Lexi can clearly recall the day she walked around the house looking for traces of her husband, Rob. Returning from her work as a dog groomer that Friday evening, as usual she went to put her shoes away in the drawer under the stairs. But opening it up, she noticed all his shoes were missing. She went to the bedroom and looked at his side of the wardrobe: empty. As she walked from room to room, the shock set in. The house had been picked clean of Rob’s possessions; even his tools in the garage, the ones he had just got around to organising, were gone.
The couple had been together for six years, married for two, and have a four-year-old child (Lexi also has a daughter from a previous relationship). In the early days of the pandemic, their marriage had seemed strong, but in May they went through a tough patch: Lexi miscarried, and by autumn Rob had become increasingly down, telling her more than once that the year had left him “emotionally drained”. Even so, Lexi felt blindsided when he announced he wanted a divorce in mid-November. Two weeks later, he had gone. There has been no communication between them since. Lexi still has many questions about why Rob left, but she believes 2020 might have broken their marriage.
For better or worse, the pandemic has forced all of us to put a giant magnifying glass over our personal lives. As home became the only place to go, and without the release valves of office life and friendship circles, our closest relationships (or lack thereof) have come into sharper focus. For some, more time at home was a positive: new couples were forced to accelerate, and for long-term partners, a simpler home life was a bonding exercise. But it has also been a dangerous time for those in abusive or violent relationships – the domestic violence charity Refuge reported a 50% rise in calls to its helpline in the early stages of the crisis – a reason those fleeing such relationships are exempt from the latest stay-at-home order. Elsewhere, life in lockdown pushed some marriages, like Lexi and Rob’s, to breaking point.
In early 2020, after 35 years as a couples and psychosexual therapist based in London, John O’Reilly had earned his retirement. “I had a few remaining clients and I thought, once I’m finished with them, I’m getting myself on the beach,” he says. But then lockdown hit and his inbox began to fill up. “There was such a demand from old clients wanting to come back to do some work, because of lockdown and everything that they were forced to confront, particularly couples with families.” He put retirement on hold and got back to work.
A lot of the problems had existed pre-pandemic, such as money issues or childcare, but everything was amplified, O’Reilly explains. Differing attitudes to Covid was a pressure point. “One partner usually holds all the anxiety about something. With Covid, if it’s a straight couple, usually the man is a bit laissez-faire, whereas the wife is more vigilant and doesn’t feel as if he’s taking it seriously, which makes her doubly anxious.” O’Reilly says men tend to hold the anxiety over finances. “Anxiety in a relationship is like a psychological seesaw. While one partner carries it and is stuck, unable to get off the ground, the other on the light end of the seesaw is floating freely in the air. Ideally, the anxiety needs to be shared by both partners, so one doesn’t become overburdened.”
For other couples, lockdown drew secrets out of the woodwork. “If there had been an affair pre-pandemic, it usually came out in the wash, as during lockdown you would get the third person making more demands of the partner who is having the affair.” He says some partners used the excuse of nipping back to their empty office to meet a lover. Typically, when an affair is discovered, the guilty party wants to seek forgiveness and move on, but the trauma it inflicts on the other partner needs to be processed slowly. “An affair goes deep, because it affects the partner’s body image – the way they feel about their sexual self,” O’Reilly says. In his experience, a straight relationship is more likely to break down if the woman has had the affair: “Men are more brittle. Though women are traumatised, they’re actually much more forgiving.”
Famously, January is known as the divorce month, as couples who have hung on until Christmas pull the trigger in the new year. But for Buckinghamshire-based family lawyer of 25 years Elaine Foster, 2020 felt like one long January. “On a personal level, I am busier than I have ever been,” she says when we speak a few days before Christmas. Foster was on holiday in Sri Lanka when the first UK lockdown was implemented in March. By the time she had found a flight home, meeting requests were going through the roof. “It was as if every single client suddenly woke up and said, ‘I need the divorce now.’ For people who had been talking to me about potentially getting some information on separation in the future, the idea of being locked down with their partner was not palatable. There was a lot of emergency work, straight away.” Foster says some clients who had met a new partner were forced to move in with them: “It actually accelerated a lot of new relationships.”
Other couples got more creative. Peter Martin has been a family lawyer for more than 40 years, and was one of the first solicitors to train as a mediator 20 years ago. He says one couple who had both been having affairs ended up moving their lovers into their shared home for lockdown. “One thing I have learned as a family lawyer is that people behave in ways which, if you saw it on TV, you would say, ‘Don’t be silly: that would never happen.’” The end of the summer also sparked a fresh wave of divorce inquiries. While Martin says this is common in a “normal” year (much like holding on for Christmas, couples often wait until after the school holidays), Citizens Advice reported divorce searches in the first weekend of September were up 25% from 2019.
O’Reilly thinks the “Are we all going to die?” angst of daily life in 2020 impacted people in different ways. Frequent reminders of our mortality made people think harder about their own happiness. Foster thinks it’s not a bad thing that many unhappy couples finally stopped burying their heads in the sand: “It’s a big step to make the decision to leave – it’s frightening. But once they’ve done it, they can go on and be happy.”
This is true for Leicester-based healthcare worker Abdul, 50, who split from his wife of 19 years in June. It had been an arranged marriage; he remembers their first date at Madame Tussauds in London. Though there were happy times (“I will never lose respect for her as a mother to our two teenage sons,” he says), their different personalities slowly drove them apart. “She’s very passionate. She will shout,” he says. “I like to be quiet. She would tell me I’m always on mute.” Lockdown threw these differences into sharp relief.
O’Reilly says unhappy couples living together during the pandemic would collect what he calls “stamps” on each other – annoyances over daily things, such as leaving wet washing in the machine or forgetting to give the kids a snack – which they would then “spend all in one go” in a volcanic row. Tiny irritations became lightning rods for the bigger, pre-pandemic issues they hadn’t dealt with. Abdul says one blow-out row with his wife was over her spraying disinfectant on their shopping.
As Muslims, he said it was hard to tell their families about the divorce. “All hell broke loose. They kept saying, ‘Why can’t you fix it?’” Abdul is sure they would still be together if the pandemic had never happened: “I would have carried on with life the way it was, and we hadn’t been happy in a decade.” After their split, he read Richard Carlson’s 1998 self-help bestseller Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff and started volunteering for local food banks. “This year has just made me look at the bigger picture,” he says.
Hannah, 27, broke up with her boyfriend Ed in April, but he only moved out in August. For a time, parts of northern Siberia were warmer than the setup in her London home, after their five-year relationship ended three weeks into the March lockdown. Before the pandemic, Ed had travelled for work a lot; lockdown made them realise their lives outside the relationship had been masking problems. It didn’t end in explosive rows, but a realisation that they had nothing left to say to each other. “When you spend so much time with someone, that can be a good thing, but for us it wasn’t,” Hannah says. “I realised I’m a better person when he’s away.”
But their mutual decision to part ways was a metaphorical one: they weren’t going anywhere. “It was hell,” she says. “We spoke about one of us leaving, but we didn’t want to break the rules.” They stopped speaking, other than the occasional stiff, “Good morning.” If she was upstairs, he stayed downstairs; they took turns using the kitchen. “I felt as if I couldn’t grieve the relationship, because he was still around,” she says.
Nine months later, they are selling the house they bought together, and Hannah is happy to be single again. Like Abdul, she is sure she would still be with Ed if it weren’t for the pandemic. “I do think now I’m a little bit grateful for that intense, lockdown breakup.”
While some couples broke up, others strayed. The UK website Illicit Encounters – which connects people interested in extramarital affairs – saw a 24% rise in sign-ups between July and December. One of them, Cara, 36, had never considered having an affair before the pandemic. She had always been an introvert, preferring to let her “social bird” husband of 10 years take the lead. They met when they were travelling in their early 20s, and he was her first proper boyfriend: “There was no one like him.” But after he was furloughed in March last year, he started spending all day on the sofa of their Essex home. Cara had previously enjoyed their “traditional” marriage – he the main breadwinner, her the main homemaker – but now she was the one going out to work (she is a business developer), looking after their child and wading through untouched piles of laundry when she got back. It also annoyed her that he started breaking the lockdown rules, seeing friends for drinks on weekends. They argued most days.
In April, she read about Illicit Encounters; after weeks of unhappy home life, she signed up. She’s still not sure what drove her to it. “I think at first I was just looking for a friend,” she says. She started chatting to a man online, and it felt strange to flirt with someone; she had never so much as looked at another man for years. They discussed Covid before meeting in person, and agreed they would not see anyone else from the website to reduce the risk. At that first meeting, for coffee on a park bench, they initially sat 2 metres apart, but, “As we were speaking, we kept drawing closer together.” They started snatching hours together in Airbnbs or – as he still travels for work – meeting in his hotel room. At Christmas, they squeezed in a quick drive. Like Cara, he is married with children.
Carrying out an affair in a pandemic has been easier than she expected, she says. Her husband would never read her messages (“he thinks I’m a little angel”), and flexible working hours mean she can leave the house without arousing suspicion. Cara doesn’t want to leave her husband, because she believes the affair has made her happier and calmer at home – a better partner – though she sometimes feels pangs of guilt when a message comes through. Even so, she plans to continue the affair once lockdown lifts. “No one person, I’ve come to find, can provide you with everything you need. And sometimes I guess we settle for something. Maybe my husband wasn’t the person I was meant to marry, but I don’t want to ruin what we have.”
The pandemic wasn’t all bad news for long-term relationships. The same circumstances that drove some couples apart gave others space to heal or even strengthen. Mediator Peter Martin says he saw clients who had been on the brink of divorce use lockdown to work things out: “One couple came to me apologetically to say, ‘We’re giving it a good go now, we may no longer need your services.’ I told them there was no need to apologise.”
In research commissioned by the relationship app Paired with the Open University, one in four respondents said their relationship had strengthened over lockdown – compared with one in 10 who said things got worse. Jacqui Gabb, chief relationship officer for Paired and a professor of sociology and intimacy at the Open University, has spent 25 years studying the way couples interact. “What we often hear about in relationship research and therapy is what relationships should do as opposed to what [strong] couples are doing,” she says. Her studies have found successful couples are particularly good at responding to change – and 2020 was the ultimate test. “The year pushed our limits of adaptation,” she says, “but for robust couples, the more stressors you put on them, the more they pull together.” In her research, Gabb has found strong couples are often the ones who can look to the “relationship horizon”, instead of getting bogged down in the everyday. “Couples seem better able to weather [disruptive] changes if they can keep that sense of perspective – that this won’t last for ever,” she says. This is also why long-term couples are often better at dealing with change: “They already have a past and a present, so they can take for granted that there will be a future.”
Vicky, 61, and Mary, 58, were hit with some pretty big stressors in 2020. They moved house; Vicky lost both her parents; and the pandemic put Mary’s social enterprise business under intense pressure. Vicky was also diagnosed with ME a decade ago, which made Covid an extra worry. Despite this, they think the year has made their 25-year relationship stronger. Pre-pandemic, Mary would be out from 7am until 7pm, while musician Vicky worked from home. As Mary’s business hit trouble, for the first time Vicky was able to witness the rhythms of her working day. “If there was a big stress, I’d share it with her and I’d always get a team response,” Mary says. Vicky would help Mary process her work stress by talking it through with her, and bring her little treats during the day, like tea or slices of cake. “From the outside, people might presume that I’m the stronger one because Vicky has got ME, but in times of crisis she steps up to the plate.”
While therapist John O’Reilly saw conflict between clients over attitudes to Covid, Vicky and Mary tackled this from the outset. “We were quite explicit at the beginning on how we were going to behave – we even wrote a list saying, ‘These are our household standards,’” Vicky says. These included agreeing to disinfect everything that came into the house, from food to parcels, and menu planning, so they could minimise shopping trips. “It was important to agree on these and then be confident in trusting the other person to keep you safe,” Vicky says.
Gabb’s 2014 study on relationships, Enduring Love, found that it is the daily “mundanities” a couple engages in – rather than grand romantic gestures – that keep them strong. This might explain why in lockdown, when life was often extremely mundane, the couples who got this right flourished. Gabb terms these “positive relationship maintenance behaviours”, like washing up a pan you know your partner needs to cook with, or getting the bath running for them after a stressful day – “the sort of things you don’t notice unless they go away”. For Mary and Vicky, this was bringing each other a boiled egg in bed, or stopping to have a hug – “and wine, plenty of that!” Vicky laughs. “This year we’ve witnessed each other’s strongest points up close,” she adds.
If 2020 strengthened some relationships, for Anthony, 40, and Andrew, 38, it set the stage for marital reunion. They met as postgraduates at Oxford University in 2006. They had mutual friends on Facebook, and by the time they were introduced, Anthony had already looked at so many pictures of Andrew he mistakenly thought he knew him. “I was like, oh no, you’re just the fit guy I’ve been looking at on Facebook!” he laughs.
They tied the knot in 2011, but the marriage broke down and they separated in 2018 – a situation made trickier by their jobs at the same tech company. In late 2019, feeling they should give things one last go, they sought out a couples therapist. “Even during the separated period, I knew in the back of my mind that Anthony cared about me,” Andrew says. “If I filled out an emergency contact form, I’d still put his name on there.” For financial reasons, Andrew had also moved back into the rental flat they bought together when they were married, in the same building as their old apartment, where Anthony still lived.
Then lockdown happened. “It sort of made sense to bubble,” Andrew shrugs. He began going to Anthony’s flat for dinner a few times a week. “To be honest, at the beginning it was more time than I would have chosen to spend, but it was good for the relationship, because there weren’t distractions. We were getting to know each other again, communicating better.” In their bubble, they put things they had learned in therapy to the test, a sort of love homework. “Every time I’d bring up something that I was worried in the past would cause a big row, we were able to defuse it,” Andrew says. Against the traditional advice, Anthony says one trick that worked was to go to bed on an argument: “For us at least, it’s better if we don’t try to resolve differences at night. If we set something aside because we disagreed on it, we would come back to it.”
For Anthony, the lockdown was both a “necessary accelerant” for their reunion and also “a really good reminder that relationships unfold over time. That you don’t need to ‘win’ a conversation – things could be ambiguous.” Every week in their online sessions, the therapist would ask what would be different about their relationship if they were “officially” back together. By September, after a trip to the US, the list of differences had shrunk to zero.
Around the time Anthony and Andrew were rekindling their relationship, Denise, 40, had put her dating life on pause. In the first lockdown she settled into a pattern of work (in PR), social Zooms and daily jogs by London Zoo’s giraffe enclosure. Then, just as the restrictions were lifting, she went to a friend’s festival-themed 40th birthday picnic. Across the patchwork of rugs she spotted Tom, 41, sporting a giant pair of giraffe ears. (“I felt an affinity with giraffes last year,” she laughs.) They got chatting and didn’t stop for the rest of that sunny, wine-soaked afternoon.
Denise thinks the restrictions allowed their relationship to flourish. “I’ve always struggled dating in London, because everybody is so busy, and missed opportunities happen all the time,” she says. “But it suddenly felt as if we had these rolling months ahead of us that were empty of commitments.” Covid had destroyed spontaneity, which meant they had to plan time together in advance. “The traditional dating rules went out the window,” she says. “I don’t think we would have booked dinner for a first date otherwise.” They moved in together for the second lockdown in November. “And it’s not just moving in and having a normal life. It’s moving in, and it’s lockdown. We were sharing a desk in the kitchen, cooking together, doing everything together.”
A survey by eHarmony and Relate dubbed 2020 the year of “turbo couples”: 36% who moved in together for lockdown said they felt the time equated to two years of commitment. So will we see a rise of turbo-weddings this year? Jacqui Gabb says it’s too early to say whether the pandemic has strengthened new couples, “because we’re not at the other end of it yet”. She thinks the same goes for its true impact on long-term relationships.
I get back in touch with family lawyer Elaine Foster, just after the third lockdown is announced in early January. She started fielding tearful calls from clients earlier that day, the moment news began spreading online, and now anticipates a busy month: “I’ve had seven new inquiries today,” she says. Though she says a rush of January inquiries was not unusual pre-pandemic, she has noticed an increase in anxiety among clients, “because everything still feels so uncertain”.
If the year tested our resilience and adaptability, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t a fair fight. Some had to deal with far more than others. And some, like Cara, in having an affair, found extreme ways to cope.
But for Denise, the year threw a happy curveball: “If someone had said to me after the first lockdown, ‘There’s going to be another at the end of the year and you’re going to be spending it with somebody you met in the summer,’ I would never have believed them,” she says, “As they say: it always happens when you’re not expecting it.”
Some names have been changed
How to lockdown-proof your relationship
With couples, I often talk about the “creative mind”. Put your heads together and decide the way you want your daily lives to look. You can build a structure that works for you and for the way you intend to relate to each other.
Set out your Covid house rules
Differing attitudes to the pandemic can make you on edge, so agree on your Covid house rules (such as washing hands when you come through the door), write them out and stick them to the fridge.
Fight over feelings, not facts
Think about what you are actually arguing about. Often it is not about your partner not emptying the dishwasher, say, it is about you feeling unacknowledged or marginalised. If you take “you did this” out of the equation, your partner won’t feel attacked.
Have a safe word
Come up with an agreed word that will be used to stop an argument in its tracks – and only revisit the argument when you have both calmed down. Another option is to agree to leave the room if things are getting too heated, with the understanding that this is not “storming out” or a rejection, but allowing things to cool off so the dispute doesn’t escalate.
Have a zone of your own
Creating separate spaces from each other, even if you live in two rooms, can reduce stress. This could just be a corner to work or exercise in, or even a shelf that your partner does not use. Agree that these individual spaces get tidied at the end of the day, so the evening feels calmer.
Have a daily minute of gratitude
Every day, tell your partner one thing you are grateful for about them. This could be, “I’m grateful that you made me a cup of tea today,” or “Thank you for asking me how I was this morning.” A good time to do this is when you’re having dinner; if you have children, get them involved, too.
By Charlotte Friedman, psychotherapist and author of Breaking Upwards: How To Manage The Emotional Impact of Separation