Late September 2018, on an autumn weekday in the outskirts of Liverpool, a 47-year-old woman visited her local town hall. While her children were at school, she made the trip to find out how to leave her husband of 15 years.
She had been talking herself round to the idea of divorcing the man she calls the “love of my life” for a year. By this stage, they could barely be in the same room together, and she felt the “palpable tension” between them was affecting their two daughters, aged eight and 11. They’d had some “bad fights” recently, and he’d been sleeping in the spare bed for two or three weeks.
About a week later, Cosima Doerfel Hill went to the big anti-Brexit march in Liverpool coinciding with the Labour party’s annual conference. The day before that, she had a speaking engagement in Chester at a pro-EU music festival event called Rock for Europe. Also that weekend, she recorded two videos with the “#3Blokes” team who run an anti-Brexit podcast.
Having moved to the UK from Munich, Germany when she was 17, Doerfel Hill – or “Cosi” – is an EU citizen. In 1994, she graduated in Liverpool with a degree in Ancient History and Archaeology and began postgraduate work before it was interrupted by a long-term illness. Since then, she’s worked as a private tutor and began setting up a home-made herbal tea business just before Brexit ruined her plans – and threw her family into disarray.
Both she and her husband, who she met in Scotland 20 years ago (“I couldn’t find a decent Englishman so I had to import a Scotsman”) and moved to Merseyside with her, supported Remain in the referendum (he voted but she could not). But her impulse to leave Britain and horror at the result clashed with what she saw as her husband’s reluctance to face reality.
“My initial instinct was ‘I want to get out of here’,” she tells me over the phone. “Which made my children who were then aged six and eight burst into tears. And then I floated that to my husband and he said ‘No, I can’t leave, I’m too old for this carry-on’… My husband really refused to engage with Brexit and talk about it and he basically said ‘it’s impossible, it can’t happen’.”
In 2017, as Cosi began researching her rights and participating in pro-EU activism, their relationship deteriorated. “I started getting more absorbed with that, and my husband was watching this and I felt that he thought I was just being hysterical. I felt that he wasn’t taking me seriously, I felt that he just was very critical of this.”
Cosi would be exhausted from staying up researching her rights or updates from the Home Office online until 2am and 3am, and her husband would be concentrating on getting the children up for school every morning.
“I have to take my hat off to him, something maybe that I didn’t acknowledge or appreciate enough was that he still kept everything ticking over at home,” she recalls. “Even when he wasn’t giving me the emotional support, he was still being very practical.”
She felt Brexit was a “taboo” subject with her husband, and they fought about it. He “flipped” and “screamed his head off at me” when she wrote a testimony for the book In Limbo: Brexit testimonies from EU citizens in the UK (June 2017). (The In Limbo project also has a second book, out this June, In Limbo Too: Brexit testimonies from UK citizens in the EU.)
“He got very, very angry,” Cosi tells me. “He felt that I was disclosing too much personal detail and he was worried about me getting attacked over this. But of course for me, all I could hear was that he’s shouting at me. It wasn’t supportive, it was aggressive. So these things drove us further and further apart.”
They also clashed this summer, when Cosi’s husband was apprehensive about her taking their eldest daughter to the People’s Vote demonstration in London. “He did get it but he just couldn’t engage,” she tells me.
Eventually in late September, he began to admire her activism and has come round to Cosi’s potential “plan B” for her family of moving to Ireland.
“I started to educate myself, as I was getting worried. The realisation was beginning to hit me and it hit hard,” says Cosi’s husband, who wishes to remain anonymous, over email. “I was waking up to the importance of what she was doing… She was doing stuff I had never seen before: marching, speaking at conferences, spreading the word. One night just before she was speaking at an event I broke down in tears: we spoke for the first time in months, years.”
He says he had been “carr[ying] on regardless” as his wife became heavily involved in campaigning. “I was still thinking this will work itself out – ‘It will be ok, it will be ok’,” he was telling himself.
“Head buried in this way, I carried on,” he says. “Walls went up and things between my wife and I got more and more distant. She would get up and spend all day on the computer or phone until well into the next morning, I grew more resentful: ‘Why are you wasting your time on this?’”
As they argued more than spoke, he says he was “getting the children up, feeding them, getting them to school, going to work, coming home, cooking evening meals, getting the kids to bed, it all felt one-sided… I was exhausted, bewildered, and resentful; we argued more and less got done.”
Although they have managed to speak about their differences, their relationship is “still very raw” according to Cosi, and her husband says “we still don’t know what to do”. While they may have avoided a divorce for now, other couples have broken up because of Brexit.
A survey by the relationship charity Relate following the referendum result found a fifth of counsellors had clients who had argued over Brexit. That same year, the organisation Resolution, which represents family law firms, warned that Brexit was adding pressure to couples on the edge of divorce.
The actor Michael Sheen revealed last week that he and his partner of four years, the comedian Sarah Silverman, broke up because of Brexit. Living in the US, he wanted to return to Britain and address why his fellow countrymen voted the way they did, and Silverman had a similar response to Donald Trump’s presidency.
This unlikely bit of showbiz gossip has brought the personal impact of such a uniquely divisive political event to the fore.
“There’s more anxiety about what the future holds now,” observes Gurpreet Singh, who has been a counsellor for eight years, and works with Relate.
“A political view is telling of an under-riding value system. And that’s where I think it [disagreement] all emerges from,” he says. “So if you think about what may have caused someone to vote one way or the other, if your job is being threatened [by Brexit] and you feel strongly about how your family member or your partner may have voted and increased the threat to that, then that may in the end have an impact on the relationship.”
In his counselling room, Singh encountered couples and families who had never even realised – until the referendum result – how different their value systems were.
“Sometimes people are unaware they’re going to have these differences in opinion. It’s not until Brexit came about that these stark polar views emerged.”
I hear from couples who felt the same nasty shock.
“He changed. It’s almost like somebody scratched something and all the nastiness came out which I didn’t know existed,” says Sigrid*, a 54-year-old client service director in London who moved to the UK from Finland in 1985.
After the EU referendum result, Sigrid’s English boyfriend of four years began saying he “didn’t like certain immigrants”, and went “really quiet and really angry” whenever she and her family and friends spoke about Brexit.
At her sister’s wedding in Scotland two days after the result, lots of their European friends and people of other nationalities attended. “He was like ‘I feel like a foreigner when I’m here’,” she recalls, speaking to me over the phone from London. “He said ‘I can’t believe I feel like a foreigner in my own country’.”
Sigrid’s boyfriend began to be rude about her family and friends, and he and his circle would talk openly to her about how “we don’t like immigrants in this country”.
“I didn’t notice it before,” Sigrid says. “Maybe I just wasn’t so aware of it because I was quite loved-up and you see past all those things.”
Sigrid and her boyfriend carried on seeing each other in this state, but he disliked her attending the European march and the Women’s March – and distanced himself shortly after.
“I was supposed to go back to his and he said just ‘don’t come over’ and ‘I just need a few days not talking to you’ and stuff like that,” she recalls. “He just really closed the door completely, really quite abruptly.”
Sigrid was completely distraught – she lost a stone in weight. With two sons in their twenties from a previous marriage, she had been hoping to settle down and escape the “horrendous” dating scene.
“I really felt like we got on so well,” she tells me. “In the first two years especially, we were really good. I just wanted to sort things out, I didn’t think it would lead to a break-up, and it did.”
Sigrid still feels “super angry” about Brexit’s impact on her personal life. “It’s stopped me from wanting to meet an Englishman,” she says. “I really have to work at it to not think everybody’s like that. I just want to leave but I have a family here.”
Another Brexit break-up survivor I speak to was similarly disturbed by her then partner’s hostility towards migrants. Agnes*, 24, is an EU citizen (but would prefer not to disclose which country) who studied in the UK and now works in London. She was with her boyfriend, who she met at university, for three years. At the time of the referendum, they were both 21 and living in Scotland.
“Part of why we initially got together was that I thought our politics were very much on the same page,” she tells me. Yet she realised Brexit would be a problem the moment the EU referendum was announced.
“Him announcing that he actually thought he would vote Leave, and then gradually becoming more and more vehement about it, made things painfully untenable,” she says.
Her boyfriend landed a job on the Scottish Labour Leave team, and would come back from a day’s canvassing and brag about his conversations with voters to Agnes, “despite knowing how racked with anxiety I was about losing my ability to stay in the UK”.
As the referendum drew closer, Agnes’ boyfriend’s campaign boasts and “devil’s advocate” debates about Brexit grew too much for an already frazzled relationship. “I think Brexit helped tip me into reality,” she says.
They would argue publicly about Brexit, with Agnes almost always ending up in tears. “My literal boyfriend was not just voting, but heavily campaigning, for my right to live in this country to be removed.”
In one heated argument in front of their mutual friends, Agnes recalls her boyfriend “essentially said ‘Yes: it is worth you getting deported to make Brexit a reality’ and I was like ‘Ahhhhh… OK. This relationship is 100 per cent not carrying on’.”
They broke up two months before the vote.
Of course, EU citizens in the UK and vice versa are particularly vulnerable to Brexit-based heartbreak. Not only if their partners reveal jarring attitudes towards their status, but also because an uncertain future – and compulsion to move countries – puts a strain on otherwise happy couples.
I hear many stories from people who have had their relationships break up or thrown into confusion because one partner wishes to leave the UK before no-deal chaos. The problem of bringing your partner over to the UK – and vice versa – once you are no longer an EU citizen is also putting couples under strain.
“People would have to make choices – the choice between going to look after an elderly relative, which could be for an extended period of time, and living with your husband or partner or family,” says Jane Golding, a self-employed lawyer who lives in Germany with her husband of over 20 years. She is originally from the UK and her husband is German – both have mothers in their eighties in their respective home countries.
“Now what happens if I wanted to go back to the UK because my mother got sick and I needed to look after her?” she asks, raising a concern that is prevalent among members of the campaign group she co-chairs representing UK citizens living in EU countries, British in Europe, as well as among members of its sister group of EU citizens in the UK, the3Million.
“Post-Brexit, at the moment, based on the UK government’s position, I would no longer be able to go back to the UK and automatically take my husband with me,” she says.
Up and Leave
But it’s not just British/European couples facing Brexit break-ups. Tensions between Leave and Remain-voting partners in Britain have also been too much for some.
After his girlfriend who he’d known since secondary school voted Leave, Liam* – a 35-year-old emergency services worker in Merseyside – eventually broke up with her. They were living together after dating for a year after university, having kept in touch since childhood.
“I can’t recall an argument of any substance in that time,” he tells me. The first moment he realised Brexit might cause issues for them was at a family barbecue, where his girlfriend voiced her opinions on the referendum for the first time.
“There were ‘too many immigrants’ in the UK, somehow being both a ‘drain on the welfare state’ yet simultaneously ‘stealing our jobs’,” he recalls. While he didn’t say anything at the time, her preference for “gut-level feelings” over facts bothered him more than her actual stance, which he tried to engage her about privately.
“To see a seemingly normal person so susceptible and quick to dehumanise other human beings, use terms like ‘swarm’, ‘infest’, ‘parasites’, to be quite honest the parallels to 1930s Germany were not lost on me,” he says. “Brexit, for me, showed just how much capacity there was for some people to be callous and hateful, and no subject previously had drawn that out of my partner.”
Her willingness to “hate strangers” was what “ultimately I didn’t want to be around,” says Liam, “and realistically, would not want children to be around either”.
Having tried to make his case and get her to consider his perspective, Liam eventually broke up with her – a month after that fateful family barbecue.
“Ultimately, Brexit didn’t break us up – I don’t blame Brexit for it – but it was a hell of a catalyst,” he says. “A quite incredible litmus test of just how little empathy and care a person who loves their family and friends can hold for their wider community and immigrants.”
For Liam, the “saddest” part of Brexit is that the Leave campaign was able to spark, or draw out, this nasty side in people like his ex-girlfriend.
While we often talk of Brexit being “divisive”, it’s usually in the sense of dividing politicians and the country – along regional, class and ideological lines. But those divisions are also breaking people’s hearts and shaking their personal lives.
“Sometimes you have to accept that a difference is not reconcilable within a couple,” says the counsellor Singh, who has just dealt with his clients mentioning Brexit in a session on the day we speak. “One argument feeds another. So not only did you vote differently, but you don’t even share the same value system about how to raise your kids. You add one on top of the other, and all of a sudden you don’t even know the person you’ve got into a relationship with.”
*These names have been changed on request.