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'In lockdown, my wife got close to her colleague. Within weeks, our marriage was over.'

When COVID-19 hit Australia last March, I was feeling lucky. I had managed to get on a flight to Singapore the week before and squeeze in one more business trip before international flights were restricted. 

Singapore had taken it in stride; they had seen this type of thing before and with great efficiency were able to track, trace and contain most outbreaks. People were generally working from home. The metro was virtually empty, but the bars and restaurants were still open. I took an empty flight back to Sydney and landed without any drama. No one asked me any questions, no one took my temperature. Nothing.

I wanted to get home. My wife and I had been together for 20 years, married for almost 15. We had three lovely boys, in addition to a mortgage and school fees. Coming from the UK and somewhat detached from my own family, my wife's tightknit clan and the allure of Sydney always meant it would be our final destination, the place where we would raise our children and call home.  

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I love my family. I thought we were happy but after several years of living and travelling around the world, our life started to drag a little.  We started to feel the pressure of middle age and a sense that maybe living in the present for so many years may have come at a cost. Nonetheless, our marriage was always sound and my wife was the kind of woman who accepted the good and not-so-good with grace and strength. I felt that we would get through this difficult period. 

Things changed in the first week of March when a sort of coronavirus mania took hold in Sydney and other parts of Australia. We watched the horror unfold in Italy as the hospitals were overwhelmed and many people started to die. It was scary. 

In the middle of March, the Ruby Princess disembarked 2700 passengers in Sydney harbour, of which 440 would eventually test positive for COVID-19, setting in motion a severe NSW government response. Closer to home, I was chased out of my brother’s house after a cough and a sniffle and strongly encouraged to be tested.  

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After 45 minutes on the phone to NSW Health and a fruitless ring around to a half-a-dozen clinics on the Northern Beaches, a nurse friend was able to figure out that the major public hospitals had set up COVID-19 clinics. Thank goodness for nurses. Up to the hospital and within 30 minutes, I had a swab down my throat and one up my nose. It took five days to get the result, which was negative. I wasn’t surprised but my brother was greatly relieved.

Then Sydney went into full coronavirus lockdown. Restaurant and bar closures, work-from-home orders, home schooling. After a terrible bush fire-smoked summer, many Sydneysiders seemed to relish the idea of an extended work from home break during the lovely autumn, when the sun was shining and the sea still warm enough for a late afternoon dip. Lots of dog walking and business calls in gym shorts, strolling along the harbour. It was also a little exciting, to be honest.  

The pandemic was a good reason to skip school or work. It was fascinating to monitor the daily statistics. Natural disasters never really touched us so it was more than a little entertaining (provided we could watch from a safe distance).

Unlike me, my wife was an essential worker so continued to go to her office and even got busier as the rest of the economy slowed down. After eight years as a stay-at-home mum, she was excelling at work and enjoying her career, even if it was a little stressful at times. I was happy for her success, encouraged her progress and quietly relieved that she had a steady job.  

On the other hand, my work, highly dependent on international clients, was suffering. Our boys were distance learning by then so I became a stay-at-home dad, although not a very good one. I quickly realised that working, organising the boys and cleaning up the house was a lot harder than I ever fully appreciated. Alison made it look easy, as she did with so many things in our lives.  

By the end of the Easter holiday, I was begging the school to take our children back because I could no longer bear to monitor every electronic device in the house, clean it and get any work done. On the other hand, our dog was very happy since he was getting three long walks per day. 

I started a family ‘COVID-19’ forum which became a hotbed of debate between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in our clan. If you had a steady job, assets, a debt-free house, a dog, a family, etc. you were in pretty good shape and generally supported a comprehensive lock-down. If you did not have these things, then the experience was like... living through a global health crisis. Hospitality, tourism and transport workers were the obvious casualties but there was also a large contingent of casual ‘work for yourself’ types, like me, whose work dwindled. One downside to the ‘gig economy’ but I always managed to ride through the downturns.   

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But it dragged on. The NSW restrictions softened, winter came, Victoria went into crisis mode, then America went into the second wave (or was it the first?). When it all started, I thought it would be done and dusted within three months. A nice little government-imposed holiday. What could I do but wait it out? 

My work suffered and suddenly six months had passed since I had really done much of anything productive. Short-term cash flow suddenly became an issue. Three months became six months. My wife then started to feel the pressure, which was a new experience for her. I began to avoid family gatherings, feeling a little like an oddball with nothing going on or interesting to say. She said later that I was angry a lot, indeed I had become deeply frustrated with myself. I hadn’t realised that a subtle depression had begun to sink in.

When my wife said she was going to meet her work colleague Rob, who just separated from his wife, I was not concerned. I had always trusted her implicitly and completely and never felt threatened. Ironically, she told me the next day that Rob’s separation was caused by his wife’s infidelity, which I found a little surprising. 

My wife began spending a lot more time than usual outside of our home, ostensibly for work (early and late), her masters’ degree, and a volunteer role she had taken on, with Rob. I tried to support her, thinking that embracing a temporary role as a ‘house-husband’ was the least I could do. Then, I started to feel like a ‘manny,’ which made me a little resentful. 

My wife was always a bit of a homebody so when her absences started to increase, I realised that something was wrong. Our children began to notice. After some effort on my part to figure things out, I was shocked when my wife finally admitted that she was unhappy but she could or would not willingly articulate the reasons.  

We had lived together for many years in relative harmony without realising that we had rarely communicated about anything very important. We just seemed to agree on almost everything, with the isolated arguments quickly swept aside. Without realising, something had changed. 

Was it me or was it her? Both of us? Very suddenly I went from being fully confident in our marriage to someone in great distress over the thought of being detached from a woman I had been deeply connected to and in love with for 20 years.

It was then I realised that the pandemic of 2020 had impacted me, much greater than I realised. While I had been functioning on a day-to-day basis, something was missing. I wasn’t earning much or interacting with people on a professional basis. I wasn’t staying fit or keeping up with projects around the house, many of which remained half-finished. I kept putting important things off, when it was a perfect time to clean out the cobwebs and get things done. I didn’t feel depressed, but something wasn’t quite right. 

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My wife, on the other hand, was fully engaged in her career and social life, which increasingly did not include me. Our paths seemed to have crossed moving in much different directions. I took pride and some satisfaction in knowing that she was flourishing in our partnership, after spending so many years looking after our family. But I was losing my sense of confidence and ability to talk about anything not domestic. 

A large part of my life and my identity has always been very much tied to my work and now it was almost largely dependent on my wife and children. I thought I was helping them, but the truth was that it was also an excuse not to focus and try harder. Without realising it, the frustration, sense of failure and shame that I felt towards myself had poisoned the thing I valued the most, my marriage. 

When my wife moved out of our home a month later, she said she needed ‘space’ to reassess our relationship. Her family instinctively moved to protect her, and I suddenly felt alone in a country which was not my own. I was stunned.

How could she make this consequential decision so quickly? What was the basis for ending our 20-year partnership in one month? Our children were confused and devastated. I tried to give her the time and space she craved but her detachment combined with the knowledge that she was not being honest made me severely anxious, like a disease ravaging my brain.  

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My instinct has always been to pull her close to me. Now it had the opposite effect – to drive her away. Logic and rational thought seemed to be suspended. Within six weeks, she started talking about selling the house and admitted that she had been spending a lot of time with her ‘friend’ Rob, without telling me. Apparently, Rob was depressed over his separation and he needed her companionship. She says she loves me, but I don’t know what it means anymore. She was unhappy but how did I fail to notice how deep it was? How did we get to this terrible place so quickly?  

New GDP figures just released show that Australia has already come out of the COVID recession. We are a ‘lucky country’ indeed. For many, the pandemic of 2020 will become a not entirely unpleasant memory. It will be viewed as a year of rest, relaxation and time to reassess and refuel where most of the bad stuff happened outside of these shores. For others, 2020 has been a nightmare as the financial, mental and emotional impact of COVID-19 hits home. Two tracks. Those who have and those who have not. 

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Christmas was my first without my wife in 20 years. It was hard. 2021 is a new year and likely the one in which the coronavirus is brought to heel. Who would have thought this time last year that the world would be stricken with such a catastrophe?  

We had come to expect that such things like plague, pestilence and pandemics were of a bygone era. Our society is much better equipped to handle these natural disasters now, but a heavy toll has been paid, whether our political leaders chose to eradicate it or let it run. Family and friends who passed away too soon; those who couldn’t touch or speak with a loved one; a year lost when it could not be afforded; the unemployed, poor and mentally ill. Many have suffered and yet many more seem blissfully unaware.  

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has had numerous victims, physical, emotional and psychological, most of whom never saw it coming. While the issues in my marriage were already present, a perfect storm of financial stress, boredom, depression and opportunity were accelerated by COVID-19.  

As a society we should not underestimate the hidden psychological impacts of a pandemic. By the same token, long-term partners shouldn’t push aside the pernicious effects of poor communication over time and changes each of us goes through as we move through middle age. While we may be in sync for most of our lives together, it is not guaranteed or indefinite and we must vigilantly strive to stay connected.  

Oftentimes, the institution of marriage does not bind us together the way one or the other may expect and an illusion otherwise can be a dangerous trap. Trust over many years, so important in a partnership, can become a very painful double-edged sword when it is suddenly not reciprocated.  

Whether its public health, mental health or the health of our relationships, complacency is a mortal enemy which can only be defeated by wisdom, mindfulness, and compassion. Just as COVID-19 doesn’t normally kill healthy people, the pandemic of 2020 did not kill my marriage. But my relationship was vulnerable and susceptible to infection. I didn’t protect it. I underestimated the lethal power of the disease and it has dealt me a blow from which I may never recover.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo.

Feature image: Getty.