At the start of the pandemic, Catherine separated from her husband after nearly 20 years of marriage in the midlands.
“In March, I was talking to my counsellor in my car on the phone because I didn’t want [my husband] listening in. I was crying and I said: ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ and she said: ‘Of course you can but do you want to stay?’ and it was like a veil was lifted because I suddenly realised I absolutely did not want to stay.”
For years the relationship had been under pressure. Catherine’s husband had racked up business debt and now stayed at home with their teenaged children while Catherine worked, though she says she was also doing most of the housework.
“I work full time and I’m involved in education and advocacy stuff and my kids are teenagers, and I was doing a lot of stuff nights and weekends . . . but when Covid happened a lot of those things stopped, and I was at home in the evenings. Suddenly I realised I didn’t particularly want to be married to the person I was married to . . . I was staying because it was convenient. I was staying because it was less hassle than breaking off.
“Now we had no foreign holidays, the kids weren’t going away to Irish college . . . All these family events were gone . . . I thought: ‘Well, if I don’t do something now, I’m never going to do it.’”
The legal side of their separation has been slowed by a Covid-related delays in the courts but Catherine says she’s happier than she has been in years. “It’s like a weight off my shoulders. I have mental peace . . . My friends and family say I look 10 years younger . . . My husband blames Covid. He thinks because of the stress of the pandemic, that I became convinced our marriage wasn’t working, but actually it just gave me the clarity to go: ‘This is something I don’t like in my life and something I need to change.’ He thinks as soon as Covid goes, we’ll be back together.”
Catherine is just one of many people who responded to a call-out on Twitter to talk about their relationship in the context of the pandemic. The rolling lockdowns have put everyone’s relationships under analysis. Our lives have simplified – friends, colleagues and extended families have receded into the background, as the people we share our homes with have moved into foreground.
"When it's just the two of you it's very black and white," says Marie Walshe a psychotherapist and relationship counsellor at the Leeson Analytic Centre. "You can see how somebody is behaving, you can see [the relationship] clearly."
Solicitor Brendan Dillon is an expert in family law and has seen an increase in people inquiring about divorce and separation over the past year. "I think Covid has maybe been the lightning rod and forced people into making a decision that was festering for a period of time . . . In many, if not the majority of cases, the difficulties in marriages are probably operating for maybe three to four years before either of the parties decide that they're going to do something about it. I think Covid has been, in many cases, the accelerator for the decision to say: 'Look, this really isn't for turning.'
“I would think [there’s an increase] in the order of 15 per cent. There’s definitely been a marked increase. And, of course, that in turn is putting enormous pressure on the system . . . With the courts shut between March and June last year, and now obviously shut in January and February, there is a massive backlog . . . You’re probably adding six to nine months to the run of a case.”
Rachael McDaid is a mediator who works with both commercial entities and relationships and says most of the calls she got in in 2020 were about the latter. Previously it would have been 60 per cent familial and 40 per cent commercial, she says. “Now it would be 85 per cent personal relationships . . . And that tells me that things are not good in family homes around the country . . . When it comes to personal situations a lot of people are confined now in family homes and they’re cooped up together. People have lost their jobs and everybody is in the same pot and they’re like pressure cookers . . . I know of one couple where he has actually moved out because he said that, in his opinion, Covid had put too much pressure [on the relationship]. His intention is, when Covid is over, he’ll just move back in.
“If people are confined, those smaller things that would have dissipated into air, they’re not dissipating anymore. They’re just staying confined within the four walls. And the calls that are coming through are definitely people who are feeling the pressure.”
In the teeth of the first lockdown, the Catholic counselling service Accord set up a special support line where people could talk to experienced counsellors for the price of a local call (01 5313331). They’ve received more than 1,500 calls since then.
Seamus Sheedy, psychotherapist and vice-chairman of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, has also seen a 20 per cent increase in people coming to him (nowadays he's working largely online). "I really noticed that since last March but especially since last October," he says.
Lockdown would have put most pressure on relationships that were already struggling, he says. He mentions domestic abuse as particularly worrying (there was a sharp increase in women and children seeking support from domestic violence services in the first six months of 2020, according to Safe Ireland). Sheedy says that in such cases he hopes people seek help and reach out to the supports that are available (Women's Aid has a helpline at 1800 341 900 and Men's Aid Ireland is at 01 554 3811).
“Addiction issues are coming up a good bit more,” says Sheedy. “People drinking at home, using drink to self sooth and the partner worrying and children picking up on that . . . And if infidelity is there, [people] begin to pick up on it more. Now that they’re around the house more and working from home, they notice strange behaviour [if] their partner is always texting someone or on the phone to someone.”
Caroline, a teacher in her 20s, broke up with her boyfriend of four years at the start of lockdown last March because she figured out that he had been unfaithful but he couldn’t move out of their rented house until later that summer. “He’d cheated on me and had lied about it,” she says. “Lockdown didn’t cause the breakup, but it heightened the intensity of it because we were stuck living together . . . I couldn’t go out to see my friends so you couldn’t really distract yourself.
“Then the lovely part of it was the girl my ex cheated with, she was coming over to the house between April and July. So that wasn’t so nice, hearing them and seeing them together in your own home, there’s kind of no escaping it.”
It wasn’t healthy, she says. “I did go to counselling [over the phone] because I was quite conscious that I would possibly crack up if I didn’t . . . I really liked it. I clicked quite well with the counsellor . . . It’s so intense being with somebody 24 hours a day, especially living together in lockdown, both at home all the time and not really seeing other people. It can be hard to step back and get outside perspective.”
After starting counselling and taking up running she “bounced back a little bit.” And eventually she moved in with some new housemates and is even seeing someone again. “Just out of boredom one day I tried [Tinder] and found someone I liked.”
Sometimes the problems aren’t so obvious, says Marie Walshe. “A lot of marriages can be stalled . . . but they think they are [good] because they still have friends over, and in front of their friends they’re okay . . . And now suddenly, they are right up against the truth of their relationship.”
Susan writes about how she and her husband of 13 years have been struggling. “We’re both lonely but can’t seem to talk to one another . . . It’s hard to tell if this has all gotten worse because of lockdowns or if [it’s] a midlife crisis or what. He’s a great dad to our 5-year-old. I don’t want to divorce but at the same time it’s like we are stuck on autopilot towards divorce . . . We are not in a romantic relationship, we are housemates and co-parenting . . . Friends I used to be in touch with a lot don’t reach out and I don’t reach out to them. There’s an unspoken awareness and understanding that we are all just trying to conserve our energy and mind ourselves.”
Sometimes the issue can be triggered by changing values, says Walshe. “Life has a new meaning for people. They were just trundling along . . . And really, in the pandemic what’s at stake in life has become clearer to an awful lot of people . . . It’s about becoming more true to yourself, more authentic to yourself. And for some of people that means that it’s not possible to go back to where they were.”
People have seen the kinder, slower side of their partners
Walshe thinks people often need counsellors to help them parse the real issues. Currently it’s important to distinguish the existential dread of lockdown from the relationship, she says.
“I have some couples and they feel stuck [and] actually they’re not stuck, they’ve moved on a lot but the entire world is stuck and they need to distinguish Covid anxiety from anxiety in the relationship . . . One of the big things here has been that this is a period of mourning. We’ve had our freedoms taken away. A lot of us have lost people and haven’t gone through the normal rituals. And that mourning has to go somewhere.”
Many other people’s relationships seem improved as a consequence of the forced lockdown. “Between going back to college and having four lovely children, we always seemed to be busy moving through our lives,” writes a woman named Mary. “The lockdown let us stop and enjoy the fruits of our labour. It gave us a new appreciation for each other.”
Walshe says that just as the lockdown has thrown relationship problems into relief for some, it can also help people appreciate their partner’s positive qualities. “People have seen the kinder, slower side of their partners, making time for each other and time for the children and being around and being interested,” she says. “Some people are surprising each other with the qualities they’re bringing to this . . . There’s kindness being discovered.”
Twenty-somethings, James and Isabel moved in together at the start of the pandemic and the enforced lockdown made them realise that they should get married. James is a mechanical engineer and Isabel works for the Health Service Executive. They met in the summer of 2019 and they planned to travel around South America in 2020.
“Being really honest at the start, I probably downplayed the significance of her moving in because it was the first time,” says James. “Covid screwed up our plans [but] being in such close proximity for so long meant the natural course of the relationship really accelerated . . . Our focus switched to being more on us as a couple. We just knew we’d be together at the end of it no matter what and we started looking to the future more. We started talking about getting married and having a family after maybe a couple of months [of lockdown].”
It just felt right, he says. By July they were getting the paperwork ready for a wedding last August (since postponed until this April). James is certain they would have ended up getting married anyway but thinks it wouldn’t have happened so quickly if they had followed their original plan to travel. “The lockdown has been terrible in many ways, but without it I’m not sure our relationship would be in quite the same place.”
For other people, their comfortable relationship has become almost too comfortable. One otherwise contented person wrote: “[The] biggest change is that neither my fiance or I seem to have much sex drive or desire to have sex with each other, but we are incredibly affectionate. I’ve heard the same from friends in similar scenarios – being together literally all the time, just doesn’t seem to be conducive to craving sex with one another.”
Walshe says that this isn't surprising. "For all established couples, there's a lethargy because of Covid. You've been locked down, the world has reduced just to these four rooms and it's been Netflix and falling asleep on the couch, not Netflix and sex. So I've actually told them to schedule sex. Because the brain shuts down if it's under fight or flight all the time. It will just go into hibernation mode . . . So scheduling is really good. I told couples to have a date night and schedule sex . . . By scheduling sex you suddenly rediscover desire. Your brain gets switched on again."
Walshe notes that many couples have fallen into unhelpful ruts over the course of the pandemic. She is particularly concerned by the way some couples have reverted to traditional gender roles with women taking on the bulk of homeschooling and childcare on top of working from home. She thinks it’s important to break out of these ruts.
She also thinks it’s important for couples to make plans for the future – for holidays and events and projects – even if those plans ultimately need to adapt. Couples should also be conscious of any good things they have gained from the lockdown. “Put it on a big piece of paper, stick it on the fridge and say: ‘In this house we . . .’ Society works, not because of the grand scheme of things, but because of a series of individual working schemes. Individually, every household decides: ‘This is the kind of society we want.’ And if that doesn’t work, then society doesn’t work.”
Life also changed beyond recognition for those who are single. Jennifer writes about having been only just ready to dip her toe into the dating world after the end of a significant relationship a year before, when “a global pandemic hit and suddenly my voluntary celibacy was now enforced by law . . . a switch had flipped. I think single people and couple people are experiencing the pandemic quite differently. Our access to touch and affection (and sex!) is severely limited or gone completely.”
Jennifer, along with several other people who contacted us, also talked about both enjoying and being slightly perplexed by the enforcement of a slower form of courtship built around the phone, online communication and sporadic walks. One woman thinks that this made the experience of a new relationship feel less real. One young man worries that in the absence of day-to-day events to discuss, every conversation with his new girlfriend becomes “pretty deep”. Another woman feels her “Jane Austen” relationship conducted largely by letter with a man she met one week before lockdown allowed them to get to know each other far better. “For years I had been in and out of toxic relationships and meaningless ‘situationships’ and communication was always an issue for me. But the first 2020 lockdown changed everything for me. I’m glad we got to know each other in and out through our letters.”
I did Tinder for 24 hours and now have a totally different life
Seamus Sheedy stresses that it’s important for all of us, single or in relationships, to remain connected to people outside our bubbles. “Try and put some time aside to connect with family and friends [even if it’s a phone call or video call]. Listen to what others are saying and try to understand they might have different needs. And share with others what you’re feeling.”
Walshe says that while the difficulties of single people being deprived of affection and touch are significant, for some being given a break from the increasingly “transactional” world of Tinder to explore something a bit slower could be a good thing. It allows people to think about their priorities, she says, “and in a slowed down world you can find out where your desire is”.
And then there are other people for whom the pandemic has speeded things up. Christine is a single mother in her 30s currently completing a master’s degree. She struggled alone with her three-year-old in the early days of lockdown. “I think I kind of broke then,” she says, “and went to my mom’s house for a couple of weeks . . . Then when lockdown eased, I spent a couple of weeks up in Clare and I was like a new person. I messaged a friend saying: ‘All I want is an end-of-summer boyfriend who has a camper van.’”
She tentatively tried Tinder for the first time and within a day met someone for a cup of coffee. He was also a single parent of a three-year-old. They shared interests. He had a campervan. She deleted her Tinder profile and over time they became a couple despite the challenges of the pandemic. This month they made a decision. “We’re going to merge our families . . . Just for the rest of lockdown . . . I’m going to sublet my house to somebody who has been stuck at home with their parents.”
She knows this seems very quick. “This one is definitely weird and would it have happened if there wasn’t coronavirus? No way . . . I think when people are single they start thinking that lockdown would be so much better if I was in a relationship . . . [but] are you just jumping from the lonely frying pan into the fire? I don’t know,” she laughs.
“We’re all mobile I don’t have to be anywhere to do my research. I’m not attached to place and creche is closed again. And life is miserable . . . The whole thing was so weirdly serendipitous . . . It was too exactly what I wanted.
“I did Tinder for 24 hours and now have a totally different life . . . All I wanted was an end-of-summer boyfriend with a campervan.”