Robert and Carol Powell

Robert and Carol Powell

“We’re rediscovering each other.”

Are divorce rates spiking or declining in this time of the coronavirus pandemic?

The data is inconclusive. Although some media accounts had 2020 divorce rates rising, new data suggest that’s an erroneous conclusion.

According to the Washington Post, the opposite may be true. In October, that newspaper published an American Family Survey that noted 34 percent of married men and women reported increased stress in their marriages due to the pandemic.

The survey also showed, however, that most married Americans believe their unions have gotten stronger, not weaker during this time. Of those surveyed, 51 percent said their commitment to marriage has deepened, with 58 percent saying the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse more.

Robert and Carol Powell are examples of the latter conclusion.

“We’re rediscovering each other,” said Robert Powell, 75, founder and executive director of Portfolio Gallery and Education Center.

Carol Powell, 68, a retired education administrator, wasn’t so sure she and Robert could survive being cooped up together for months on end.

“Initially I thought ‘OMG, how is this going to work?’” Carol recalled. “But it has really strengthened our relationship. It’s made us front and center.”

Carol interprets “front and center” to mean the couple have placed attention on how they exist and communicate while in isolation.

“You know those terms of endearment like, ‘honey’ and ‘dear.’ Well, we try to use those nice, little words now.”

No more parties

The Powells have been married for almost 20 years. They pride themselves on being gracious hosts. Being well-known in St. Louis, they’ve often hosted small and large events for their cadre of education, music, art and political friends.

Both have kids and grandkids from different relationships. The couple admitted that not having friends and family get-togethers has been challenging.

But if they must be in seclusion, the Powells couldn’t be in a better environment. Their beautiful, turn-of-the-century home in the O’Fallon Park neighborhood of St. Louis features three-stories, fireplaces on each level, and an enviable collection of Black art.

Seated on a plush, taupe couch in front of one of Robert’s hand-carved, wooden sculptures with a glass tabletop, the Powells discussed their new normal.

Like the evil wizard Voldemort in the Harry Potter stories, the Powells seem hesitant to mention the pandemic by name. They simply refer to COVID-19 as “it” or “this.”

There’s a silver lining to it, Robert explained:

“There are some things I like about social distancing that I wish would stay. Some people act like nothing’s changed. They’ll walk all up on you without a mask or be hanging in the middle of a grocery aisle wanting to talk.”

Carol had a different take on social distancing.

“I’m a touchy-feely kinda person. Personally, I miss the hugging and approaching and being able to look someone in the eye.”

Me, too,” Robert quickly interjected. “I’m talking about strangers. That’s the distance thing I’m talking about.”

“I know, Honey,” Carol answered, employing one of those “nice, little words.”

More time together

Carol serves on several committees at St. Alphonsus Liguori "The Rock" Catholic Church. Robert said Portfolio and charity work with his fraternity, the local Alpha Phi Alpha chapter, keeps him busy as well. Before the pandemic, the Powells described their interactions as “hit or miss.”

“We didn’t always eat at the same time. I’d be gone or he’d be gone,” Carol explained. “This has made it so we pretty much eat together every day.”

Carol said she’s using cooking skills she honed as the eldest girl in her family of seven kids. She and Robert are also eating healthier these days. Carol said she tries to leave chili or soups in the fridge that Robert can grab whenever he’s hungry.

Surprisingly, Robert admits, they’re eating less, even though they’re stuck in the house.

The seasoned couple do appear fit and trim. Carol attributes her 20-pound weight loss to a regime of fruit smoothies she started making after her cholesterol levels spiked this year. Robert said all the stairs in their house provide all the necessary exercise he needs.

Carol said she empathizes with her husband because he’s not wearing the dapper suits he used to wear throughout the week. Now, Robert goes about his day in casual clothing and sports what he called his “COVID-beard.”

When asked if she likes it, Carol stroked Robert’s beard and laughed.

“Yeah, when it’s trimmed,” she said.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

There’s lots of online advice from relationship experts about helping marriages survive the pandemic. Recommendations include resisting criticism, setting up boundaries in the home for “alone time,” talking through stressful situations and being supportive, respectful, and active with one another.

The Powells seem to have landed on a formula that’s made their union stronger. Robert said he’s rediscovering things about his wife that initially attracted her to him. He appreciates their conversations and Carol’s focus on things she cares about, like him.

An example is how Carol watches sports on TV with him, just to keep him company.

She listed similar compliments, stressing how during the spring and summer, Robert’s dedication to “home projects,” inside and outside, was exemplary and has made their house the envy of several neighbors.

Largely though, Carol credits their isolation success to a popular adage:

“You know that saying, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff?’ Well, it (COVID) has really brought that home for me. Now, everything is small stuff.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.

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