Separating while self-isolating together
Being obliged to stay indoors together stresses any relationship, but many couples who were thinking of splitting or who had agreed to do so are now locked down indefinitely. What’s more, England's deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries urged couples to ‘test’ their relationship by living together rather than risk the temptation to visit each other’s households, which is strictly not allowed. So what do you do if you’re now thinking you’ve made a mistake?
If you’re only thinking about splitting, it may be better to acknowledge that the relationship is stressed but wait until you stop self-isolating to make decisions about the future. The relationship may improve once you’re out of lockdown and, even if it doesn’t, it may be helpful to physically separate as soon as possible once the decision has been made. Take particular care if this is a new relationship as you don’t yet know how your partner will react to the idea of breaking up. The risk of domestic violence increases once separation is considered, even if it hasn’t occurred before.
If you’ve already agreed to separate, don’t feel you have to plan your future in-depth during the lockdown period, as you may feel differently once the restrictions are lifted. On the other hand, if you’re able to have calm conversations and largely agree, making plans can increase feelings of well-being. Treating each day as experimental may be helpful. A daily conversation about what you’ve learned, rather than what you did or didn’t like, may produce more fruitful and calmer conversations.
Despite wanting to end their relationship, many couples continue to get on well, at least in some ways. It’s consequently helpful to focus more on what is working than what isn’t, and to try to increase the time you spend on non-controversial, non-triggering activities. It’s a good plan to have a plan, and never too late to make one, so a frank discussion of what you’re each likely to find intolerable may make it easier to work out when to have some space. Timetabling your days to allow space is a great idea for all relationships. Even in a small space, it should be possible not to be together sometimes. Cooking, showering, exercise and work provide obvious occasions to be separate, but you can add many more. For instance, these days you can be in the same room doing different things, thanks to the use of headphones and mobile devices. Inviting friends or family to join you may also be a helpful way to pass the time chatting, playing games, doing quizzes or watching a movie. Alternatively, you may want to schedule separate times for socialising too, making it necessary to take turns in using certain areas.
As well as negotiating space, privacy and avoidance of annoying habits, do consider what you say to friends and relatives. You may want to confide in one or two people, but it might not be helpful to make a general announcement or to bicker when you’re supposed to be enjoying an online cocktail hour with friends. It may also be easier to keep a lid on rowing if there are children around. Trying to stick to a routine, and letting them see you co-operating will help them feel safe even if you admit to being grumpy with each other. It’s absolutely not helpful to tell your children you’re splitting unless you have a well-thought out plan for the immediate and longer-term future, and it’s never a good idea to confide in them or complain about your partner to them.
There are lots of tips online at the moment for avoiding rows, such as blaming a third invisible flatmate rather than each other for the dirty dishes or pretending that you love your partner’s foibles. However, that’s easier said than done and the reality may be difficult. For instance, there’s a process known as ‘grave dressing’ when couples split, whereby they create new stories around their lives together, finding fault with everything and even insisting they were never really in love. This can make it easier to separate but it makes living together very unpleasant. It’s more helpful to negotiate how to be together and to suspend hostilities as much as possible. Sometimes, this polite effort can make couples wonder whether the relationship could work after all. However, it’s also very easy to ignite an old spark only to be disappointed when it fizzles out again.
If one of you wants to split and the other doesn’t, you’ll need to agree that being respectful and friendly is desirable and shouldn’t be seen as a sign that the relationship is on again. Equally, you should be able to check out the other’s response if you change your mind. But don’t keep going on about it if your partner still wants to end the relationship. This could exacerbate tension and doesn’t help you to begin accepting what’s happening.
Many couples jump to the conclusion that their relationship is broken when life becomes stressful. Some create additional pressure with beliefs about how they ought to be able to cope. Acknowledging that self-isolating is stressful for everyone is a first step towards managing the stress and is much more useful than blaming yourselves or each other.
Be honest about what you need, and be curious and interested in your relationship rather than being disappointed when your expectations aren’t met. Couple counsellors and sex therapists are continuing to work online so do seek support, whether you want help to end a painful relationship, manage living together while separating, or are hoping to repair the relationship. Whatever your needs, they’re there to offer hope for life beyond lockdown.