Things had been going wrong for Laura* and Dave* for a good six months before the whole world changed.
“I honestly thought it was the end,” says Laura. “The atmosphere was just awful – we’d periodically talk about whether or not we should stay together. There were fights and tears and we’d cling on for a bit longer, but we were miserable. I thought it was only a matter of time.”
Breaking up seemed inevitable; although there was plenty of good still left in their three-year relationship, Laura just couldn’t see a clear way forward. Then coronavirus happened. Overnight, life as they knew it fell apart. Problems that had seemed mammoth shrank to nothing in the space of a day. Issues that had dominated their discourse felt… well, a bit silly now. The pandemic offered a sense of perspective like nothing else.
“The stuff we used to fight about seemed so small-fry as we saw the huge impacts of the virus as it spread across the world,” says Laura. “And, once lockdown started and we couldn’t see anyone except each other, we both began to realise how much we needed each other.”
The feelings between them grew: they became more affectionate with each other, more respectful of each other’s space, more patient with each other’s failings. “I thought we’d drive each other crazy, especially with all the problems we’d been having. But it’s been the reverse. Our relationship feels stronger than it’s ever been.”
It may seem strange alongside all the stories of divorce rates soaring once lockdowns are lifted, but Laura and Dave’s experience is by no means unique. According to a new survey from charity Relate, 65 per cent of respondents said they currently felt supported by their partner, while 43 per cent of those who live with their partner said the experience of staying at home had bought them closer.
“Some couples have found that their relationship has improved under lockdown,” a spokesperson from couples counselling specialist Tavistock Relationships tells The Independent. “They find they are pulling together and are starting to see themselves once more as a team, in the way they might have done in their early years together. They are rediscovering positive attributes in each other and feel a sense of gratitude and companionship in these difficult times.”
Shirlee Kay, a therapist with relationship counselling practice Coupleworks, has noticed some of her clients growing closer during the pandemic. “Not all the couples I am working with are doing better, but Covid-19 has given couples an opportunity to address issues and see one another differently if they are able to,” she tells The Independent. “The couples who are doing better are the ones asking themselves what they can learn about here, what is this telling them about what matters in their life.”
One of the couples she sees, Carol and Steve, were struggling before the outbreak struck. Living in London with their four children while Steve spent much of his time overseas for work, Carol had felt distant and unconnected and ended up having an affair as a result. “The beginning of couple’s therapy was difficult for both of them,” says Shirlee. “There was a lot of anger and distrust.”
Although they were working hard to understand their individual part in how they had got to this point, “they both shared a sense of hopelessness that the connection between them was lost and that trust would never return,” says Shirlee. When lockdown kicked in, Steve returned home full-time. Both expressed their discomfort with living as a couple and a family again in their counselling sessions, which continued over Skype. But with the enforced time spent together came a settled routine and the chance to see the effort the other was making.
“Slowly, I noticed they were sitting closer to one another on the sofa, joking more, and actually behaving like a couple,” says Shirlee. “They began to speak openly about what had happened and, rather than reacting in anger, were able to say what they could have done differently. Their confinement forced them to speak about the unspeakable.”
Ultimately, the crisis has given the couple the space and understanding to slowly reconnect, to start to depend on one another again.
“Sometime couples feel they need a big conversation to try to understand and ‘solve’ their issues,” says Shirlee. “My experience has taught me it’s much more subtle than this. Just being with one another when the world feels uncertain has a way of teaching us what truly matters, what is meaningful, and who we are.”
This has partly been true for Sarwar and Farideh, who started face-to-face therapy through Relate after coming up against some challenges in their relationship back in November 2019. “We were struggling to communicate in an empathetic way – we deal with trauma in different ways and were finding it hard to get through experiences together,” says Sarwar.
The counselling sessions were helping them make progress – and then lockdown hit. “I was totally apprehensive about being stuck together during lockdown,” says Farideh. “But I’ve really appreciated the time it’s given us together. Before, I hardly saw Sarwar because he’s always working, so I was really happy at first.”
The pair threw themselves into chores and enjoyed being in each other’s company without the distractions and stress of normal life. “It’s demonstrated the value of giving ourselves time,” adds Farideh. “We both have busy jobs and social lives – it’s very easy to get sucked into all that. Lockdown has shown it’s important to give ourselves time as a couple, and to place a value on that.”
Even when things have been tough or frustrating living in such close quarters, the couple’s therapy sessions, which have continued over webcam, have helped them air their feelings. “Transitioning to online sessions has been pretty straightforward and is working well for us,” says Sarwar. “Plus, doing it from home in a comfortable setting, your guard is down a bit more, you sometimes feel like you can speak your mind and reflect on things more easily.”
For couples finding life under lockdown has improved their relationship, effort will be needed to keep it going after life goes back to normal, according to the experts.
“If the lockdown has helped couples be more sharing, kind and appreciative of one another then it will be important to set time aside to keep this closeness once lockdown ends,” says Tavistock Relationships. “Date nights, setting aside time to talk and plan are all important nourishing activities for a couple. People usually look out for their children, find activities to stimulate them, notice when they are looking sad or lonely. Under lockdown, some couples have started to notice one another in this way, perhaps for the first time in years, and it requires effort and commitment to keep up this level of interest.”
More details about Relate’s telephone counselling, webcam counselling and Live Chat services can be found at relate.org.uk.
*Names have been changed
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