Pandemic restrictions are (mostly) lifted, so why are couples collapsing now?
And what can be done to help those struggling in their relationship?
I’ve noticed through my increasing clinical work load, as well as that of the many practitioners I teach, that couples are fairing badly and facing crises in their relationships post pandemic. Now, when one would expect that 'normality' will stabilise relationships, when couples have already coped through the most challenging time of the pandemic, they are falling apart.
The first quarantine period during early 2020 generated a great deal of discussion around the impact of the pandemic on couples and families. Couples, who pre-pandemic barely saw each other during the week, found themselves together 24/7 and not necessarily by choice. For some couples, the circumstances slowed them down and created clarity and focus away from the outside day-to-day ‘noise’ which in turn lead them to rediscover their relationship. Those couples reported that the first quarantine felt like a second honeymoon. For others, these extraordinary conditions placed an unimaginable level of pressure on their relationships with many breaking at the seams. Demand for couples counselling was high, and for online couples therapy it doubled according to Tavistock Relationships.
But now, almost two years later, when announcements about the end of the pandemic dominate the news, when people are returning to their workplace at least part-time, are going shopping, traveling away for holidays, seeing friends and family and returning to 'normal' life, wouldn’t we expect couple relationships survival rates to improve? There are many reasons why this phenomenon of trending relationship collapse exists. From my clinical observations, here are a few of the most prevalent.
Firstly, all of our energy was put into surviving the crisis. Couples focused on coping and now that restrictions have been relaxed, they have reached burnout, are exhausted and have little energy reserves to invest in their relationship. Couples are tired.
Sadly, many of us also had to face the loss of a parent. The third age group was the largest group to be depleted by fatalities caused either directly from Covid or indirectly by delayed hospital checks from fear of Covid contamination. The fall-out from losing a parent is well recognised as a prime contributor to relationship breakdowns.
Our cultural mindset can also be behind relationships no longer working. We tend to believe that good praise follows a challenge. There is an unconscious cultural expectation of a prize for managing the challenging times. It is like when parents tell their teens to concentrate on learning and then reward their efforts with a special gift. Similarly when a child falls, one might offer, although not necessarily the healthiest option, something sweet to distract them and ease the pain. It is a cultural learning to expect a reward after a hard time. No one teaches us how to cope, stay, surrender ourselves to sadness, disappointment, despair, and anxiety without reward. Nor are we taught how we can learn from challenges, sadness and hurt and be OK feeling these or see that experience is an important part of life just as much as joy and pleasure. And so, here we are, after two challenging years, and the reality of our relationship or partner might be the same. There might not be any perceived prize - no fireworks, no applause, and no dramatic change- we are back to routines and feeling disappointed. We expect life and our relationship to feel better, as a result we project our disappointment on to our partners to the detriment of our relationships.
Most of us grew up with messaging like marriage is 'living our happily ever after'. Society has not given us much preparation, realistic expectations, awareness or communications skills to create meaningful and long term intimate relationships. You might want to read 'Getting The Love You Want' by Harville Hendrix and Helen Luckly Hunt to learn about the unconscious in relationships and development of communication skills in intimate relationships.
In some instances, a crises results in a tendency to turn to conservative behaviours. Leaning towards our key relationship and family is a conservative natural reaction to a pandemic. Now, when 'normality' is back that conservative behaviour becomes obsolete, replaced with a longing for freedom. This might make us feel more liberated and long for freedom, change or adventure away from the security of the known. Some have the need to travel, others to change profession or country and some place this on their relationship.
I have also seen that during the last two years, changes to family structure have created a rift between some couples. For example, when the main bread-winner has become redundant, or furloughed, or a degree of financial security was lost, or perhaps the 'spinal column' in the family became depressed or overly anxious, or any other emotional and psychological changes couples experienced came to the forefront. And now, we're almost in 'post pandemic' times, partners might consciously or unconsciously re-evaluate their relationship and partner in a different light. In other words, their unspoken relationship contract was changed and they object to it.
What can be done?
If your relationship with your partner is challenging, please know you are not alone. Not that the plight of others is of much comfort, but as people tend not to talk about their relationships, it can feel lonely and like it is only happening to you or only in your relationship. Knowing that others are going through this too, at the moment, can be of comfort.
It is not to say that one needs to stay in an unhealthy relationship or to leave it. Slowing the process down so that you can fully process and communicate all the changes you went through as a couple in the last two years, will help both parties to make more conscious decisions.
Here are some ways to repair and reconnect with your partner:
Creating anchors for you as a couple
The new reality is that with restrictions lifted, people are back to work, but at the same time we are still connected to work via the internet beyond working hours. Boundaries are blurred between family and work with little limits on work-life balance. Creating anchors for you as a couple, time you are both off technology screens, communicating and enjoying each others company might be necessary to recover from the impact of the last two years.
Devote time for fun together as well as for communicating in a meaningful and intimate way about your experiences, feelings, dreams and longings. Talk about what works well in your relationship, what you appreciate about each other from the last year of the pandemic, what are your strengths as individuals and as a couple and what would you like to work on, to develop and grow into. Find new ways to communicate your underlying feelings and thoughts with your partner, focusing on how you feel and not on them or their behaviour as the latter will invite only defensive reactions. If you find it challenging to talk about it write it to them. Alternatively, devoting 15 minutes a day just to be with each other intentionally, even without words but with eye contact or a hug, can work wonders.
Find yourself again
In the same way you create anchors for your relationship, creating space and time for your own passion and hobbies is important, so you can come to the 'couple space' with more energy and longing.
In addition, taking time to reflect on your own struggles in the pandemic can help you to see where you may have projected your own frustrations on your partner. Psychologically, this is the part in us that we struggle to acknowledge or face, feelings or traits we cannot bear and unconsciously project on others.
Think about what is underneath your hurt or struggle. How can you express how you feel or fulfil your longings? If you experienced many losses in the last year, how can you find expressions for those losses and sadness? Maybe expressing it in art, movement, journalism, or sport can help. Maybe you are longing for new experiences and adventures, would developing your hobby or trying a new one start to fill that hole? If what you feel is not related to your partner, but projected onto them, what is it that you can do to express or fulfil it?
Find safe space to process and growth
Whatever you feel has a meaning, processing it in a safe environment such as in couples therapy and learning new ways to communicate and connect with each other can benefit you as an individual and your relationship. Finding a therapist who is trained in evidence based couple therapy, such as by Imago Relationship Therapy, can open up new perspectives and possibilities for your relationship. You or your partner may still want to leave the relationship but you may also find the pandemic has placed extraordinary pressure on your relationship and hidden the good parts which can be rediscovered and enjoyed together again now and for years to come.
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor, founder of The Village (getthevillage.com), and has been the Chair of Imago Relationship Therapy UK since 2013.