After 12 years with her husband, Lisa* left her marital bed. She did not have far to go. Locked down in Melbourne, she moved into her daughter’s bedroom. “It’s not huge, our house, but big enough so that if one person was in one bedroom and one in the other, there was enough distance between us,” she says.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Lisa and her husband had been attending marriage counselling with a view to seperate, but when the world shut down, they found it “very difficult to do that online”.
Ultimately, coinciding with the first lockdowns in March 2020, the pair finalised their decision, but amid the uncertainties of the pandemic, they wanted to retain a stable home environment for their three children, who are of pre- and primary-school age. This led them to “nesting” – where a couple breaks up, but remains living together.
Sydney-based divorce lawyer Cassandra Kalpaxis says she has been inundated with inquiries about nesting since lockdowns began. “There’s definitely a lot of confusion out there in relation to moving houses if there has been separation,” she says.
Arabella Feltham, who works as a separation consultant for the Separation Guide online resource, has had a similar experience. “I have seen a definite increase in people discussing nesting with me. They have done a lot of their own research, asking me, ‘is this a viable option to help de-escalate and keep things amicable?’ What people are trying to do is keep the children as undisrupted as they can, keep them in the family home.”
With the help of a psychologist, Lisa and her ex-partner developed a parenting plan together online. “We implemented this, even though we were in the same house,” she says. She found the process helpful. “You had an arrangement with the kids already. So for example if it wasn’t my night with the kids, I would just go out after 7pm, when the kids were in bed, while he had them. I would just get out of the house. That’s what we both did … just got out where we could.”
She says this turned her relationship into something that felt like “a flatmate arrangement”.
“In the day we just sort of lead separate lives. There was a lot of avoidance between us … just silence other than stuff related to the kids. When there needed to be a conversation, there was a conversation. Otherwise it was just like ships passing in the night.”
When her clients bring up nesting, Feltham says “the first thing I’m doing is listening for any potential red flags that this isn’t a viable option … When it’s amicable, I can recommend nesting, but it’s not always suitable.”
Nick Tebbey, the national executive officer of Relationships Australia, says that while moving out in lockdown is “possible”, it is “a lot harder now in some places, because of restrictions on how real estate agents are operating and all those sorts of things. I think maybe that has led some people to think, ‘well maybe we can negotiate to be separated but stay under the one roof’.
“One of the issues that people have had to navigate now unlike ever before is, well what do you do if you want to separate from your partner at a time when we’re in lockdown, how do you go about making that move?”
Jack Whelan, who also works for the Separation Guide, adds that skyrocketing property prices have also put pressure on separating couples to nest, while restrictions make more affordable options, like moving in with family, harder to access. However, he says choosing to nest is “better if it’s a shorter term arrangement”.
After about six months, Lisa and her ex-husband found seperate homes, in a brief period when restrictions were eased. “I think it would have been easier to move apart quicker if it wasn’t for Covid, because you’re not so confined,” she says. “I think Covid has suppressed a lot of that natural support that you would get from friends and family.”
For other couples, lockdowns may put a damper on discussions of separation altogether. Marguerite Picard, a family lawyer from Melca, says: “The difficulty is even deciding to have the conversation about separation with your spouse. So some people want to separate but they don’t want to have that discussion while they’re locked in the same house.”
Picard’s experiences with clients are echoed in data from the Separation Guide. In the first months of 2021, inquiries to the service increased by 368%. The CEO, Angela Harbinson, says: “What we have been seeing in the pandemic, both last year and this year, is a lot of people planning and doing research online, but then waiting for lockdowns to be over to act. Last year we saw a surge of bookings once restrictions were lifted.”
But Tebbey says that while lockdown may make separation more difficult, “support is still out there, and in fact is even more accessible now, because of all the different ways that you can access support – whether it’s on the phone or over the internet”.
Kalpaxis agrees. “Knowing how they can access that support and educating themselves about their options is the most important tool. The federal circuit and family court of Australia have a new website about the separation process, which is helpful and free … And unless you’re ringing and asking that question, a lot of people don’t know that they can [move out].”
For those who do nest, she suggests speaking “to professionals, a lawyer, counsellor, psychologist. It could also be useful to have a mediator to help with challenging situations. Keep separate rooms if possible so you have your own space to decompress. Establish clear ground rules and make sure you are both committed to them. Have clear strategies around communication, don’t let things bubble. Do not put children in the middle, have a united front.”
Picard also notes that, once a couple do move into separate dwellings, conducting separation proceedings remotely can be a boon for some. “Some people are saying, ‘I just don’t want to do all this across Zoom, it just doesn’t feel right’. But equally I have had people say, ‘this is a really great opportunity to separate because I don’t want to sit down in a room with that person, and now I can do it on Zoom’.”
While nesting was an emotionally trying period for Lisa, she believes it was ultimately the right decision for the time. “It was a good segue for the children. They got the best of both worlds. They were in the same house; but Mum and Dad weren’t in the same environment – a tense one. It was tough at the time, but it’s all good now. It’s a difficult time, but it’s only a short period of your life.”
*Name has been changed for privacy