Why couple conflicts have spiked during Covid-19 pandemic
The coronavirus has meant that partners across the world have less time and money and are dealing with an unprecedented amount of chaos and uncertainty.
In Wuhan, China, applications for divorce have doubled since the outbreak. But in South Africa, the measures implemented to curb the spread of the disease have unintentionally had deadly consequences for women.
Scores have been murdered as gender-based violence (GBV) continues to increase at an alarming rate.
On Wednesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa described the violence against women and children as an epidemic.
“As a man, as a husband and as a father, I am appalled at what is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of our country.
"At a time when the pandemic has left us all feeling vulnerable and uncertain, violence is being unleashed on women and children with a brutality that defies comprehension.”
Ramaphosa said 21 women and children were killed in the past two weeks, including Tshegofatso Pule, who was found hanging from a tree while nine months pregnant, and Sanele Mfaba, whose body was dumped under a tree.
Other cases include Naledi Phangindawo, who was stabbed to death in Mossel Bay, and a Pretoria woman allegedly stabbed to death by her boyfriend.
While not all the women died at the hands of their lovers, experts believe that the measures implemented to curb the spread of the virus have inadvertently resulted in a spike in domestic violence.
“South Africa is a conservative and patriarchal society with economic and educational disparities for different genders,” Johannesburg clinical psychologist Michael Sissison said. “Many people still think men know better and women are considered less significant and as a result, more open to abuse.”
These sentiments were echoed by the Family Institute who said something was inherently wrong with our society.
“We live in a culture that objectifies women, and inadvertently sends a message to men that women are there to satisfy their needs. This is reinforced in many forms, such as roles and responsibilities at home, in love relationships, media messages about women’s sexuality as well as private male discussions where women are made out to be trophies.”
But while not all women in romantic relationships are being subjected to domestic violence during the Covid-19 lockdown, tension between many partners is palpable.
“The lockdown had an usual impact - for good and bad - on people’s relationships and they were faced with problems and situations they never faced before,” Parktown North couples and relationship counsellor Michael Kallenbach said.
“Suddenly you notice that the person you’ve been living with for years chews with their mouth open, they might make strange noises that you’ve never noticed before, they leave their shoes lying around or they just blink and that irritates you enormously.”
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) said its call centres and social media pages had been inundated with cries for help.
“There are various contributing factors, including financial issues, family problems and work-related stress,” Sadag operations director Cassey Chambers said. “Individuals are also dealing with their own anxieties and stress, and this sometimes plays out with the people you are spending the most time with.”
A recent report by the New York Times found that distress from a global crisis has meant that the content of any given fight doesn’t even really matter.
A US developer of a psychobiological approach to couples therapy, Dr Stan Tatkin, said couples were at war even when they were in love.
“That’s as much a biological reality as an emotional one. We have brains built more for war than for love. In order to survive, we have more threat centres in the brain than anything else. It’s part of the human condition, and it’s part of the problem in all relationships.”
Tatkin said that when a couple were fighting they produced more catecholamines, which are excitatory neurotransmitters and hormones.
“You’ve got noradrenaline, which makes you very focused, very attentive, but you can also be focusing and attentive on the things that are specifically threatening, and not see other things. We’re wired to pick up threats, and do so with whatever we see, whoever we’re around, even our partners.”
Leepile Thebe, a social worker and psychologist at the Ebenezer Psychological Consultancy, urged couples to face their conflicts in a constructive and proactive way.
“Avoid the ‘blame’ trap to reduce unnecessary conflict because when we start finger-pointing at each other, there’s no room for growth or change.”
He said individuals should take responsibility for their own actions, they should learn to express themselves effectively and avoid making assumptions.