As we re-enter society, we’re gradually shedding the lockdown routines that took over our lives, and some may be considering ending their relationship, too.
It’s been an intense year-and-a-bit for couples, after all. Some might be feeling closer than ever, even developing codependent behaviours after the extended period in each other’s pockets. Others, meanwhile, are just about done.
But if you’re easily annoyed by your partner, how can you tell if you should really break up, or it’s just a symptom of this God-awful situation we were thrown into?
Dr Katherine Hertlein, a couples therapist at the sex therapy app Blueheart, says it’s vital to consider if it’s just your partner you’re annoyed with, or the world.
“The pandemic issues are going to occur across all different parts of your life,” she says. “So what you’re going to notice is a generalised tension and anxiety – perhaps at a low level – but it won’t just be in your relationship.
“It’ll be a little bit at work, a bit at home, a little bit here, a little bit there. It’s this general sense of dissatisfaction. That’s how you know that whatever you’re going through is attributable to the pandemic, as opposed to a partnership.”
On the flip side, if you notice your alarms are only going off around your partner – particularly in response to a particular habit or trait – that’s the clue something in the relationship needs working on.
Among her clients, Dr Hertlein is seeing evidence that the pandemic has most frequently exacerbated or illuminated problems that existed before, rather than created new issues.
“The issue of lack of attention, for example, has become more noticeable when there seems to be more opportunity to attend to your partner and it’s not happening,” she says. “It may be something that people explained away with work schedules and things like that before, but if we’re all in the house and the schedule is a little more aligned, then you start to ask some hard questions like: ‘okay, why isn’t the attention there?’”
It’s been a tough year for everyone, she adds, so before you pull the plug on a relationship, pause, take stock, and see if you can work through the problem.
The first step is figuring out what you actually want and need that you’re not getting. The second step is communicating this to your partner, without anger or judgement. “One of the more common things I hear is: ’I shouldn’t have to communicate my needs, my partner should know because we’ve been together three months/four months/10 years,” says Dr Hertlein. “I say: ‘Listen, your partner is not a mind reader.’”
“The issue of lack of attention has become more noticeable in the pandemic.”
Give your partner a few tries at meeting these needs – again, we’ve all been pretty exhausted. But if it’s not happening after a good go, it might be a sign it’s time to walk away.
“Track those instances where you’ve expressed your need and if we’re coming up to three, four, five times where you’ve said it, the frustration will start to set it,” says Dr Hertlein. “That’s when people start to think: ‘I love this person, but perhaps they’re not capable of giving me what I need.’”
Break-ups are often tricky, but Dr Hertlein believes there are some steps to take to end things more amicably. “Moving out of the house in the middle of the night and not giving a forwarding address is probably frowned upon,” she jokes. “I think it’s about being flexible.”
You can express to your partner that the pandemic has made you realise you want something different, she says, while also expressing gratitude for what they’ve given you. It’s important to acknowledge how you muddled through this really hard period of time together, plus talk about how you might want to be in each other’s lives going forward.
“The pandemic has been really difficult for a lot of people, and I want to make sure that everybody moving forward recognises that we went through this really difficult thing together,” says Dr Hertlein. “That person is going to be a part of your life because they were part of your life in this unusual part of history.”