6 Pointy Tips: How to manage the end of a relationship in lockdown

Dr Maree Livermore
Founder & CEO

For those of us with relationships on shaky ground, the COVID era has been pretty disastrous.  Approximately 25% of couple relationships have become worse rather than better. We may soon separate, either while we’re still under the same roof, or as soon as we’re able to move on.  But in the meantime, we’re marooned in discomfort and uncertainty. How can this unwanted COVID togetherness be tweaked to be more workable (and safe), and perhaps even to set up a ‘good’ separation? Can we legally separate while still living in these conditions?

What do COVID relationship troubles look like?

Relationship breakdown in the time of COVID is flavoured by the usual sadness and irritation, topped with the situational stress and aggravation from COVID-related changes, and then buzzed in the microwave of too much closeness.  All in all, it’s likely to be a bit of a hot mess.

If you’re still living with the person, there is the constant ‘presence of the absence’ of what the relationship should be or was, but now very clearly isn’t.  This might be experienced as a grief, day-to-day, that you can’t get relief from.  Then there is also the constant ‘presence of the presence’ of a person who is just not good for you anymore.  You might be listening to their voice on work-call after work-call during the day, or putting up with controlling, complaining or other behaviour that you really need to get away from. Lastly, there is the devastating personal  impact of the anxiety and disappointment about loss of income and opportunity that COVID has brought down on so many of us, and which saps our ability to be our best selves in any interpersonal situation, let alone at the end of a relationship.

This toxic cocktail of grief, anxiety, depression and anger may lead a couple in the throes of relationship breakdown, and who occupy the same household, into new vistas of expressed or unexpressed conflict, whether that is about what action is best for the children, or what brand of tasty cheese is bought at the supermarket.

The situation may seem out of control, but it is possible to wrestle this thing down. The situation needs an action hero and, ready or not, that’s you.

The usual ‘how to cope in COVID’ advice

We have heard it/read it/watched it and possibly even sung it many times now: the standard wisdom about ‘how to cope in lockdown’. We should be learning to meditate, sticking to a routine, dressing at least the top half of ourselves properly every day, watching our substance use, getting outside, engaging with mental health professionals, eating well, drinking lots (of water), exercising around town like Rocky Balboa, and if we’re not connected via weekly social zoom events for something like trivia or movie club, we’ve just not arrived in 2020!  

Now it’s obvious that doing even all of these things is not going to fix our issues with that other person. But, if we can just drag ourselves to cover them, it is boring but seriously true that the misery quotient will be much-reduced, and help us to make our own outcomes better. 

The Six Pointy Tips: managing separation under one roof (if it is actually happening)

More particularly for those on the very edge of relationship breakdown while you must continue to live together, the following practical actions will help:

  1. Use anger as a pit-stop flag.  As soon as a ‘discussion’ starts to get heated, stop and take a time-out.  Take at least 20 mins to calm down. But don’t leave the conflict hanging. When you both feel in control again, let’s come back together and try to sort the issue out.
  2. Mediate yourselves. Active listening and constructive talking clarifies misunderstanding and resolves conflict. What does this look like? Well, just like in mediation, you say how you feel about a thing and I stay quiet and listen. Then we swap roles, rinse and repeat. We take turns to paraphrase and summarise each other’s points of view. Neutral if not friendly language all over. Then, after we’ve tried to understand where we each stand on the issue, we try to define the gap between us, and consider what we each could do to cover this.
  3. Earphones. It’s much harder to feel aggravated or to cause aggravation with your ears engaged elsewise.  
  4. Suspect yourself.  Examine your own motivations, especially when you are arguing about parenting issues. Is it about the child or other issue, or is about winning this latest battle?
  5. Best behaviour wins. Though it might not feel like it at all, things have moved along, in your head at least, and you are on your way to freedom now. Now is the time to invest in the best possible outcomes! And whether you measure that in property settlement $ to you, in the wellbeing of your kids or in your own physical and mental health, the fact is that high conflict separations reverberate in all sorts of damage for years and years. Don’t have one if you can help it, powered with your own self-restraint. 
  6. Make a ‘Separation Pact’. If it is common ground that the relationship is over, you can relieve the tension, and get some certainty and positivity into the situation with a written Separation Pact which, ideally, you both sign and date (although this won’t make it legally enforceable).  Without going anywhere near the complicated issues like property settlement or post-separation parenting, you could discuss, agree and write down few things about you plan to manage your short-term situation like:
    • what is the effective date of your separation?
    • how long do you both agree that you will remain under the one roof?
    • what circumstance or action of one or both of you (or the world) will change this?
    • what household tasks are you both going to perform now – for yourselves, for each other, for the children?
    • what will you do now about other aspects of togetherness? (e.g. about going out, seeing friends, sleeping arrangements, announcing the separation).
    • how will you deal with conflict?

The more you can properly talk, about the future and the past, the better. COVID might even enable an understanding that you wouldn’t have reached otherwise. This can only be good for both of you, going forward.  

What makes a separation-under-one-roof legal?

The first and most important action is that at least one partner makes it clear to the other that the couple relationship is permanently over, and from a certain date. Use clear words about this, especially if you are still living in the same residence, or if only one partner wants the separation.   And that separation date is a pretty important one, going forward.  Best to guard against any uncertainty about it by getting it in writing somehow–whether that’s in a Separation Pact (see above), or in a note (preferably signed by both of you), or even just by your own email or letter to your partner, naming the date and referring to the fact that you’ve decided to call it quits permanently. This is the painful bit. There is no getting around that. But it will be better for you in the end if you step up now and do it properly.

If there is agreement or you have clearly communicated your intention that the relationship is over, and you have a record of that, then it doesn’t matter too much what else you do or don’t do in the house while you stay stuck together in COVID time. Just keep in mind that if you will be relying on this period of separation-under-one-roof to count towards the 12-month waiting period before you can divorce, you will need to file a separation-under-one-roof affidavit with your divorce documents. In that affidavit, you will describe the details of the separation (who said or did what and when to communicate the intention to end), and then how aspects your togetherness have permanently changed since the date of separation. (Did you tell friends and family you were separated? Did you tell Centrelink?) If your partner decides to be difficult later on, it’s best to have this type of evidence already in hand.

Separation, domestic violence and ‘under-one-roof’

Lastly, it is vital to understand that separation is the time of the highest incidence of domestic violence. This is so even if domestic abuse has never been a feature of the rest of the relationship. But studies also show that there is an increased risk of serious domestic violence at separation for women who are separating from an habitually abusive partner.  Thinking ahead is key here. If you even suspect that telling your partner you want to separate will put you or the children at risk, then just don’t do it while you’re still living together. And then, when you are clear to leave, and do announce your intention, have a plan to stay safe (somewhere else to be, someone with you or listening out for you, communicate separation in writing rather than verbally, using the phone…)

So you’re stuck under the same roof until, well… until things change.  But you can still get a sense of moving forward. Use this time to clarify in your own mind what’s going to happen next, (and next after that), and about your own plans for the new life.  If you just can keep things cool-ish and tidy for now, and look after yourself in the difficulty of the togetherness, the new life is going to be a whole lot better.