Andrew Learned proposes to Amanda Stetson last summer on Portland’s Eastern Prom, as Stetson’s daughter Lola reacts. The couple only started dating during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Amanda Stetson

Andrew Learned says he probably asked Amanda Stetson out on dates about 20 times over the last 15 years, with her choosing friendship over romance each time.

But last year, with COVID-19 shutting the world down and forcing people to focus on what’s important to them, they started talking more, then dating. In August, the Falmouth couple got engaged and in November they were married.

“I guess it took a global pandemic to make her see what she had in me,” joked Learned, 34.

As the world marks the first Valentine’s Day during this pandemic, it’s apparent the crisis has slowed down romance for some – as evidenced by a 17 percent drop in Maine marriages in 2020 and a slew of wedding cancellations – but for others, it has intensified relationships. It has prompted people – who might not have otherwise – to start dating, move in together or get married. The social isolation of the pandemic has also compelled single people to get more creative about dating, talking more on the phone and doing more outdoor activities. People who run dating or matchmaking services say business is brisk.

Andrew Learned and Amanda Stetson got engaged on Portland’s Eastern Prom last summer. The couple have been friends for years but only started dating during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Amanda Stetson

But it has intensified relationships for the worse, too. Maine divorce lawyers and marriage counselors say they are busier than ever. Recorded divorces in Maine were down by about 39 percent in 2020, according to totals compiled by the state, but that is likely because Maine courts were closed for more than two months last year and are now facing case backlogs. Plus, divorce cases often take at least eight to 10 months to finalize. So the true impact of the pandemic on divorce rates might not be known until next Valentine’s Day.

“By June of last year, my phones were ringing off the hook and I don’t know another family lawyer around here who wasn’t slammed,” said Ken Altshuler, a Portland divorce and family lawyer and former talk show host on Portland radio station WGAN. “Before the pandemic, I was getting maybe one new client a week, now it’s more like three a week. ”

PANDEMIC PRESSURES

Marriages in Maine dropped from 9,481 in 2019 to 7,900 in 2020, about 17 percent, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. Divorces in Maine during the same period went from 4,077 to 2,489, a decrease of about 39 percent.

While complete national numbers for marriages and divorces in 2020 aren’t out yet, several other states saw drops similar to Maine’s, according to a study by Bowling Green State University in Ohio that was released in January. The study looked at data in New Hampshire, Arizona, Florida, Missouri and Oregon, and found decreases in both marriages and divorces in those states. The study found that financial difficulties may be forcing some couples to stay together when they might otherwise divorce.

“It’s a double-edged sword because financial problems are the No. 1 reason people get divorced, but it’s very expensive to get divorced, $5,000 to $10,000 for many,” said Altshuler.

Sindee Gozansky, a psychotherapist based in Cape Elizabeth, said the pressures causing relationship problems have only increased as the pandemic has gone on. Parents have been dealing with kids’ remote learning and spending more time with their partners than ever before.

Gozansky said she is constantly hearing from other Maine counselors and therapists about how busy they are with couples now and are regularly looking to refer new clients to other practices.

But Gozansky and other therapists say there may be some upside to the impact the pandemic has had on couples, many of whom say they are grateful for their partner during such tough times. An American Family Survey released this month found that 65 percent of married couples polled say the pandemic has made them appreciate their spouse more.

Gregin Doxsee and her husband, John Keimel, at Doxsee’s restaurant, Bueno Loco Restaurante in Falmouth. The couple, who were domestic partners and lived together for several years, decided to get married in May. The pandemic and the fear of getting sick were a big part of their decision to get married. “We really wanted to be able to advocate for each other if something were to happen,” Doxsee said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

STICKING WITH YOU

Appreciating what you have in a partner was a theme for a lot of Maine couples this past year. Gregin Doxsee and John Keimel of South Portland had been together for 15 years and lived together for about eight when the pandemic started. They both had been married before and had children, and didn’t see a need to get married again.

As they read about climbing numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, they began to think about what might happen if one of them got sick. They wanted to make sure they could do everything they could, legally and emotionally, for each other.

“It was really scary those first few months and made everybody confront their own mortality. It made us think about it differently,” said Doxsee, 54, owner of Bueno Loco Restaurante in Falmouth.

“We were still in love and if you can hold on to that for that long, than why not?” said Keimel, radio operations director at Maine Public. “If I’m in the hospital dealing with COVID, I’d much rather be telling people, ‘This is my wife.’ ”

So, in May, they got married in a friend’s yard, with a total crowd of six.

For Stetson, it wasn’t just appreciating what she had in her friend, Learned; it was seeing him in a new light shone by the pandemic. The two had met at the University of Tampa and had become “best friends.” Stetson, originally from Cape Elizabeth, got married, had twins and later divorced and moved back to Maine. She kept in touch with Learned over the years, but always considered him a friend.

During the pandemic, with no place to go and little to do, they started talking more and more on the phone. Stetson said the conversations, during a time of global crisis, were eye-opening for her.

“I think being home and having so much time to talk to him was huge. I got to know him so much better and realized he had all the qualities I was hoping for” in a partner or husband, said Stetson, 34, who works as a financial adviser. “I fell in love with him.”

Learned, who runs a tutoring business and is a state representative in Florida (where he’ll continue to live part-time), came to Maine last summer to visit. While on a walk on the Eastern Promenade in Portland in August, he surprised Stetson by getting down on one knee, holding out a ring and proposing. In back of him stood Stetson’s 8-year-old son, Flynn, holding a sign that read, “Say Yes.”

They got married in November in Florida, near where Learned is from, with less than a dozen friends and family in attendance for the beach ceremony. In normal times, they would have invited a lot more people. But these are not normal times.

Valerie and Troy Jellison had to postpone a big June wedding on a farm, and a honeymoon to Greece and Italy, because of the pandemic. Instead, they held a small wedding at Spring Point in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Valerie and Troy Jellison of South Portland had planned a fairly large wedding for June 20, 2020, with about 100 people at a farm in Oxford. They also had booked a 10-day honeymoon, with stops in Italy and Greece. They had begun planning their big day in March of 2019 and in March of 2020 had invitations ready to mail out.

Soon after all the COVID-19 shutdowns in mid-March last year, they realized they’d have to postpone the wedding, and the honeymoon. But they did not want to postpone the start of their married life together. So, on June 19, the day before their wedding was supposed to be, they eloped. They left their home and traveled about a mile to the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse near Southern Maine Community College, where they got married in front of about a dozen friends and family.

“The pandemic changed our view of the wedding. We knew this is what’s important to us, having close friends and family,” said Valerie Jellison, 30, who works in finance for the town of Falmouth.

The couple is planning to hold an outdoor one-year anniversary party, with maybe 40 people, in June. Valerie Jellison says she thinks the party will be more relaxed and fun for her and her husband than a big wedding would have been.

“The pressure’s off, we’re already married,” she said.

But some people who postponed weddings last year are still unmarried. Liz Kilkenny and Kevin Reynolds of Springvale were planning to get married in North Conway, New Hampshire, on March 28, 2020. They were forced to postpone and circumstances have kept them from setting a new date.

Kilkenny, 35, had started her own marketing and consulting business just before the pandemic, and her income was drastically reduced. It was the same for Reynolds, who was starting his own plumbing business. The couple has five children between them, so remote learning has taken up a lot of their time as well.

“There are just so many unknowns right now,” Kilkenny said about why they have not set a new date.

But many people with postponed weddings must have been confident enough about getting married at some point; the wedding band business was still good in 2020, at least at Day’s Jewelers, said Leo Gerrior, manager of the South Portland location.

When the pandemic began, Gerrior said people were canceling wedding band orders as their plans got pushed back. But then more and more people started reinstating orders, or putting in new ones.

“A lot of people started telling us, they’ll order the bands anyway, and do some small wedding or elope,” said Gerrior. He added that the pandemic shutdowns seemed to create a pent-up demand for wedding bands and engagement rings, and by the end of 2020, Day’s stores had seen increases in sales over previous years.

But it’s not just established couples who have made lifelong commitments during the pandemic. Noreen Rochester, who runs Cara Matchmaking in Portland, knows of people who met and got engaged since COVID-19 surfaced in Maine almost a year ago. Rochester said she’s seen about a 25 percent increase in her business in the past year. She sees about three new people a day most days, interviewing them for two hours or so to help her match them with somebody. She has enough inquiries to see five people a day, if she had more time, she said.

Rochester does a lot of the leg work people would have to do themselves on a dating app, finding out about backgrounds, likes and dislikes, and interests of the parties involved. She thinks more people are using her service, as well as dating apps nationally, partly because the pandemic has been so isolating.

“I think people are so sick and tired of being alone and want to see someone, face to face,” she said.

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