Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. In our past instalments over the last year we’ve covered everything from the effect of lockdown on divorces to whether they’re contagious and have now spoken to dozens of women – including one whose husband announced he was leaving her to have an open relationship with a 19-year-old and another who was quite literally ghosted by her own husband.
If you have a topic you’d like to discuss, share your thoughts, experience or advice about, drop a line to [email protected] with ‘Divorce’ in the subject line. All stories that are published will win a Dermalogica BioLumin-C Moisturiser, valued at $119!
This week we talk to Jen*, who is in the process of divorcing her husband over a contentious topic – he’s a Covid-19 nay-sayer, who is vehemently against getting the vaccine, or allowing their three children to get it. We talk to Divorce Coach Bridgette Jackson who says there are plenty more couples where Jen and Paul come from too…
Jen and Paul had disagreed on just a few things during their 10-year marriage – they’d butted heads when it came to choosing a song for their first dance at their wedding; what to name their third child and when it came to setting the temperature of their heat pump.
But they’d only ever really been minor squabbles – that is, until about three years ago, when Jen noticed a few changes in Paul and started to feel as though the man she knew so well, was slipping away from her.
It came around the time that his brother, Ben, moved back home from overseas – the pair had been very close when they were younger, but hadn’t talked much while he’d been away. “Paul – typical male – didn’t keep in touch much,” says Jen. “But Ben stayed with us when he got back and they were joined at the hip again.”
Except Jen found that her brother-in-law wasn’t exactly the guy he was when he left. “I mean, there were things about him that annoyed me before,” she says. “I dunno… something about the way he treated women wasn’t good and when he moved in, he expected me to wait on him and Paul. That’s not how our relationship operated, and it’s definitely not how I was brought up. A marriage is two equal partners, y’know?”
But besides his antiquated, quite misogynistic views, Ben now also had some quite different political views all of a sudden and was talking a lot about quite far-fetched conspiracy theories. Some of them were so insane they made Jen laugh – but she noticed Paul wasn’t laughing.
“That’s when it started,” says Jen. “I would never have picked him as someone to fall down that rabbit hole, but he followed Ben right down there.”
It started off relatively innocuously and Jen figured Paul was just enamored by his big brother and it’d wear off when they stopped spending so much time together. But months later, Paul had become a massive Trump supporter and was well down the QAnon rabbit hole. He’d stopped spending time with his old friends and now was online chatting a lot to people overseas and was spending most of his time with Ben.
“It just… sucked,” says Jen. “He called me a sheep, all the time. It was… crazy and really quite scary. He was pissed off that I didn’t want to hear about any of it and that most of it made me roll my eyes or just feel disgusted by what he was believing.”
Which is about when Covid-19 really started to ramp up and Paul’s extreme views really kicked into hyperdrive.
“He thought the whole thing was a conspiracy that big pharma and the governments cooked up together.”
“Oh, he thought the whole thing was a conspiracy that big Pharma and the governments cooked up together right from the start,” she says.
Which is when Jen really could no longer cope, particularly because – wait for it – Jen works as a nurse. And added to that, her mother is also in the industry, working as a specialist (we won’t disclose her area of medical expertise to keep the family’s anonymity, but it has meant she has been deeply involved in the response to Covid-19).
Jen hated leaving the house for work, because she worried what Paul would say to the children while she was gone – or what he might do to put them at risk.
Meanwhile, after each of her shifts she’d go to lengths to do her best not to bring the virus home. Before she came inside she’d go to the laundry, put her clothes in the wash, scrub her skin using a bucket of water with soap, disinfect the entire laundry then change into fresh clothes. Paul thought she was absolutely ridiculous. Sometimes he’d hear her come home and rush down try to get to her before she went into the laundry to “prove there was nothing to catch”.
“He told our eldest that everything her teachers were saying was rubbish,” she says. “He’d fly off the handle if anyone wanted to watch the news and raved through the 1pm updates, which I encouraged my daughter to watch with me. I wanted her to see the truth and what her mum was fighting against.”
“I saw cases of Covid-19 firsthand at my work. I saw what this virus does to people! I know how dangerous it can be.”
Jen says she talked to her mother a lot about what they both saw at work and supported one another – it was a heavy time and they needed an outlet. But it was quite some time before she admitted to her mother what was going on with Paul.
“Mum couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I was so embarrassed. He wouldn’t listen to the facts. Even though the facts were coming from my own lived experience – and his mother-in-law! I was terrified I would bring Covid into our home, but here he was, denying that it even exists.”
When the Pfizer vaccine became available in New Zealand they had one hell of a row. Jen was obviously keen to be first in line as soon as she possibly could. But Paul believed the vaccines were not to be trusted and argued that there was a mass coverup happening and people were dying from the vaccine in scores.
“Sometimes I’d entertain it,” says Jen, “to try to understand what he was hearing that was so compelling and where it was coming from. Every source was from a blog made to look like a news site, but was really just some hack, with no experience on the ground or as a medical professional, spouting garbage. I mean, he did find stories about some doctors – if they were even doctors – who were ‘speaking out’, but they hardly seemed reputable and they were alongside other doctor’s words which were taken out of context. Plus, the data was completely made up.”
Anything Jen showed him from credible sources he waved off as being from the “corrupt mainstream media”. Jen tried to challenge him many times – asking how it would be possible for so many organisations: media companies, politicians and medical professionals (including his own family) to all come together and collude to carry out such and organised web of lies.
“How could 100% of those people want to lie? People who take sacred oaths? People who do their jobs because they want to help people? To tell people the truth? How could that many people convinced to lie? And what for? For money?? Who would be paying every single person off? Where was MY money?”
“He’d tell me I was part of the conspiracy and that my mother was being paid off and so was my hospital – the money just wasn’t trickling down and I was brainwashed.”
Having desperately been hoping that one day they’d wake up and Paul would have suddenly snapped out it, Jen realised this was the reality they were living in, and she had to get out. After a few horrible months, she told Paul it was over and he’d have to move out.
“He didn’t actually put up much of a fight – he knew it was coming,” she says. “He wasn’t happy about being the one who had to move out, but his brother was only too happy to take him in. I talked to a lawyer beforehand and they said I would be in a better position if I stayed in the marital home.”
Paul and Jen are now trying to co-parent their children – but Jen is constantly terrified by the fact that Paul is unvaccinated, and that he has such disregard for Covid-19 that he willingly puts himself in harm’s way.
“He doesn’t wear a mask,” she says. “He goes to every rally. It’s like he wants to get the virus to try to prove that it’s fine.”
Jen has a lawyer, but she feels so upset – and humiliated – that she is having to go through the court system. Particularly as Paul does not want their kids receiving the vaccine – something she desperately hoped would happen before they start back at school this year.
Jen and Paul’s situation is incredibly sad and does sound like quite an unusual, extreme situation, but, talking to Equal Exes’ Divorce Coach, Bridgette Jackson, she says she has many new clients who are splitting because of their vaccine views, or trying to salvage their relationships while they have such polarizing views – or, who are divorced and trying to reach an agreement on whether to get their kids vaccinated.
She says that for the most part, couples who are splitting over their vaccine stance have already had some quite major cracks or issues in their partnership beforehand.
“This just further polarises the relationship,” she says. “If a couple have different viewpoints, their relationship will start to break down or amplify already existing issues in the relationship. For many couples, they will not have faced such an important decision that will have far reaching consequences now and into the future.”
Bridgette says she is now regularly seeing these cases in her practice – particularly after the Christmas break brought to light the consequences of not being vaccinated.
“Some people saw Christmas as a difficult time, being asked about their vaccination status by friends and family and if not vaccinated, not be able to attend or asked to sit outside for celebrations.”
She says it’s put strain on relationships where only one partner has been vaccinated, because of the many social implications – from not being able to go out for dinner, or attend celebrations with family or friends. It’s meant some friends have not wanted to meet up with the couple. For some relationships, it’s also cost some partners their jobs, putting a real financial strain on the partnership.
Her advice to couples who disagree on this subject, is to make sure that first things first, you each process your feelings around the topic. She then suggests really weighing up the pros and cons of having a difference in opinion and what impact that difference will have. “For example – will it impact the family? Mean not having a family? Will it impact job security, or where you want to live in the future? How will it impact your relationship and your shared goals?”
Bridgette says she is working with couples who are trying to keep their relationship afloat as they try to work out how they can remain a couple, without having a shared viewpoint – which is actually something that can come up at any stage of a relationship over a variety of different issues.
She says it’s important to understand that you both may have different feelings about the pandemic.
“Let your partner feel the way they feel good or bad. Remember that it’s normal not to see eye-to-eye about most things in times of stress, in fact life in general. If you aren’t on the same page as your partner try and have some empathy for the way they are looking at the situation you find yourselves in. Actively listen to what they are saying and reframe it – saying it back to them in your own words.”
But the issue becomes particularly murky when it’s not just about what you choose for yourself, but what you choose when children are involved. Then, she encourages couples to really consider each other’s viewpoint. “What does the other person’s decision look like for the children? Ask yourself ‘am I acting in my best self’ on this decision? You should be able to look back and have no regrets on how you behaved during the process.”
Often, couples still aren’t able to see eye-to-eye on the topic and in that instance Bridgette always encourages couples to try mediation as a next step.
It’s an issue that is now being seen in family court in NZ and Bridgette says it can become very murky.
“New Zealand law states that children under the age of 16 years may give or withhold consent to healthcare treatment if they are deemed competent to do so,” she says. “It is then the role of a healthcare professional to decide if the child is competent to make that decision.”
It’s a process Jen was desperately hoping she might be able to avoid going through, but now – with the help of her lawyer – is well down the track on.
“It makes me desperately sad, but I’m trying to do right by my children,” she says. “One of them has asthma and it worries me what could happen. I have to keep my job – particularly now that I am single – but my job means that the risk of bringing home this virus is very real. I want to know that I’ve done everything I can to keep my children safe, while I’m doing my bit to make sure other New Zealanders are well taken care of when they get sick.”
*Names have been changed