‘Let’s leave the city! Let’s get a dog! Let’s get a divorce!’ Do we regret our pandemic life changes? | Coronavirus

There was a lot of big talk during the pandemic as we used that eerie combination of silence and panic to re-evaluate our priorities. Fear of change evaporates when everywhere you look there is upheaval you didn’t choose. Why not do that thing you have always wanted to do, chuck in your job or get an iguana? Practically speaking, it was a new world, in which life in the city was all downside and no up. Suddenly, the relationships you thought would endure till death parted you wouldn’t last five more minutes; at the same time, the person you met on Wednesday was now living with you. The pointlessness of your job leapt out at you, but was it the work itself, or just a proxy for modern life?

Especially in 2020, this all looked as though it was going to bring about huge life changes. By August of that year, one in seven Londoners wanted to leave the city. Nationally, four in 10 people were more inclined to look for houses in rural locations than they were before Covid. Developers in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool were panicking. In early 2021, one estate agent noted the “largest exodus out of London in a generation”.

Meanwhile, inquiries to divorce lawyers soared. One firm, Stowe Family Law, reported an increase of 162% between 2020 and 2021. As inquiries fed into actual divorces, the Courts and Tribunals Service showed 3,000 divorces registered in the week of 6 April 2022. The average the year before was 2,000.

‘I’m like the addict that can’t walk past a bar’ … Kirk McElhearn, here with his wife Sally, got obsessed with breadmaking. Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Guardian

When the dust had settled, however, a lot of the changes weren’t as stark as all that. Urban life recovered its lustre and many of those ex-Londoners turned out to be young people who had just temporarily moved back with their parents. Liverpool ended up with a higher population than before. People largely didn’t leave their jobs, or if they did it was only to move to another one – a timeless choice. Rates of economic inactivity were unchanged. If there is a labour shortage, blame (whisper it) Brexit.

Marital breakdown turned out to be more complex, possibly thanks to the recent introduction of the no-fault divorce, or Covid-related financial pressures, rather than the pandemic itself. The one thing – or 3.2 million things, to be precise – that Covid can take credit for is an influx of pets. There was a huge rush for animals during the pandemic; a staggering 33% of households now have at least one dog.

Nonetheless, this decade has thrown up some weird conditions in which to make a major decision. You would expect some people to have regrets, right? Any choice made in the middle of a crisis will have impulsive elements, uncharacteristic thought patterns; surely some of those choices will have turned out badly. Well, yes and no. Regret doesn’t quite work like that.

Fuschia Sirois, a psychology professor at Durham University, says: “There’s a natural human reaction to mistakes, or decisions that we might regret initially. They create a cognitive dissonance, a disparity between our thoughts and our behaviour. Leaving that gap open creates aversive feelings and we try to close it.” If we can close the gap with our behaviour – reverse the decision – then we will do that. But if it is irreversible, it is much easier to change the thoughts.

Psychology professor Fuschia Sirois.
Psychology professor Fuschia Sirois. Photograph: Courtesy of Fuschia Sirois

Mike Nicholls, 66, a writer from London, moved with his wife, who works in the film industry, to the Suffolk market town of Sudbury after spending some time near Manchester looking after his parents. “They’re all so insular here,” he says. “People have lived here for generations. There’s a lot of resentment and jealousy, which you just don’t get in London.” He misses cinemas, parks, theatres that don’t show only pantos – he misses everything. “Since the age of 14, I’ve had a local pub, somewhere I can just go, make friends, watch the football, talk about music, gossip. This is the first place I’ve not had a local. That kills me.”

Change is uncomfortable, agrees Sirois, but she says: “We’re also psychologically designed to adjust to things. Psychologists refer to this as our emotional immune system. Once we’re in a difficult situation, we find ways to cope with our thoughts.” Sure enough, Nicholls’s counternarrative breaks in, with apparently unbidden positive thoughts – “It’s beautiful here. Our house overlooks the water meadows. It’s like being in a 3D art gallery” – and soon he is making droll downward comparisons. “I’ve got a friend who moved from London to Isleworth [still in London, even if it is on the western fringes] and he’s regretting that!”

David Matthews, 54, moved with his wife, Danielle, and two teenagers to Barbados in November 2020, from Balham, south London. It was an easy and carefree decision – during lockdown, Barbados introduced a short-term visa called a “welcome stamp” and it made a convincing case for it (“Work remotely from paradise” – it feels almost mad not to). He and Danielle had been going there for holidays for many years and her father lives there. “My family is actually from Guyana,” he says. “I’ve always been a Caribbophile and I grew up in a family household with a very strong West Indian identity. There was no such thing, when I was growing up, as black culture, which has become this amorphous, corporatised thing.”

David Williams in Barbados.
‘I might have to do some supercommuting’ … David Williams in Barbados. Photograph: Courtesy of David Williams

He doesn’t regret the move, only that he has to move back – it was only ever temporary and his wife’s work is in Britain. “I love London,” he says. “I’m a proud Spurs season ticket holder and my friends, many of whom I grew up with, are still there. But it was only once I got to Barbados I realised how much the racism affected me. If I had a penny for every bullshit cliche and stereotype … it’s boring. It can wear you down. You can like that, or you can lump it. And after a year and a half in Barbados, I’d be quite happy to lump it. I might have to do some supercommuting.”

When you look at the statistics for divorce, it tells one story, but from the inside of the lawyer’s office things look different. Sebastian Burrows, a managing partner at Stowe, says: “What we noticed almost overnight was a change in needs. There was always a proportion of our work that was relatively amicable, relatively peaceful problem-solving. The other element was highly contentious, full of conflict and domestic abuse. The quieter stuff fizzled down – those people found themselves able to manage – and we were left with the people who couldn’t put it off, plus the people who found that Covid exposed problems in their relationship.”

Divorce is the ultimate not-regretted event, because the process is so arduous that if you can get through it without giving up, you must be pretty settled on the outcome. Burrows has met couples who have almost reached the final separation and then got back together, but that is a three-or-four‑times-in-a-career event, he says.

Amanda (not her real name), 48, who runs a business in the Midlands, had been married for more than a decade when Covid struck. As she describes it, the details of her ex’s financial … I don’t know what to call it; it is not control, more like coldness … are jaw-dropping. Despite being a very high earner, he would not contribute to any childcare so she could get back to work after they started a family, or even go out; wifehood in his model was a kind of catch-22 neo-serfdom, in which she had to earn her time away from the house, but couldn’t leave it long enough to earn. “You just think: this is life, and you carry on. It’s not that bad. At least he’s not hitting me.”

It came to a head in lockdown, by which time one of the children had behavioural problems and needed a lot of medical intervention. Faced with a tantrum, Amanda’s husband exploded, “screaming and shouting, effing and blinding”. Amanda’s family members intervened and said they would help her with a separation.

She has one regret, a profound one: that she didn’t do it sooner. “Almost within a week of me having my own house with the kids, my eldest’s meltdowns started to decrease. Now, he hasn’t had one for nine months – he’s a different child. This is why I regret it so much – if we had broken up before the pandemic, I could have saved him two years. Because I think what he was actually doing was picking up on my unhappiness and acting it out. That is why I feel so guilty and horrendous.”

This, says Burrows, is a much more common regret than regretting the divorce itself. “Because I do this all day, every day, it’s easy to forget that divorce is a once-in-a-lifetime event, massively daunting and unknown.” People almost never instigate a separation on a whim; usually it is something they have been dreading and avoiding for ages. “Very often, people say: ‘I’ve nearly done it five times before – my family and my sisters have been begging me to.’”

To regret that a decision wasn’t made sooner can be seen as reverse “what if?” thinking; even while it is painful to think of time wasted and bad situations endured, it is psychologically protective in that it reinforces the decision.

There are downsides to living without a backward glance. Sirois’s research into chronic procrastinators showed a lack of “counterfactual thoughts. They didn’t engage with if-onlys; they were only engaged with trying to feel better in the moment. So not regretting maintains their dysfunctional behaviour pattern.”

Flipside personalities – self-critical perfectionists, who are prone to depression – predictably demonstrate the opposite: “an excessive amount of ruminative if-onlys. But the things they focused on were things that they couldn’t change. You can’t do anything with that information – you get stuck there in the negative feelings that have been generated without purpose.”

Then there are regrets that are genuine, keenly felt, but also funny. When Kirk McElhearn, 62, who lives with his wife in Stratford-upon-Avon, went into lockdown, everything was broadly fine – they missed their two adult children, who live in Paris and Manchester, and he took a bit of a hit to his income, but they lived in a village, next to a farm shop, and it was manageable. Then he bought a book, Modernist Bread – five volumes in a stainless steel slipcase. “It wasn’t a fad. I didn’t do the whole hipster neck beard. I’ve been cooking for decades. I wasn’t making … [a pause] sourdough.”

Still, the work came to dominate his days. “I just dived into it, made bread two or three times a week. Different kinds: brioches, dessert breads. You pop it out of the oven, you slather it with butter and marmalade; it’s just perfect.” (He speculates that the smell of yeast acted on his brain chemistry and made him feel loved.)

Then, abruptly, he had to stop, because he and his wife had gained a load of weight. He sounds relaxed about it: “I’ve lost 6kg now; I could still lose another five.” His regret is that he can’t make any more bread. “I’m just afraid; I’m like the addict that can’t walk past a bar.”

This thought is a form of self-compassion, Sirois says. When you say it out loud, you realise: “You’re probably not the only person who took up bread and you probably won’t be the last.”

Almost the first phrase to enter the vernacular after lockdown was “pet regret”, with animal charities describing plaintive calls about yappy dogs and needy cats, although the most-regretted pets were rabbits (I hear this, but the main reason never to buy a rabbit is that they always find a way to die. Every rabbit’s life is like a rabbit public-information video). Well, perhaps people got pet regret under the cover of anonymity, or perhaps this was a dark manoeuvre on the part of the charities to put people off an impulse pet. All I can say is: I looked high and low, for weeks, and I couldn’t find one person who regretted getting a dog. Best decision of your life.