The last eighteen months have been the strangest in living memory. No-one could have predicted the impact of the global pandemic on the fabric of our societies. Just about everything that we took for granted two years ago has changed in some way and any hint of a return to normal living is seen by many as a new dawn. Whether you believe the theories of an intentional/unintentional escape from a lab or the species jump that most people believe happened, life will seemingly never be the same again. We have all been affected in the way we run our lives, the jobs we do and according to many reports, even child development has taken a blow.
Despite all that, one area of our lives that one might think has been affected more than most is in the relationships we have with other people and especially in our marriages and romantic relationships. Those who were living appart before the pandemic were kept apart by subsequent lockdowns and some of these relationships might not have survived. However, according to many reports, the bigger danger for marriages and relationships (and the people in them) was when the couple were forced to stay under the same roof for long periods without the usual relief of other activities.
This has obvious consequences for women especially trapped in a home in an abusive, controlling relationship. The lockdowns gave controlling, abusive people ample opportunity to increase their abuse and as I wrote in the first lockdown, this wasn’t too well thought out by governments across the world. In Europe, where rates of domestic abuse are always high in some countries, reported even higher rates and special measures were brought in to help victims. Sadly, for some, it was too late.
So just how have marriages survived the pandemic and the lockdown? This is an interesting question which possibly comes down to how individual couples were before the lockdowns and whether they saw a need or willingness to adapt during. It has been hard for everyone and the true effect of the pandemic on relationships is probably not that clear. Many people are emerging into a freer world with a special form of social anxiety (if my clients can be a guide) where they are having to find new friends and partners and are looking to increase their social circle. All relationships would have gone through a change during this time. Early on in lockdown, I recognized the need for a “space” where the individuals can spend time alone. This made things a little less intense.
Back to the effect on marriages. According to a well known divorce lawyer in the UK, the divorce rate is just as high as before but the reasons people are divorcing are changing. Due to bars and restaurants being closed for so long, couples are separating less due to adultery but more because of “other” issues. She stated that divorces concerning cheating had dropped 63 percent but reasons citing “bad behaviour”, including coercive control, domestic, emotional and physical abuse had risen 78 percent. In many of these cases, and I quote, “that being separated from lovers had caused toxicity to be highlighted within the marriage”. She also stated that everyday issues had become larger, such as sarcasm, criticism and nitpicking (a form of constant criticism over small things). Some couples had not spoken for months despite being in the same house. Other lawyers talked also about the rise in addiction.
Whether this can be put down to the influence of lovers (not everyone has one), it did bring up the shift in what has become more important in these times. The article highlighted more than one legal firm who noticed the fall in adultery but the rise in coercive and controlling behaviour. One such firm had noticed a 122 percent rise in divorce enquiries, saying that adultery is “not a great part of that”.
So just what does this tell us? One of the divorce lawyers stated that we should all be a “bit more French” concerning adultery. True or not, there is a widely held view that many French marriages survive due to their more open view on taking a lover outside of the union and that we should all adopt this way of being. This doesn’t reflect reality where domestic abuse rates are generally believed to be rising dramatically across Western Europe. The lawyer goes on to say that we need to look at marriage in a very different way in 2021, after the pandemic. She advocates pre-marriage consultation and agreement on just what is acceptable to both as the marriage goes on. She states that if a “couple decide to stay together, build a fair and equal relationship and concentrate on being good parents, then it might not matter if they find someone else more interesting as long as the union is held”. She goes on to say that if both individuals agreed, “it is a perfectly sensible model to adopt”.
This flies in the face of what is deemed acceptable behaviour in the sense of what we are usually told about marriage from a societal and religious point of view but just who sets those rules? While I find the comments made by the lawyer controversial to say the least, the idea of a pre-marital guide is not a bad idea. I am just not sure that leaving open the idea of “agreeing to adultery” is very helpful. Many couples try open marriages and they often fall apart when an emotional attachment is created with someone outside the marriage who was intended as purely a sex partner. Do we truly as humans have the consciousness and awareness to make something like that work? I always remember the strangest request I ever had in this area. A group of four couples wanted to establish themselves as an open group where sex could be engaged in with anyone in the group without repercussions. They basically wanted a contract to cheat on their partners, by agreement. That arrangement was found but one year later, two of the couples separated and formed a relationship with another member and said they wanted to leave the group. The emotional aspect of the arrangement had taken over.
In couples therapy, I am seeing more and more of the “small” issues causing trouble. Control and resistance to such things as tidiness, parental issues and daily routine are causing great stress. Some couples have highlighted this as the main source of their problems and they state they didn’t realise this before. This points towards the lockdowns especially having a great effect on this and especially as many had to work from home.
This is something in my opinion that is difficult to regulate because the future is difficult to predict. Relationships change as people mature and what was acceptable at the start might not be years later. I also wonder how many women especially would feel forced to agree to this concept for fear of the consequences of refusing. You do have to wonder also, why married people would be trawling bars and restaurants looking for lovers. I think it comes down to some hard truths about marriages that can’t be resolved by legislation. That once you decide to marry someone, you can choose to treat that person as an equal, devote time to working on the marriage and resist “temptation”. If you cannot do that, do the right thing and leave. It is also true to say that infidelity is one of the worst things that can happen to any couple. It breaks trust that might take years of work to bring back, if it ever does. Encouraging it is unhelpful. That is true before and after the pandemic.