Heartbreak season: More couples are calling it quits amid challenges wrought by the pandemic

Travel restrictions due to closed borders brought about by Covid-19 also led to the demise of some long-distance relationships.
Travel restrictions due to closed borders brought about by Covid-19 also led to the demise of some long-distance relationships.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

SINGAPORE - The course of true love never did run smooth.

But when confronted with an unprecedented global pandemic, relational challenges once seen as molehills become mountains amid new fears and uncertainty.

Plagued by problems such as a lack of quality time and diverging priorities, Casper (not his real name), 26, ended an eight-month relationship in August last year.

He says: "During the circuit breaker, we weren't able to meet as much, plus she wasn't a fan of video calling. This brought about frustration, triggered her anxieties and raised insecurities.

"I realised that we had different expectations of the relationship and the pandemic made it worse. There was a lot of pent-up unhappiness."

His is not an isolated case. Other dating couples are also calling it quits after almost 1½ years of seclusion, heightened anxiety and more time to re-evaluate their priorities.

Local Facebook community Singapore Breakup Support Group, created in 2019, saw an increase in heartbroken individuals seeking advice during the circuit breaker period last year.

Since March 2020, the group has received at least two inquiries a month from those seeking help to cope after breaking up. It now has nearly 10 volunteers helping to run its support service, from just two people.

Dating and recovery coach Cherlyn Chong, who runs an online business, saw a 10 per cent increase in clients who had split up over the past year, compared with 2019. She estimates she now has 28 clients on the mend from break-ups.

Her divorce and break-up group for women on Facebook also saw a 15 per cent surge in members over the same period. Called Get Over Him, it now has some 10,000 members.

With six years of experience in helping the heartbroken - both men and women - move on, she notes that "prolonged distance does not make the heart grow fonder".

"Right now, there is a sense of hopelessness and it feels like there's no end in sight. Without the ability to engage in our love languages, it becomes harder to feel loved and stay connected."

The five love languages - quality time, physical touch, acts of service, words of affirmation and receiving gifts - were coined by American author and marriage counsellor Gary Chapman.

He says that understanding one's primary love language, or the way one prefers to express and receive love, allows for better communication and conflict resolution in a relationship.

Counsellors note that engaging love languages like physical touch and spending quality time together was more possible pre-Covid-19 for unmarried couples, but under the current circumstances, it has become increasingly difficult to do so.

Sophia (not her real name), a university student, broke up with her boyfriend of two years in June last year after incessant arguing, which was exacerbated by not being able to meet up.

Increased conflict due to misunderstandings brought about by communication issues precipitated the end of their relationship.

Their fundamentally different moral values - he was religious and she was not - also became painfully apparent.

Sophia says: "The pandemic definitely affected our communication since we would usually argue and talk it out in real life.

"We would try to settle our disagreements via video call or texting, but a lot of unintentional miscommunication happened because there was no body language to reference and it was hard to read tone over texts."

Similarly, 20-year-old student Cassie (not her real name) cited a lack of physical meetings as a factor in her worsening relationship, which ended in December.

Escalating conflict brought their differing priorities to the fore. She was concerned about her health and family; he was more focused on his personal interests. They decided to part ways.

Travel restrictions due to closed borders brought about by Covid-19 also led to the demise of some long-distance relationships.

For instance, 25-year-old marketing analyst Lim Li Xuan called it quits in April last year when her former boyfriend had to fly home to Spain after the circuit breaker was announced.

"I was sad, but I knew that a long-distance relationship wouldn't work because he's not much of a texter and for long distance to work, the whole relationship has to be online," she says.

"The pandemic definitely played a part in us ending the relationship prematurely. We didn't have any problems that caused us to be unhappy, but rather, we just weren't ready to give up our whole lives for each other and relocate."

It was painful, she adds, as her heartbreak played out against the backdrop of the global crisis.

Her regular counselling sessions helped her to cope and move on.

Counsellors from three different practices interviewed by The Sunday Times say that the pandemic was not the main factor in the break-up cases they saw, but merely a trigger. It widened fault lines that already existed in the relationships.

Mr Joachim Lee, principal psychotherapist and deputy executive director of Eagles Mediation and Counselling Centre, notes that couples who lack a strong foundation find it difficult to weather the challenges wrought by the pandemic, as they "struggle to relate as stressors build up".

"The circuit breaker and heightened alert periods meant that the emotional needs of some couples could not be met, unlike in conventional dating conditions, straining the relationships. Some felt disconnected, resulting in conflicts and, unfortunately, in some cases, a break-up," he says.

Ms Jean Chen, director and psychotherapist at private counselling practice Relationship Matters, adds that increased job worries and economic uncertainties during this period, combined with a lack of assurance and positive emotional responses, proved to be a recipe for romantic disasters.

She says: "Emotional responsiveness towards each other is very important. When there is a lack of care for hurt feelings in conversations, communication breakdowns happen.

"And when there is a lack of reassurance or comfort for each other, break-ups happen."

Psychotherapists and counsellors interviewed say that the essential traits needed for couples to weather the ongoing storm are gratitude, empathy and self-awareness.

Mr Jonathan Siew, principal counsellor of Care Corner Counselling Centre, who has seen a 5 per cent increase in unmarried couples coming for help since 2019, says that one way forward is to practise mindfulness.

"I think we can benefit from having a better understanding of ourselves, how we function and how relationships function," he says.

He outlines a basic lesson in honing self-awareness.

"First, identify behavioural patterns. For example, if your partner did something to upset you, you may want to ask questions like, 'How did I respond to it?'," he says.

"The idea is to establish an understanding that we co-create situations and we sometimes feel frustrated and upset. It's normal.

"But if you can go a little deeper, start to recognise what's underneath the feelings. Is it sadness? Humiliation?"

But should all efforts at staying together fall through, dating and recovery coach Ms Chong offers some sage advice for those moving on.

"What needs to happen first is a huge forgiveness of the situation, themselves and their ex. Yes, there will be sadness, frustration and anger, especially amid the pandemic, but the next step is to accept that it happened and not deny reality," she says.

"Lastly, create a goal where you will take this as a lesson and become better. After all, time doesn't heal all wounds, action does."

For Ms Jenn Chow, who usually relieves stress by going for karaoke sessions or clubbing, the lockdown period forced her to focus inwards and find new coping mechanisms after her three-year relationship ended last August.

The 23-year-old sales executive says: "This was my first time without having any distractions. I used all my time to heal properly and really paid attention to my emotional and mental health."

She picked up bullet journalling, read and doodled for personal growth and reflection.

"At the end of the day, I am the only one who can help me, so I have to be there for myself," she says.