Mental Health

Is the ongoing pandemic a litmus test for relationships?

Even people who considered themselves to be in a healthy relationship probably found themselves googling relationship tips during lockdown, or pondering whether they should stay together or break up when lockdown was over. These tips from experts might help to put relationships during the ongoing pandemic into perspective.

According to DIY Legal, South Africa’s divorce rate rose by 20% during the coronavirus lockdown – and Ruvé Esterhuysen, a clinical psychologist based at the Life Mental Health unit at Life Poortview, isn’t surprised. 

‘Human beings need personal space – both physically and emotionally,’ as pointed out by Ruvé. ‘Living together, seeing each other 24/7 and juggling different roles and responsibilities while confined in one space can be very challenging. Add to that the significant stress of possible COVID-19 infection and concerns about job security, and any relationship can become strained.’ 

In some cases, the unequal division of duties and responsibilities, which became clear as moms took on the responsibility of cleaner and teacher in addition to their regular jobs, also played a role, often leading to conflict and resentment.

What about dating?

Established relationships weren’t the only ones to suffer during lockdown. For people who were dating, the logistics of getting to know someone in a COVID-19 world made the search for ‘the one’ even more complex. As Ruvé points out, the ongoing pandemic makes it difficult to meet people face to face, so many are resorting to dating via online platforms. 

‘It can be hard to connect online with someone that you don’t know, and it’s not easy to create shared moments when you’re physically apart.’ 

New couples faced the added dilemma of whether they should use lockdown as an opportunity to try cohabiting, despite the real possibility that this relationship litmus test could prove to be too much pressure for a fledgling couple.

These issues haven’t disappeared now that lockdown has largely been lifted. Ruvé observes that the importance of social distancing introduces a tricky dimension to the dating game, and it’s necessary for partners to negotiate rules around safe contact. 

Meanwhile, those who managed to survive lockdown while living separately may find that as they start spending more time together again, relationship conflicts may intensify or be reignited. The converse might also be true because, for some, lockdown brought people closer. 

Relationship advice 

Given these challenges, it’s not surprising that even the most starry-eyed lovers started to feel less enamoured with each other. There’s a helpful lesson in this, explains Ruvé. What cannot be overstated is the importance of finding a balance between giving each other space and consciously making time to connect emotionally. 

‘Have a conversation about each partner’s wants and needs, as it relates to space and connection, and talk openly and honestly about your worries and anxieties. This demonstrates support and helps to validate what each person is going through. Discuss your finances, too, and devise a plan for navigating this tricky area under the current economy – especially given that many couples and people in a relationship cite financial problems as the reason for splitting up.’

Ruvé offers these additional practical steps:

  • Plan an outing or another activity to break the monotony of a day spent working at home.
  • Set up a schedule so that each person understands their responsibilities and there’s an equal division of chores.
  • Establish a timetable for people sharing a workspace to avoid unnecessary disruptions.

‘Be clear about your expectations of each other so that you can avoid disappointment and possible conflict. And if an argument does arise, create some physical distance so that you can get mental clarity,’ Ruvé advises, adding that it is important to speak to your partner with respect and sensitivity at all times. 

When things are more serious…

For many women, a romance gone sour was the least of their worries during lockdown, as gender-based violence spiralled out of control. 

Ruvé warns that it can be difficult to recognise the signs of abuse, but explains that it is any behaviour that causes physical, sexual or emotional damage, or causes someone to live in fear. If this sounds like your relationship, it’s important that you take the following steps:

  • Understand that the way you are being treated is wrong, but this is in no way your fault.
  • Understand, too, that even if the abuse is not directed at your children, they are unavoidably affected.
  • Your safety, and that of your children, is paramount. So seek help – talk to a trusted friend, family member or counsellor. 
  • Devise a safety plan, outlining where you can go and who you can call in case of emergency. 
  • Keep all your important documents and items (like IDs, birth certificates, bank cards, clothes, medication and keys) in one place in case you have to leave suddenly. 
  • Teach your children what to do and who to call if they don’t feel safe.

Save these details in your phone

It’s important to use your voice and speak up about abuse. Don’t suffer in silence.

Gender Based Violence Command Centre

What they do: Telephonic counselling, offer emergency help and expedite help to victims

Call: 0800 428 428

SMS: ‘Help’ to 31531

Stop Gender Violence Helpline

What they do: Telephonic counselling in all official languages

Call: 0800 150 150


What they do: Telephonic counselling

Call: 0800 055 555

Tears Helpline

What they do: Free and confidential support to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and child sexual abuse

Call: 010 590 5920

Dial: *134*7355#

Emergency services

South African Police (SAPS): 10111

ER24: 084 124

SAPS Crime Stop: 086 00 10111

Fire Department: 10177

Relationships are challenging and need commitment and dedication, but sometimes even your best efforts aren’t good enough. If you are feeling overwhelmed, consult your general practitioner (GP) who can refer you to a professional counsellor, social worker or psychologist at a facility such as a Life Mental Health Unit. Life Mental Health is a leading provider of private mental health care at nine facilities in four provinces across the country.

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.