Globally, 2020 saw relationship counsellors, divorce coaches and lawyers have one of their biggest years ever, thanks to the pandemic and extended lockdowns. Now, in NZ – particularly Auckland – many of the relationships that got through last year unscathed have been cracking under the pressure. So what can we do to protect our relationships? We talk to the experts – and the couples in the trenches.
When lockdown lifted last year, Lisa was feeling a little smug. She kept her feelings to herself, of course, but as she listened to her friend’s complain about how bad things had got between their partners (she had two friends who seemed to be on the verge of separation), she couldn’t help but feel a bit pleased with herself that her relationship had come through unscathed.
“We got through last year – it was a piece of cake, relationship-wise,” she tells. “So my relationship wasn’t on the list of things I was worried about this year.”
And sure enough, during the first few weeks of Level 4 lockdown this year, things seemed to be on an even keel with her husband, Mike. Surely lockdown wouldn’t last for long, she figured. In fact, it was almost a novelty at the beginning. She found a giant puzzle they hadn’t started, which the kids loved putting together – as well as turning their kitchen into a “famous restaurant” and meticulously planning (and drawing/designing) menus for each night of the week.
But slowly and surely a sense of dread began to set in as the weeks went by and the 1pm press conferences brought no joy. “The kids not being able to go to school was probably the hardest,” says Lisa. “It was okay for the first few weeks, because in my mind it was just going to be short thing to endure – particularly when at first I thought it was just one week, and then just two weeks to get through.”
But as time dragged on, it began getting serious – she no longer felt like it was wise to let them be watching movies or playing on their iPads so much. That feeling of, ‘oh, they’re only missing out on a little bit of schooling’ began to wear thin. The school year was ticking along, and she worried they’d be left behind.
Lisa, a teacher herself, was caught juggling her own students and home-schooling her own kids, who seemed to be dished out an awful lot of “independent learning” days.
Mike, a lawyer, was constantly on the phone and in important meetings with the door to their makeshift home-office shut – and often locked.
“It was like his job suddenly became so much more important than mine,” she says. “Like it was fine for me to spend the day being interrupted by our kids, but way too unprofessional for him to have a kid burst into the room saying they’re hungry, or don’t understand an equation, or are bored, or asking if they can watch TV.”
She brought it up with him a lot at first, “but he’d just say something along the lines of, ‘Jesus! I’m on a client call, Lisa!’” And eventually, Lisa stopped bringing up how unfair it was and how much she was struggling – and instead moved on to her current go-to: quietly seething (particularly when he complains about how stressed he is).
Now, by night-time she has almost nothing to say to him. “Even if things were going well, there wasn’t much to talk about – neither of us has been anywhere, seen anyone and all there is to talk about was the pandemic, lockdown and how we were going to get through it,” she says. “Except that isn’t a conversations we can have, because it would only end in an argument and him saying something like, ‘I really should be working right now anyway,’ and retreating to his office.”
Lisa is feeling more alone than ever, and now she’s the one trying to get out of earshot of her family to have a cry to her girlfriends about how she can’t cope much longer.
“The shoe is definitely on the other foot this lockdown,” she says. “I’ve been stressed for so long now, I don’t really even know who I am anymore.”
At Capsule last year we talked a lot about the impact lockdowns had on couples and how some were buckling under the pressure. For some, it revealed cracks that were already well entrenched in the relationship – in some cases it even brought to light nasty secrets and extramarital affairs.
As last year’s lockdown came to an end, Steven Dromgol, the Director at Relate – who provide relationship and marriage counselling – told us he had seen a distinct pattern occurring.
“In general it seems that whatever you had before, you now have quite a lot more of – so, if it was a good relationship, and you were able to support each other, enjoy more time together, have that discovery of cooking together, going for walks – there’s almost a new lease of life in the relationship.”
But conversely, “If you were in a relationship where one of you was quite ambivalent or there was quite a lot of disconnection – or even worse, open conflict – that feeling that you were stuck together and just couldn’t get away from one another made it a lot worse.”
So what’s happened this year? We’ve watched the world go through intense, prolonged lockdowns – which, as a result, saw divorce coaches, relationship counsellors and divorce lawyers have one of their busiest years on record in 2020.
And now, as New Zealand is undergoing our longest stint in lockdown, it seems that some of those relationships that were able to scrape by last time – during a lockdown that was relatively short in comparison – have not been so lucky this time round.
“The current Covid stress has magnified relationship issues together with the fact that people generally do not deal with such issues until it is too late,” tells divorce coach Bridgette Jackson of Equal Exes.
Bridgette has again seen women – and a few men – reach out for advice and help during this time. Although she has the word ‘divorce’ in her job title, for Bridgette there’s no greater happy ending than seeing a couple find their way back to each other. When women first reach out to her it’s often in the early stages, when they’re just thinking about whether they need to separate or not and she works with them to see if there’s still hope for staying in their relationship.
This time, she’s seeing people are stressed. What she’s hearing from her clients is that life has changed from as we knew it, and there’s a lot on their minds. “Interest rates are rising, house prices are continuing to rise and it’s reported we’re entering a recession,” she tells. “All these factors impact the future and are outside of people’s control.”
“Plus, working from home, with children, and the vaccinated vs. unvaccinated debate also change the dynamics in a relationship and affect their immediate and wide family and relationships. This can all create conflict and mixed messaging.”
To add to the pressure, those with children are deeply concerned about the impact it’s having on them. “No matter their age, children are unsettled,” she says. “And these combined factors along with continued lockdowns and uncertainty place stress on a relationship, making communication more important and also harder.”
At this point in the lockdown, when she’s talking to clients who are struggling in their relationships she gets them to take a look at what happened in 2020. “I encourage people to think about what worked for them as a couple during the last lockdown,” she says. “What did they do that made their relationship last, last time?”
And while communication has always been key to having a successful relationship, it’s becoming crucial to getting through prolonged lockdown. In times of crisis – like now! – couple’s need to have tools they can rely on to effectively communicate with each other, no matter how difficult the situation may be.
“Couples need to have a plan and one that can be put into place when things really start to go wrong in different areas,” says Bridgette.
So, what’s the best approach for couples – like Lisa and Mike – who are really struggling right now, but ultimately, want to stay together? Here, Bridgette shares a few of her best tips.
Bridgette Jackson’s Six Tips For Couples Who Want to Stay Together
Forget criticism during a time of crisis – especially when it comes to money. Instead focus on appreciating what your partner does for you and your family, even if it is not exactly how you would approach certain things, like housework. ‘Thank you’ and ‘I appreciate you’ go a long way. The old saying never go to bed angry with each other rings true and instead think about and tell your spouse two positive things about them from that day.
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, or in fact, in 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. If you can’t do that say something like “I can see and feel that you are really stressed” so they feel supported even if you find it difficult to relate to their feelings about the crisis.
Make time to have time alone without each other This is the best thing you can do – everyone needs time out from each other even if it just 30 minutes. Forget the chores or tending to children. Focus on you – find the solitude in something you love doing – go for a walk, lie on your bed – just do something where you can’t see or hear each other. Make sure they also have some time alone to do something for themselves, time out will strengthen your relationship as it gives you both space to let some of those big emotions cool-off, you can then both come back and reconnect.
Have your arguments away from the children Do not let your children see you fight because they won’t want to see or hear the commotion. Fight in the car or go for a walk together. Find somewhere the children can’t hear you.
Respect the hard to see boundaries by establishing workable boundaries Ask your partner if it is a good time to encroach on what they are doing or watching. Be prepared that you will be told, for example, that ‘my movie has half an hour left then you can watch yours’. Moral of the story is to establish real and feasible boundaries. When you are living in each other’s pockets it’s important that you do not intrude on each other’s time and thoughts.
For more information from Bridgette, visit equalexes.com