Why lockdown’s toll on relationships could be a public health issue

Increased usage of online therapy services shows how much lockdown has affected couples. 

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Many couples may be facing a post-lockdown relationship reckoning, according to experts. For some, the period of relative isolation has meant more quality time together, but for others a long period confined to the home has raised tensions.

“A realignment is coming,” says Gurpreet Singh, a relationship counsellor at the UK's largest provider of relationship support, Relate. 

China’s divorced rate surged as the country’s restrictions lifted. In late May, authorities approved a law requiring couples filing for separation to complete a 30-day “cooling-off” period before proceeding. A similar spike in divorce queries has also been reported in India. 

Will the UK go the same way? Although a quarter of couples surveyed by Relate say lockdown has put additional pressure on their relationships, many are choosing not to use therapy services online. Relate’s data shows a dip in calls and outreach during the first month of lockdown and enquiries have only recently reached pre-lockdown levels. 

Relate typically sees a surge of demand for its services after a period of people staying at home together, such as at Christmas. “Sometimes it’s not until a crisis is over that one fully understands its impact,” says Singh.

However, individuals who have contacted Singh are calling from their cars, sheds and “all sorts of places” to get alone time away from their partners. 

“Many people are living with their partners, families or housemates and are unable to speak freely to a therapist in a confined space,” says Dr Sheri Jacobson, founder of psychotherapy clinic Harley Therapy in London, adding that before lockdown the majority of couples therapy took place in-clinic, which provides a confidential, neutral environment. The lack of privacy in lockdown is the “chief barrier” to people seeking online counselling.

While Harley Therapy saw demand for their mental health services shoot up in March and April, the number of couples attending online therapy dropped.

Financial worries could also be a factor for couples not seeking relationship help. In the UK, one in three households have seen a drop in income since the pandemic began. As a result, couples may not have the cash to spend on their relationship, says Singh. 

However, relationship wellness apps, offering a cheaper alternative to the online therapy provided by clinics, are seeing a spike in usage. The popular relationship therapy apps Relish and ReGain saw their highest ever monthly downloads in April, according to App Figures. 

Lesley Eccles, the founder of Relish, says using apps might be preferable to one-on-one therapy sessions, simply because they’re more fun: Relish includes interactive games and quizzes to engage users. 

Moreover, Eccles thinks lockdown has been an awakening for couples: many are realising that relationship health is crucial to personal well-being. “In this environment, all we have is each other – and people are realising that this is worth investing in,” she says. 

Apps are not the only tool. The Marriage Course  a workshop for couples, operating in 127 countries  launched its first online version when the UK went into lockdown. The digital programme is organised by Holy Trinity Brompton church, London, the originators of the evangelical Alpha course. In under two months 6,238 couples have registered with Holy Trinity Brompton for The Marriage Course.

Nicky and Sila Lee, the founders of Marriage Course, say, in their opinion, there are several reasons for the course’s current popularity: it’s free, anonymous, and a safe space for people to vent their issues and learn better communication skills. 

“Also, it’s simply easier to do [therapy] online. It’s not such a big effort, couples don’t need to get a babysitter if they’ve got kids. In quarantine, people have more time together and aren’t travelling about the place,” says Nicky Lee. 

Nonetheless, apps and online services have their drawbacks. “In my experience, apps can be a good place to start, but making lasting changes can be more thoroughly explored with a counsellor who can delve deeper and work on issues unique to the couple,” says Singh. He adds when people use apps, it is important they have confidence in the developer and verify that the information is based on credible research and experience. 

The end of relationships cost the UK taxpayer £51 bn every year as of 2018, an increase of £14 bn in the last ten years, according to The Relationship Foundation’s ‘Cost of Family Failure Index,’ 

The £51bn takes into account the benefits, health and social care, housing, policing, legal fees used to support families and individuals in broken relationships. The Relationship Foundation's 2015 report found that tax credits for members of broken families took the lion's share of the annual bill, at £13.44 bn, alongside the cost of NHS and local council social care, at £15.43 bn. The latter includes the price of treating injuries from domestic abuse.

“We need to invest more at a policy level. Educating people in relationship skills is a public health campaign,” says Sila Lee. 

Sebastian Shehadi is the political editor (FDI) at NS Media Group. Miriam Partington is a freelance journalist. 
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