The other day my sister Amy said, “If you’re still together in the pandemic, you’re doing great.” Our relationship standards are lower for sure. Hot sex? Probably not. The pandemic isn’t hot. Date night? If you can find the energy to get out of your sweats, maybe. Couples are just getting through this thing. Hopefully, people are also being a little bit more generous and kind with each other knowing that we’re in this for the long haul. But honestly, if couples are still civil with one another, that’s an accomplishment.
Thinking about how couples are fairing these days made me think about pioneer times. I have a small obsession with the pioneers. I love Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I watched Little House on the Prairie religiously. I thought Ma and Pa were the perfect parents and I felt that Laura was a true kindred spirit (it helped that we had the same name.) Life was hard then, but simple. Once the land was settled, they needed to build a temporary structure and barn for the horses to get through the first long winter. When the weather warmed enough, work began to build a real house that everyone could live in. Then it was time to clear the fields for planting.
Building a permanent barn and fencing for the crops would have to wait until the following spring. Things moved slowly because each little settling family was on their own. They had to make do with what they had. Families were stuck together in pioneer times. Their survival depended on it. Ma and Pa were always loving and supportive of each other, and Mary, Laura, and Carrie helped out as much as they could.
In some ways, we’re like pioneers these days, except we have a lot of technology and creature comforts. We’re little isolated units surviving on our own. We have to depend on the people in our homestead, just like in Little House on the Prairie. Back then, if Ma was tired of Pa complaining about her cooking she’d never ask for a divorce. Where would she go?
According to one study, divorce rates during the pandemic have actually gone down 34%. Our economy is in the toilet and many people, especially women, have lost their jobs. Looking for a new place to live, much less afford one, when there is a lockdown, is next to impossible. Getting a divorce right now simply isn’t realistic from a practical standpoint. But I wonder if there’s something else happening.
I know a lot of couples who are climbing the walls, some even contemplating divorce, but because splitting up is not easy right now people are trying everything else first. Times were really hard for Laura Ingalls when she first married Almanzo Wilder. They moved around the midwest — South Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri. Almanzo got diphtheria and became partially paralyzed. They lost a son and both their barn and house burned down. They struggled with issues we cannot imagine in our comfortable, modernized lives.
For them, staying together was an absolute necessity. I wonder if the same thing is going on for many couples now. Will we see a surge in divorces when the pandemic is over? Or will people have acclimated to this new way of life — — hard, but simple?
We’re all learning about ourselves during this pandemic. And, if we’re in a cohabitating relationship, we’re learning about that person as well, maybe more than we want. We’re spending a lot of time together, doing our best in our relationships. We’re in our own little version of pioneer times so we’re trying to work it out or doing our best until we can get the heck out.
I wonder if couples are, out of necessity, just trying a little harder. Perhaps they’re just managing for longer than they thought they could. Maybe we’re all getting a little bit tougher in the pandemic, dealing with things we didn’t know we had the fortitude to deal with before. Only time will tell when we see what happens to our divorce rate in a few years.
And I wonder if there had been less isolation, less dependence on each other in pioneer times if divorce would have been an option. I read a lot about Laura Ingalls Wilder as I was thinking about writing this piece. She was a scrappy, determined woman who lived during a time when surviving meant enduring hardships that many of us would turn away from if we had the choice.
After many years of struggle, the Wilders finally settled permanently in Missouri. They used all of the skills they’d garnered from settling different terrains over the years and built a successful farm and a ten-room farmhouse. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote throughout her life as much as she could, but her work settling the land and farming came first. It had to. I wonder if Laura Ingalls Wilder was happy. Despite her ultimate success with her husband, did she ever fantasize about living her life differently, away from Almanzo? Did she wish she could spend more time on her writing than on perfecting her poultry and cattle expertise?
Laura Ingalls Wilder eventually partnered with her daughter Rose to write and publish the prolific body of work we now know so well. Rose moved to San Francisco, got married, had a baby. And got divorced.