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Jemima Petch had a first-hand view of the deteriorating state of Australia’s romantic relationships during the Covid pandemic.
A clinical psychologist and the head of practice at Relationships Australia Queensland (RAQ), Petch says without the pressure relief valve of regular external activities, stress built up inside many relationships until they burst at the seams.
“You didn’t have the workplace relationships or your hobbies and friends to go to, to have those conversations,” she says. “Everything focused in this one place.”
But long after the last lockdown ended, things don’t seem to be improving for many couples around the country.
The divorce rate is rising and relationship counselling services say demand remains at extraordinary highs.
It’s leaving some experts wondering if the pandemic has had a permanent, negative impact on Australia’s love life.
Changed relationship dynamics
The phones continue to ring off the hook at RAQ. Whereas once there were spikes around predictable dates, such as Christmas and State of Origin, call takers now say it’s always busy, all of the time. The average call has also grown more complex, increasing from 45 minutes pre-pandemic to about an hour today.
“Clients are presenting with higher levels of complexity and distress and are at higher risk than ever before,” RAQ CEO Natasha Rae says.
It’s the same story in Victoria, according to Relationship Matters CEO Maya Avdibegovic, who says the state’s repeated lockdowns left many families in turmoil.
“It changed family dynamics, it changed dynamics in all relationships,” she says. “It would be quite unrealistic that with the end of the pandemic that those issues would become automatically resolved.”
The organisation is funded to provide in-person marriage counselling. Before the pandemic, they were able to manage their family dispute resolution caseload with almost no waitlist. Today, couples routinely wait six weeks.
That’s a big problem, because time is of the essence in avoiding a strained separation.
“The earlier you can step into that space and support them, you can expect better outcomes,” she says. “Any delay in that space actually has quite a negative impact on the relationship.”
More older people filing for divorce
Australia’s divorce rate grew in 2021 for the first time in years, to a rate of 2.2 per 1,000 people, up from 1.9 in 2020 and 2019. While this was partly due to administrative changes that allowed divorces to be finalised quicker, counselling services say they are continuing to send out divorce kits at an elevated rate.
Sam Young, client service leader at RAQ, says they’ve noticed a spike in one demographic in particular.
“My staff have noticed that older people that had been in relationships for a long time, have come out at the tail end of the pandemic and are ringing for information on divorce,” she says. “It’s unusual.”
Data from the Australian Institute of Family Studies shows the median age of divorce has grown steadily since the 1980s, to 43 for women and 46 for men. The 2021 divorce data saw the biggest rises, when compared with 25 years ago, in couples over the age of 50.
It’s not just marriages that have been left strained. RAQ research suggests about 18% of relationships – including among friends and family – were affected negatively by the virus.
A survey of their clients suggested the biggest stressor in relationships were mental health challenges faced by one or both parties.
There’s already plenty of evidence of a strong short-term mental health impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Mental ill health – either diagnosed or undiagnosed – is the number one factor placing pressure on our closest relationships,” Rae says.
Petch says feelings of loneliness grew during the pandemic and didn’t necessarily disappear when the rules were lifted as habitual social connections had been broken.
Loneliness can be as bad for you as smoking, she says, which isn’t the preserve of people living alone.
“We know a lot about loneliness and its negative effects on mental health. You can be lonely in a relationship.”
Whether or not the disruptions wreaked on relationships by the pandemic are permanent or temporary is still unclear, Petch says.
Rebuilding broken communication
The Deakin University senior lecturer Gery Karantzas conducted research on more than 3,000 people, looking at how relationships coped with change for more than a year during the virus.
What predicted a breakup wasn’t the severity of that stage of the pandemic, it was the number and severity of “stressors” on the relationship, and the effectiveness of the couple to cope with them.
“It might be that Covid exacerbated some things but the reality is … that stressors, strains and problems were already well present,” he says. “If it wasn’t going to be Covid, it was going to be something else.”
Karantzas speculates that the increased requests for relationship help actually reflects pandemic messaging urging people in trouble to seek it out.
For couples who are struggling to reconnect post-pandemic, Prof Brock Bastian from the school of psychological sciences at the University of Melbourne says there’s no quick fix – it’s mostly about rebuilding broken communication channels.
The couples who did make it through the fishbowl of stay-at-home orders largely got there because they were good at talking to each other, he says, and they should take increased confidence in their relationship from the experience.
“I think it’s a good test. To the extent that it was a challenge, and it was difficult. If you get through that, and you manage it well, I think it can increase your confidence to knowyou can handle a few difficult and rough periods in life.”