and in different ways that most likely are not familiar to us. So in a time of crisis, we’re looking at this person who’s supposed to be familiar and safe, and we don’t really know who they are.
Jaime Davis: You mentioned that COVID has been exposing cracks in the foundation.When you say cracks in the foundation, what do you mean by that?
Caroline Landen: So, I mean that, I don’t think couples are getting divorced or struggling just because of COVID. I think that for most couples, these disruptions, these cracks were in place long before COVID and what COVID has done is essentially taken away any other coping mechanism we might have.
So, so let’s say that we have this. This disconnection with our partner. And instead of going home after work in the evening to the disconnection, we go to the gym. We’re part of an organization. We go meet friends out for a drink or dinner. When all of that was taken away, our ability to cope with these difficulties was also taken away.
Jaime Davis: I’d like to hear more about that. So are you saying that maybe before in the marriage you had other outlets? You could work longer hours go to the gym, whatever your thing is, maybe it’s hanging out with friends and now because of COVID you’re not able to do those things? And your energy is more focused on your partner?
Absolutely energy, more focused. And if, if systemically, we think of the most stable relationship as a triangle. And so a triangle relationship is when two people can bring something else into their relationship dynamic to decrease anxiety, decreased stress, worry, whatever it might be. Um, the gym is a great example, right? Going out with friends is a good example. This is also where we begin to see infidelity occur, right, if something’s difficult with the marriage. And neither person wants a marriage to end. One person may triangulate a third person in which would be an infidelity to stabilize out the marriage.
Jaime Davis: And so with COVID I know you mentioned you’ve seen a decrease in infidelity, is that making the marriage less stable because that person doesn’t have the outlet of the third person?
Caroline Landen: It’s making the relationship dynamics less stable, which then puts the pressure back on the marriage to meet some of those basic essential needs, which is why people are coming in. Um, it can be a little complicated and, and probably not a popular belief, Jaime, but infidelity in the triangulating of the third person is not like couples are generally in distress initially that funds the distress. But the initial distress is I have a need that my partner’s not meeting. And if my partner doesn’t meet that need, I don’t know what to do.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, I love that you shared that. I actually often say to my clients, you know, if someone comes in and infidelity is an issue, I will say to them, you know, infidelity doesn’t make a bad marriage, right? Like it’s a symptom of a bad marriage.
Caroline Landen: Absolutely. And most marriages that I work with where infidelity has occurred they so badly want it to be a good marriage that they are desperate to do anything to get that need met so that they can stabilize the marriage. And, and the desperation is where the wound comes, right, that if there is an infidelity, generally, it feels like we’ve got to now talk about the pain of the infidelity. It’s very similar to COVID right? Couples are coming in saying, well, COVID did this. COVID did that. So COVID in a way becomes the infidelity that it feels like we need to talk about first to get to the actual wound going on in the marriage.
Jaime Davis: So that’s really interesting. And you mentioned earlier too, that, you know, folks are wanting to make sure that they’re having their basic needs met when you refer to basic needs what are you referring to?
Caroline Landen: Jaime at some point this year, whether it’s working from home loss of income, loss of job security, loss of a loved one fear of the unknown, we’ve all had a moment where we’ve turned to the person that matters most to us and ask this question. Are you there for me? Can I count on you to meet my needs? And that is the basic relational need. If we turn towards our partner and we feel that they are there for us, or we know that they will meet our need, then our body tells us that we are okay. If we turn to them and we get a “no”, if anywhere in our body picks up that our partner is not there, cannot meet our need, our body tells us we’re not okay, and we become to get more and more distressed. And that’s kind of our basic need for connection. And when, what happens that I described above, we get stuck in a negative cycle, and in that negative cycle with our partner, one person generally pushes and the other person generally pulls away.
Jaime Davis: So if you get stuck in that negative cycle, you know, where one partner is pushing and one is pulling away, is there anything you can do to fix it?
Caroline Landen: Yeah so the negative cycle is our individual attempt at balance, right, and since it’s individual, it doesn’t always bring balance to the relationship. So, so Jamie, I think of kind of a metaphor that, you know my car has this lane assist with it, and at times I can take my hands off the steering wheel and it will either vibrate or beep if my car starts to steer too much out of its lane. And if I ignore that beep that’s the individual negative cycle. If I hear the beep put my hands back on the wheel and correct, that is the negative cycle bringing balance back into the relationship.
And what really needs to happen is a way for both people in the relationship to communicate their distress for it to be heard by the other person. In that distress, there’s a need. If the other person hears the need, much like my car beeping at me. And then if we do something different about it, and we correct, then everything’s okay. And that is normal experience for a healthy couple. A healthy couple is going to have a pattern of rupture and repair, right? Trusting the lane assist, if you will.
Jaime Davis: I think that is a great comparison. I mean, it seems like it’s a matter of recognizing the signal and then knowing what it means
Caroline Landen: That’s absolutely the summation of therapy, right? Recognizing the signal and knowing what it means. And if we don’t know what it means, then what we do in our own minds and our own body is we assign meaning to it. And a great example of this is I, I’ll give you the chore, you know, the example that comes up all the time, right? If there’s a sink full of dishes, does it mean that my significant other doesn’t care about me? Doesn’t recognize how busy I am? Doesn’t see that I need help? And if we say all that to ourselves, right, this sink full of dishes right here means that I don’t matter, then we, we get started on the negative cycle.
If we know that the sink of dishes is actually because our partner saw that we were overwhelmed, um, I’m going to give a really kind of silly and straightforward, saw that we were overwhelmed, decided to go get us a coffee, get themselves a coffee, and they’re going to come home and do all the dishes. If that’s what it really means, that feels very different.
Jaime Davis: Absolutely. Why do you think COVID is having such an impact?
Caroline Landen: This is unfamiliar territory. We don’t know what to do. We’re scared. We’ve lost things that used to help us organize and make sense of the world. And in that fear place, in that unknown place, we’re turning towards our partner even more. And we’re asking those basic relational questions, right? The, you know, do I matter to you if I have a need, will the need be met?
And when we slow down enough to ask those questions, Not getting the clear answer, causes the disruption. So if we’re in a state of panic and our partner’s in a state of panic also, how do we both tune into the other person?
Jaime Davis: Since it sounds like COVID is having an impact on relationships, how can a couple tell if it’s time for divorce, or it might be time for divorce, or if they are just feeling these, you know, negative impacts of, of COVID, right? Like the being stuck at home together, then not being able to go to the gym or to your office or wherever. Like how can they tell if it’s truly, you know, time to take that step toward divorce or not?
Caroline Landen: I think for so many couples, the, the sameness of the daily routine right now starts to feel like a fog has set in, and the conflicts and the arguments trigger a fear in them that maybe this means that they’re not good for each other, right? Most people think that conflict and argument is what leads to separation divorce. In fact, it’s the decreasing affection and the lack of emotional responsiveness that lead to separation, divorce, conflict and arguments are the by-product of the decreasing affection and lack of emotional responsiveness.
And so really what the couple needs to figure out, and this is where therapy is extremely helpful, is they need to figure out is there a decrease in affection and a lack of emotional responsiveness, or are they struggling with depression or anxiety, disconnection, fear. And so they really need a way to kind of navigate through the fog of it all. And generally when couples come into the therapy room now, um, the Telehealth room, this is something we can start to figure out within our first few sessions, because one of the things we do in therapy is we provide a space for both partners to be responsive to the other’s needs, to kind of sit in the emotion of what’s going on and see if there can be responsiveness.
Jaime Davis: And so what does it mean if there’s not a responsiveness?
Caroline Landen: So if there’s not a responsiveness, generally we try to figure out why. In therapy we call that a block. So if we might not see responsiveness as therapists, we kind of get curious. We go into the block, explore a little bit more, and if there’s just not any responsiveness, we’re going to get a little bit more curious about that.
And oftentimes that’s when a couple will either say, well, actually I’m really struggling with this, or I, I don’t want to be in this marriage anymore.
Jaime Davis: I’d really like to hear more about that. Can you give me an example of something that might come up where you’re, you know, trying to figure out if there is this responsiveness or not like an actual like topic?
Caroline Landen: So I think the first thing that comes to mind in this past year is, um, the election, right? I, I have some clients who that is their favorite pastime with their partners, they want to talk politics. And then the example that comes to mind is maybe a male partner that wants to talk politics, and they’re getting heated about things and they’re upset.
And the female partner has nothing to say, wants to change the subject, wants to completely avoid it altogether. And now, because things have been so heated right? Now there’s a conflict of, well, maybe we don’t think the same. Maybe we don’t agree. What does this mean? Assumptions are made, fears kind of grow, and in the therapy room, if, or even outside the therapy room, ’cause this does happen outside the therapy room as well, but in the therapy room, what I would want to hopefully help the couple find and create is could she say to her partner something like, you know, when you talk politics, you get so excited and you get so big in your emotions. And I don’t know how to respond. And when I don’t know how to respond, I pull away, I protect myself, I shut down.
And then he might say, well, when you shut down, when you pull away, I think maybe you don’t understand me. So I have to get louder or explain it more without kind of the meaning and knowing about the places that each of them go to, the conflict would persist. That would be a couple that would be able to repair things, right? To be able to say, she could say something like, you know, when, when I hear you talking about politics, I know that it means a lot to you and I really want to respond in a meaningful way, but I don’t know how or vice versa.
Jaime Davis: So is that different from what you mentioned earlier about when there’s a block and you’re trying to figure out the reason for it or, or is that the same situation?
Caroline Landen: The example that comes to mind for me is let’s say that the, the husband and wife have been struggling on and off before COVID. Nothing, nothing too disruptive, you know, disconnected, and the wife has a history of depression and her depression’s gotten worse and COVID, right? She’s been working from home. She’s lost contact with friends, her faith, community. She’s really struggling and he’s trying to make it better.
And he’s read all the books he’s gotten on our website. He’s reached out to us. He really wants to make it better. And you know, let’s say we’re about eight sessions in and she starts complaining about his anger, and he starts saying, yeah, I’m really angry. This, this anger that he has, makes him not want to go home in the evenings. He wants, he’s one of the lucky ones that’s still at work. He wants to stay at work later. He might go get drinks with a colleague, may go to the gym before work in the mornings. And now he’s gone for 12 hours a day. They have small children.
What she may say to herself is because of her depression. He doesn’t want to be with her, when in actuality what was happening is because he can’t make her depression better, cause he feels like no matter what he does, he fails her, it’s too painful for him to be around her without being angry. And maybe he’s scared of his own anger, outburst. And so there might be an increase in conflict and even aggressive moments at home, right? Where he might throw something or slam a door. The hope would be is for them eventually to see that the places they are is it, he has this need to make it better. Or he has a need to know that everything he has to give is good enough and okay. And what’s been so painful for him has no matter what he does is not enough. And if she can see that that pain is what pulls him away from her and the way that he does that is through anger, then there’s hope. There’s hope that they can see and experience emotional responsiveness. If it’s not safe, if the anger continues to escalate if her depression or her, her disconnection escalates, that’s when a couple might get to a point where they might decide or feel like divorce is the only option.
Jaime Davis: So to make sure that I’m understanding you is the key, whether or not there is the emotional responsiveness? And if there’s not, and there’s nothing that can be done to get that back, is that the couple that’s probably headed for divorce?
Caroline Landen: Yes. The key in every relationship is emotional responsiveness. Um, And if they can’t get that back, if they can’t find it, most likely, they’re going to be reaching out to someone in your field, Jamie.
Jaime Davis: If they are feeling some of the impacts of COVID, is there anything that couple can do to help get the marriage back on track so that they don’t need to come see me or another divorce lawyer?
Caroline Landen: Yes, absolutely. Um, We need comfort in contact, right? If, if couples, if any of this sounds familiar to a couple or anyone listening, what is needed is some comforting contact from their significant other, right, to start being able to feel in their body that if they have a need, it will be met 30% of the time. And this is the key here, Jamie, we don’t have a lot of research in the field of therapy that is concrete. This is one of the pieces we have is for attachment to be secure. We need to know 30% of the time that our needs will be met, right? Only in intimate relationships in baseball, I think, can we have such a low percentage and get exactly what we need?
Jaime Davis: Yeah. I was going to say 30% doesn’t seem like a lot.
Caroline Landen: It’s, it’s not a lot, but at the same time, it’s everything. And the comfort in contact doesn’t have to be this big extravagant date night. I like to share examples of my own life. Sometimes I get a book. I, I gave my husband a book for Valentine’s day and normally the book would have stayed exactly where I gave it to him on the kitchen counter. And some point in time between the 14th and the 16th, it got moved to his bedside table. A micro-interaction, right? He hasn’t opened it. He might not ever open it, but the fact that he chose to move it somewhere, a place of importance had tremendous meaning.
Jaime Davis: Well, and he might read it right? If it’s on the bedside table, that sounds like a step in the right direction.
Caroline Landen: You know, it’s a step in the right direction. It’s, it’s on top of a book I gave him last year for his birthday, but he gets yet to read that is a, a fun book. So, you know, the hope is in the action itself, right? And it was such a micro-interaction. And then, you know, I did go back to him and just let him know that, like, that meant so much.
I was so appreciative and he looked a little confused when he looked at me, right? And I was like, nope, I’m just going to walk away. This was a good moment. I’m good. And I’m gonna pretend that it was intentional.
Jaime Davis: I like it. I think that’s great. Switch gears a little bit. You mentioned Telehealth earlier and I’m sure that has become much more prevalent during COVID. What are your thoughts on how effective Telehealth is for marriage counseling?
Caroline Landen: Um, I think it’s incredibly effective. I have not seen a couple face to face for almost a year now. Um, and at first a few of my clients were very hesitant. They said things like, well, you know, we’ll give this three or four weeks and then we’ll see you back in the office. Jamie it did help. I did some tele-health before, um, COVID forced us into Telehealth. The kind of therapy I do is called emotionally-focused therapy. It is very emotionally driven. It’s very feeling driven. We feel a lot in the therapy session and everything I feel with my clients is just as strong via telehealth as it was in the office, if not stronger. I sit significantly closer to my computer just by the very nature of how computers are set up, than I would sit with my clients in the therapy room.
And in fact, I’ve often thought that when we do go back in the therapy room, I’ve got to change my comfy couch chair in the corner kind of set up, because it’s too far away. I can tell ’cause I can feel when my clients are experiencing something, um, you know, the most difficult part of Telehealth is the technology itself. What happens when we have a bad connection? What happens if, for some reason, something doesn’t work that day. So we do have to have backup plans, but it’s been much more effective than I could’ve ever imagined I would be answering this question year ago.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. I’m wondering too, if people are just more comfortable, you know, since it does seem little less pressure, a little more disconnected if you will, to be talking to the computer rather than, you know, having to necessarily look your therapist in the eye. I don’t know. Do you think that’s, it has something to do with it?
Caroline Landen: I think it absolutely does. And I think it’s also more convenient, right? We don’t have to leave work, get in our cars, drive to the therapist, meet our partner there, right? We can either come home from work and be in therapy. Um, you know, do it from the comfort of her couch. A lot of couples, the only place they have to sit is maybe their bedroom. Um, surprisingly the car has become the new kind of therapy location for couples because it is private. I believe to a certain degree Telehealth is here to stay for some clients. I, I have some clients who will never go back to seeing me in the office, and that’s perfectly fine with me.
I will tell you, I, when we do go back to the office, I will miss my client’s pets. Because their pets have been such a good indicator of the live emotion in the room. It is very difficult to be sad and there be a dog in the room and the dog not trying to come comfort you. And that’s been pretty remarkable to see with my clients and help their partners see too. Right, like just saying like your dog saw your husband’s emotion and came over and said, I see your need. You look sad. Let me lick you to make it better. Right, why are our animals so perceptive to our needs? And it’s so difficult for each other.
Jaime Davis: Yeah that’s really powerful. I mean, I can see where that would maybe cause the other partner to wake up and take a second, look at the situation.
Caroline Landen: Absolutely. And just give a good cue. Sometimes we need cues to know how to respond. I was, I was in a meeting and a cat kept going over to the person, and this was a supervision meeting. And I said, every time we talk about a different, difficult case or, or something going on, your cat comes over. And I got an email from that therapist later in the week saying she couldn’t stop thinking about when her cat came over to check on her, and what this is kind of telling her about herself as a person and a therapist. Lots to learn from our pets.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, absolutely. Well, it’s time for the final four. Um, I have four questions that I am asking each guests this season, just to get everyone’s different perspectives since the season is really focused on thriving and self-care. Um, the first question is what are your self-care go-tos?
Caroline Landen: I have to get outside. I sit in the same room all day long and whenever I can just get outside, and sometimes even if I have two minutes, I will run out to my front porch, take a deep breath of air, and come back inside. Um, getting outside, deep breathing. I am a big music person for my mood. I like to listen to music to kind of help organize and make sense of where I am. You know, and a little exercise and a little play. I love goofing off at the end of the day with my little ones.
Jaime Davis: What have you discovered about yourself during the pandemic?
Caroline Landen: Life has slowed down enough during the pandemic that I’ve gotten to feel more like myself, who I was and what was important to me prior to becoming a mom and getting married. I’ve been doing the things that I used to love to do. Um, I refinished furniture over the past weekend and I don’t think I’ve done that in like seven years. Yeah just kind of this reconnection with self.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, that’s great. Have you acquired any strange pandemic habits?
Caroline Landen: I kind of reconnected with a strange habit from graduate school. When I was stressed and overwhelmed at the end of the day, I would listen to this playlist that I kind of compiled, and I’ve compiled this really strange pandemic playlist, and listening to it, no matter what’s going on, listening to it, everything feels okay. And it is. It’s different than my grad school one, Jamie, it’s strange. It’s got Fleetwood Mac, Drowning Pool, Hamilton, Dolly Parton, and almost this synchronicity that whatever song plays, I kind of feel like that’s a song that I need to do.
Jaime Davis: I was going to say music for every mood. I like it.
Caroline Landen: Yes. Music for every mood.
Jaime Davis: All right. So when this is all over, where would you like to travel?
Caroline Landen: I would like to go on a trip that was planned and canceled from the pandemic. Um, my whole family. So my little family of four, my sister, my parents, we had planned a trip to Germany that was at the time, very much centered around castles and hiking, ’cause I have two little girls and I hope to take that trip and take it with an idea of, okay, this is what was planned when I had a five and a two and a half year old. Now, however old they are, this is what’s going to be planned. So I’m kind of excited to see how the planning differs and just take the trip with wherever we are.
Jaime Davis: Well, I hope for you and your family, that you get to go on your trip and the not so distant future, that sounds like a wonderful time.
Caroline Landen: Me too.
Jaime Davis: Well, Caroline, thank you for joining me today. If any of our listeners would like to contact you, what is the best way for them to reach you?
Caroline Landen: So the best way to get in touch with me is to either email me directly at email@example.com or go to our website: www.awakeningscenter.org.
Jaime Davis: I hope you all found this episode of “A Year and a Day” to be helpful. If you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As a reminder, while in my role as a lawyer, my job is to give folks legal advice, the purpose of this podcast is not to do that. This podcast is for general informational purposes only, should not be used as legal advice, and is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have questions before you take any action, you should consult with a lawyer who is licensed in your state.