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More People Are Applying For Marriage Licenses Despite The Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is springtime, the start of wedding season. And yes, with much of the country on lockdown, some couples have put their plans on hold, but not everyone. During the first weeks of the pandemic, courthouses actually saw a spike in marriages. So could this be a sign of love in the time of corona? Well, Abby Wendle from NPR's Invisibilia podcast tried to find out.

ABBY WENDLE, BYLINE: Greg Parks called it a marriage tsunami.

GREG PARKS: I looked up and noticed that our entire waiting area was jammed full of people. And it was...

WENDLE: Oh, my gosh.

PARKS: And it was all couples wanting to get marriage licenses.

WENDLE: As the circuit court clerk in Alexandria, Va., Parks is in charge of the office that grants marriage licenses. He says this February and March, his office issued almost 30% more licenses than the same time last year.

TERRI HOLLINGSWORTH: Apparently, love is in the air, and it continues to go on even during our COVID restrictions.

WENDLE: Terri Hollingsworth is the circuit and county court clerk in Pulaski County, Ark., which includes Little Rock. Her office saw a huge spike the week of St. Patrick's Day, with more couples coming in than did the week of Valentine's Day. And despite being closed to the public, her office continues to issue marriage licenses through a plexiglass window.

HOLLINGSWORTH: We had 16 yesterday - 16 couples. You know, it's just amazing that people are coming outside, risking their life when they're supposed to shelter in place, but they're coming to get married.

WENDLE: The clerks can't be sure why couples would risk it. It could be that one person needs another's health insurance or couples who'd planned to be wed in the coming months rushing to get married in the event they won't be able to, or it could be the spell of love.

GERYLEE BARON: What I refer to as spontaneous love.

WENDLE: Gerylee Baron is a lawyer and court-appointed marriage celebrant in Virginia. In the weeks before the state's lockdown, she and her colleagues saw plenty more couples than usual running to the altar.

BARON: One said she's had an incredible increase of what she refers to as apocalyptic weddings - people that are getting married because they just think it's the end of the world.

WENDLE: End-of-the-world panic love. There's actually some social science to help explain why people might jump into marriage in the face of so much uncertainty.

JAMIE HOLMES: We have this desire to find structure. We have our - a need for closure, a need for answers, a need for order.

WENDLE: Jamie Holmes is a science writer and author of the book "Nonsense: The Power Of Not Knowing," about how people handle uncertainty and how sometimes it handles us. Holmes says people desire answers and that desire is fueled by a psychological mechanism that often makes not knowing or being uncertain really uncomfortable.

HOLMES: There has to be something that is pushing us towards resolution, something that makes uncertainty slightly uncomfortable.

WENDLE: So that we want to make a decision and move on.

HOLMES: So that we act.

WENDLE: Making decisions, of course, isn't a bad thing. But in multiple experiments, researchers found that when we're exposed to an uncertainty that is threatening, like a global pandemic, our discomfort with it starts to grow until we're desperate to end it, which can cause us to jump to conclusions, sometimes in parts of our lives that have literally nothing to do with the uncertainty overwhelming us. As Holmes explains, researchers looking at marriage rates after an earthquake or a hurricane saw them go up, as people were eager to nail down their relationships.

But while many people might be jumping into marriage, Catherine Cohan, a Penn State psychologist, wagers in the long run, there'll be a lot more breakups.

CATHERINE COHAN: I think the safe bets is that divorces are going to go up. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I think marriages are going to go down.

WENDLE: Down because of the pandemic's economic aftershock. Historically, Cohan says, marriage rates fall during downturns.

COHAN: For a lot of people that might have a zero balance in their bank account, I mean, I think this is beyond uncertainty - that this is panic.

WENDLE: But for those in a good place in their relationship and privileged enough to avoid the brunt of the devastation, Cohan says an increased dose of stress and uncertainty can strengthen bonds. That's been the case for couple Tegan (ph) and Nick Burkhart (ph).

TEGAN BURKHART: It's made me more sure than I even was that getting married is the right thing to do, and it doesn't really matter when or how. It's also helped me be even more sure that Nick is my person.

NICK BURKHART: Yeah, I completely agree with what Tegan said.

WENDLE: They'd been engaged for about a year, planned a wedding this May in a church packed with family and friends. But when that became unrealistic, they pivoted.

T BURKHART: I, Tegan...

WENDLE: On a windy day this month, they held a small wedding in the woods in Virginia, just a friend performing the ceremony, another couple as witnesses and Nick and Tegan donning hand-sewn black-and-white satin face masks.

T BURKHART: I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and pandemic and in health. I will love, respect and honor you for all of my life.

WENDLE: In sickness, pandemic and health, I'm Abby Wendle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.