The coronavirus crisis has put a serious strain on many aspects of our lives. Many couples’ relationship has been sorely tested too.
“Like a fire accelerant,” crises intensify unresolved conflicts, points out Dominik Borde, a relationship coach in Vienna.
He’s not the only couples therapist expecting a wave of break-ups and divorces on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic. Berlin-based psychotherapist Holger Kuntze, for example, reports a veritable stampede for counselling by couples with relationship problems. The number has increased by more than a third, he says.
This doesn’t surprise the therapists. For one thing, people who are fearful and in difficulties – as during a pandemic – typically don’t show themselves from their best side. And the crisis has shifted many people’s focus. Fulfilling long-held dreams has taken on new urgency. People are asking themselves how they really want to live, and with whom.
Kuntze divides couples who were locked down together into two groups. For one group, the forced togetherness was hell: Long-simmering conflicts boiled over and many a partner decided that the relationship wasn’t worth continuing.
In the other group, the partners made things cosy for themselves. “They reconnected and enjoyed the extended time together. But the normal daily routine is now back, they’ve got the same problems and are frustrated,” Kuntze says.
“The extensive restrictions on our freedom have made many of us realize that life isn’t endless and we don’t have forever to fulfil lifelong dreams that we’ve always put off,” says Borde.
The kinds of couples that are especially at risk of a break-up, in his view, are the ones prone to blaming each other for things that go wrong.
The same goes for those who have never learned to manage their emotions and build relationships. But self-improvement is possible if they draw on their pandemic experiences, Borde says.
Kuntze advises couples to discuss what each partner has learned during the coronavirus crisis. This could reveal common ground and facilitate compromise, he says, but adds they’ve got a problem if it turns out their takes are very different.
“If one partner doesn’t want to resume the couple’s pre-lockdown lifestyle, while the other thinks it was just as it should be, there’s trouble ahead,” Kuntze remarks.
To illustrate his point, he cites a couple that shared a love of cultural activities before the pandemic hit. One partner sorely missed not being able to go to the opera, theatre and exhibitions during the lockdown, while the other didn’t and discovered it was far more enjoyable to be outdoors surrounded by nature.
“Something like this shakes up everything, of course,” says Kuntze. Ideally, couples use these differences to recalibrate their relationship, which he likens to the “moulting process” of animals that shed old feathers, hair, or skin to make way for new growth.
If the couple fails to reconcile their differences and splits, one partner is usually the instigator and also gets over the break-up more easily. The decision is typically prompted not only by current problems, but with the past and future in mind too – ie the relationship may never have been particularly satisfying and/or its prospects may not be promising.
Kuntze says the instigator should explain his or her motives and be sensitive to the rejected partner’s feelings. “You shouldn’t summarily brush aside your partner’s pain,” he says, “for example with the excruciating line, ‘Let’s stay friends.’ People want to be seen, heard and taken seriously.”
Most couples can’t handle such a one-on-one talk though, according to Kuntze, who says one partner’s heartache or the other’s impatience are usually impediments. So he recommends that they go to a therapist.
Borde, for his part, recommends seeing a therapist when you’re struggling to decide whether to continue or to end a relationship. A therapist, he says, can help you recognize your share of the responsibility for the problems and avoid repeating your mistakes – be it in your current relationship or any future ones.