Divorce inquiries, problem drinking, and domestic conflict have all increased in the last nine months, according to experts, as the pressures of the pandemic put couples and families under strain.
Research from organisations including Drinkaware, Co-op Legal Services, and our own data unit – which found one in five crimes during lockdown in England and Wales concerned domestic abuse – has laid bare the worrying trends over the last year.
Now, one woman from Greater Manchester has spoken of how lockdown drove her relationship to the brink after her husband found himself out of work. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.
“I felt like I wanted to run away from home and never come back”, Sarah says.
For 20 years she had enjoyed a happy marriage to Kevin. Then lockdown came – and unravelled that bond with a frightening rapidity.
As Sarah puts it, she suddenly found herself living with a stranger. A stranger who was so drunk, angry and argumentative that Sarah began to dream of leaving their Greater Manchester home for good.
And yet, before the pandemic, Sarah, who is in her 50s, reveals, the couple never argued.
“We got on quite well, we made each other laugh. Everything was OK,” she says.
A self-employed tradesman, Kevin was the main breadwinner, a role he was proud of. That all changed when the pandemic hit, and the work dried up.
Kevin found himself at home with little to do. And suddenly the balance of financial responsibility shifted, with Sarah able to continue working from home.
“(Kevin) got a grant from the government but it ‘wasn’t a lot’, she says.
“I said from day one ‘don’t worry (about money), my income will cover it’.
“With him providing for us for all these years, I felt it was OK for me to do. He provided for us when the kids were small”, Sarah adds.
As things turned out, the new arrangement put a greater strain on the couple’s relationship than it did their finances.
Kevin, so used to providing for his family, felt like a failure. He filled the void with booze – six bottles of strong craft ale a day. And he took it out on his wife, Sarah, nitpicking and snapping, leaving her feeling like she was walking on eggshells.
“I don’t know if he resented me. He has always been a cave man – he would always bring the bacon home,” she says.
“He would prefer me at home baking. He has always provided for us – for a long time.
“All these insecurities came out. He couldn’t bring in any money into the household.
“We never spoke about it together. He was drinking throughout the day.”
Changing roles was just one thing that through the relationship out of balance. The amount of time they spent together – the long hours cooped up between the same four walls – closed in on them.
Sarah had always found Kevin caring – before the pandemic, when they could go their separate ways in the daytime, and then relax together in the evening.
But trapped together, round the clock, with no escape from the sour atmosphere, she began to wonder how much she really knew him, and could barely bear to be in the same room.
It seemed his personality had changed, and a once happy domestic life was now, ‘literally, like living with a stranger’.
Even when Kevin was able to go back to work again, there was little respite. Sarah says it was like he had ‘given up on himself’, and lost all interest in anything but drinking all day while she worked, before doing all household chores by herself in the evening.
“I felt really uncomfortable in my own home, I’m sure he did as well,” Sarah says. “I started to question the marriage.”
“I couldn’t tell family or friends. I didn’t want to feel as though I was going against him.
“I didn’t know if I had to move out or look for places on Rightmove. I was looking up how to get a divorce and things.
“I thought ‘this is just the end of it all. Everything I have known has completely collapsed around me’.”
The reopening of pubs after the first lockdown brought joy to many, but for Sarah, it presented yet another problem for her marriage. Kevin couldn’t wait to get back to the bar, and Sarah, who has underlying health conditions, felt he was putting her in danger by doing so.
“I’m quite happy being in Tier 3,” she says. “After (the first) lockdown, when the pubs reopened, I did feel a bit resentful…. I felt he was putting me at risk, mixing with others in pubs and mixing with other households. I thought ‘he doesn’t care’.”
The breakthrough came through communication. Gradually Sarah started opening up to Kevin, telling him she wasn’t happy with the way he spoke to her.
“I think he knew I came to the end of my tether,” she says.
They are now, tentatively, getting back to where they were – but there’s still much mending to do.
“Things are a little bit different now – we are definitely happier. But it’s not as strong as it was.”
Of course the pandemic, and the resulting lockdown, has affected everyone differently. As Sarah puts it, “I know for some people (lockdown) had completely the opposite effect – made their relationship stronger.”
But the struggles of Sarah and Kevin are far from unique.
Dr Kimberly Dienes is an an honorary lecturer at the University of Manchester’s Manchester Centre for Health and Psychology.
Speaking of Sarah’s experience, she said: “She and her partner went through a major life stressor, the loss of a job, with the associated financial strain and loss of self esteem that often goes along with job loss.
“It sounds like her partner coped by withdrawing and lashed out when asked to interact, which was understandably hard for her to deal with.
“Under normal circumstances they could have had the space he needed to cope, perhaps bring in others for him to talk to, but with lockdown, they were forced into continual contact, which is the big problem for many.”
In an interview with the Manchester Evening News last month, Dr Dienes offered advice for struggling couples, saying communication and a room for breathing space is key.
“Instead of lashing out, try to talk about feelings. Say ‘I am feeling claustrophobic, I need to go to the bedroom and close the door, could you please look after the children'”, she said.
“One of the hardest things for a couple is not to take those emotions out on each other, work as a team as much as possible and recognise how hard it is on both partners. Just acknowledging each other’s position as much as you can,” she said.
“A lot of people think seeking couple’s counselling means there’s something really wrong but that’s not the case.
“A lot of couples only go to counselling at the very end when they are about to leave and that’s a huge mistake. If you just go sooner, to get help talking and recognise the pandemic is a really unusual situation and speaking to people can really help.
“For cases where people feel scared and they are in an intense domestic situation you should reach out for help as quickly as you can.”