It’s been a rough old road for everyone, single or coupled. But what happens when your relationship’s final straw comes during a pandemic and a national lockdown? Alice O’Connell investigates.
It was a receipt that gave it away.
Stuffing her togs into the side pocket of an overnight bag, Kate’s* hand touched a crumpled piece of paper, shoved down deep. Unfolding it, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as she read through it. It was a receipt from a hotel, a two-night stay near the home she shared with her husband David and their young daughter.
She wracked her brain, checked the calendar and scrolled back through three months of texts from her husband. Finally, she found it – the dates matched the same two days he’d been away on business. For a moment she felt such relief: it couldn’t be him – he had been texting her about how boring the conference was, how disappointing his room service dinner was and how much he missed their daughter.
“But,” pauses Kate, “how’d that get in the bag then?”
An hour later David arrived home to find a very upset Kate, sitting with the receipt in her hands. Her voice shook as she asked, “What is this?”
He winced, but immediately had an answer. “It’s a bit of a blur,” recalls Kate, “but I think he cried – which he never does – and said all this stuff about how he’d lied to me and felt terrible. He said that being a new dad, and starting a new job, it all got a bit much for him and he’d been really overwhelmed.”
David told Kate that he’d felt guilty and “less of a man” for feeling so overwhelmed and stressed, so kept his feelings to himself. Plus, he said, he didn’t want to give her anything else to worry about while she had her hands full, adapting to life as a new mum. He perhaps just needed some time out, so he’d clocked off work for a couple of days and bought a hotel room to sleep and relax in.
“I was furious!” says Kate. “I didn’t get a break!! I still had to look after the baby 24/7. I wanted to scream at him, but, I was also relieved that’s all it was and really focused on that.”
And that was that.
Well, until lockdown hit and suddenly the realities of being cooped up together with a young child, worrying about their jobs – and the world! – meant the pair started arguing, a lot.
“It was a pressure cooker,” tells Kate. And two weeks in, that cooker boiled over during one hideous fight in which she brought up the hotel again, and he finally told the truth: he’d had a short-lived affair.
“Normally you’d pack up and go live at your parents’. It was so messed up that I couldn’t even leave! Having a cry and stuff online with my friends wasn’t the same. I reckon it made it worse because I felt so shamed that they would all be feeling sorry for me. Looking at him sucked. And watching him with our kid. I wanted to scream, ‘YOU’RE A FAKE! YOU’RE NOT EVEN A GOOD DAD! YOU LIAR’ every time he went near her.”
Unfortunately, Kate says the affair spelled the end of their marriage. Their relationship truly fell apart, and by the end of lockdown David moved out, with Kate now saying there’s little-to-no hope of a reconciliation. “I dunno. Maybe we would have been able to work it out if it happened in some other situation, but… I dunno, it was hell. We’d gone too far.”
Kate and David’s was a rather extreme situation, but, unfortunately, they weren’t alone – lockdown put enormous strain on partnerships, and for some, it was the catalyst for a split.
The Experts Weigh In
Steven Dromgol, the Director at Relate – who provide relationship and marriage counselling – has more than 20 years of experience in his field and says the effect of lockdown and Covid-19 has had a massive impact on relationships, with many couples experiencing issues, and a marked increase in people seeking counselling services.
Steven and the team watched what was happening in China as an indicator as to what might happen in New Zealand.
“What we heard was when they opened the lock-down, the courts were basically flooded with divorce applications. So we were really worried about that and what might happen here, particularly given New Zealand’s high rates of domestic violence.”
Besides having their counsellors available for online sessions, Steven created a free online Webinar, as well as an in-depth online relationship course for a one-off price.
Steven says some of the negative impacts on relationships came down to individual experiences, stresses and economic effects of lock-down. “For some people it was a case of, ‘Fantastic! A paid four-week holiday!” he tells. “But for other people, they have lost their jobs, or become three times busier at work, and they’re trying to juggle that with young children and all sorts of challenges”.
Regardless of the individual situations though, Steven says he’s noticed a distinct pattern has occurred. “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.”
While couples have been seeking Steven’s services for a myriad of different reasons following lockdown, he specialises in counselling couples where an affair has occurred – and it seems Kate certainly wasn’t the only one for whom the lockdown unearthed a betrayal.
“There’s been quite a number of people who just found out about an affair, or in some cases, affairs that were continued through the lockdown period that got found out. It was enormously stressful and difficult for people.”
Steven says some of the affairs were unearthed simply down to the increased period of time people were spending together, but also due to instinctual feelings that were triggered by many by the whole notion of a lock-down. Those feelings put added pressure on relationships – and made it just that more devastating when the partnership broke down.
“What was triggered for people, was they perceived the situation to be uncertain or dangerous,” explains Steven. “Whenever there is some sort of change – particularly when it’s societal – that activates the young part of the brain that’s responsible for safety. When we talk about that younger brain, there’s the part of our brain that develops in the first couple of years of life – the ‘baby brain’.”
“So, think of a six-month-old – that brain associates safety with being connected. That’s why you’ll have people who, because their job is uncertain, because the world seems like an uncertain, different place – well, then that need for connection is going to be a lot stronger. So then if there is a rupture in that connection – like the discovery of an affair – that’s going to be much more stressful than under normal circumstances.”
Not every couple survives an affair – particularly with the complication of lockdown – but it is definitely possible to overcome. If an affair has decimated your relationship, it’s a good one to hand over to the experts to help you navigate through and finding a specialized relationship counsellor who is experienced in dealing with affairs, can be a game changer.
At Relate, they prefer to get involved as soon as possible – preferably within the first 48 hours. From there, it’s a course of regular sessions – if it’s a fresh discovery it’s generally recommended to have a couple of meetings a week. It may seem like a lot – both in terms of making arrangements to leave work/arrange childcare, and in terms of cost – but, when you compare it to the cost of a separation/divorce, it’s a fraction of the price.
But, as many couples found out during lockdown, it didn’t take a huge bombshell to shake their union.
Take Jo* and Paul, who are currently ‘on a break’, uncertain of their future after a less than harmonious lockdown experience.
“It wasn’t just one thing,” tells Jo, “It was little things, I think. It’s weird, but I think we couldn’t talk to each properly.”
Despite being together for more than a decade, the harsh realities of lockdown pushed them into a situation they’d never really been in before, and exposed differences in the way they communicate. “We’d been through some hard stuff in the past, but never all at once like that,” said Jo…
Read Jo and Paul’s story in Part Two, where Steven shares his advice to help you communicate with your partner, deescalate any arguments – plus, the five times you can turn your relationship around, every day.
For more information on the ‘Love in a Time of Covid’ Online Relationship course, or for services by Relate Relationship Counselling, visit relate.kiwi.nz
*Name changed to protect privacy