With or without EU: the relationships breaking down over Brexit

When Camila Fernández came to the UK five years ago, she fell in love. Swept off her feet by a British man named Jack Wilson, she built a life in her adopted country complete with a husband, house and children*.

And then, Brexit happened. Around her, the language surrounding Brexit crept lower and lower, making Camila feel increasingly uncomfortable in her adopted country. The more the media spouted anti-immigrant rhetoric, the more she felt unwelcome in Britain.

Eventually, Camila decided she had no choice but to return to Spain, renouncing her British citizenship in the process. Her message to her husband was simple: “I love you, but I just feel like I can’t live in this country”. Their marriage broke down, and divorce proceedings started.

Cases like this have become increasingly common for family lawyers such as Kaleel Anwar of Stowe Family Law. As our exit from the EU approaches, more couples are finding themselves on opposing sides of the political debate.

What they are saying is, I love her, and she loves me but it’s this bloody Brexit that has ruined everything for us.

“It’s quite sad just how much this guy’s life has just been turned upside down because of her views,” Kaleel said, commenting on the case.

“She’s issued an application to relocate with the children to Spain, because to do that without permission would amount to child abduction. It’s a really strange case because what they are saying is, I love her, and she loves me but it’s this bloody Brexit that has ruined everything for us. It’s ruined the marriage.”

Toby Atkinson, a partner at Stewarts Law, has also seen Brexit push many marriages over the edge. “We have been completely flat out for the last three years,” he said. “The current climate of political and social uncertainty seems to be creating unique pressures for families.

Would these marriages have broken down without Brexit? It’s hard to say. In Toby’s view, leaving the EU has hurt more relationships than it has helped.

“For couples who voted different ways in the referendum, the difficulty of reconciling opposing political views may be the final straw,” he said. “I was recently consulted by a client who told me that although her marriage was already in intensive care, her husband’s decision to vote Leave made her realise they were well and truly incompatible.

“I have yet to meet a client who has told me that Brexit has had a positive impact on their marriage. During times of financial uncertainty, it can be more tempting to ‘vote leave’ when a marriage is already under strain.”

Our break from Europe has also created quite a burden for family lawyers. The ever-moving deadlines of Brexit have only exacerbated the process many marriages facing a dissolution across borders.

I have yet to meet a client who has told me that Brexit has had a positive impact on their marriage.

And, the ever-moving deadlines of Brexit have only exacerbated the process for many marriages facing a dissolution across borders. This creates quite a task for family lawyers.

“There are various policies and preparatory notes being circulated to family lawyers at the moment saying, oh, this could happen to the law, and also this, but no, scratch that, they’re saying that won’t happen anymore, but this could happen. It’s all just a huge question mark,” Kaleel said.

This confusion has the potential to impact a lot of couples. In mid-2017 there were nearly 500,000 EU citizens living in the UK with a British partner, with more than 130,000 of those couples residing in London alone. At current divorce rates, that could mean as many as 4,200 married couples a year facing uncertain futures.

I’m breaking up with EU

Tom Sewell*, from Brighton, thought things were going great with his girlfriend of three months. That is, until the topic of the EU came up one evening as the couple watched the news together.

“She became very vocal about her views on Muslims and anyone outside of England. It was clear she didn’t really know what she was talking about but was just repeating words she had heard somewhere,” Tom recounted.

“I’m not a hardcore hippy, but I lean to the left and, while she was very much on the other side. We didn’t realise this when we got together.

“I told her I didn’t agree. We had been having a great evening, so asked her to leave the politics and focus on having a good night. But this just seemed to spur her on more, she spoke about how she believes Farage is a great man and then went off on a racist rant I won’t repeat. We ended it soon after.”

Charlotte Ayres*, on the other hand, just managed to save her relationship amid the referendum chaos, but it was a close call. She met her boyfriend whilst working at a pub in Birmingham, where Charlotte was studying acting.

I’ve had to ban conversation about it entirely. I’ve genuinely said if one thing will eventually split us up it’s our differing political beliefs.

“My boyfriend and his brother were the only two people across all staff and regular customers that voted Leave, and a lot of the regular customers refused to be served by them for a while because of how strongly they disagreed,” Charlotte explained.

“I’ve tried to have an open conversation with him about his reasons why, but it never feels like he’s open to hearing why I voted remain. I’ve kind of had to ban conversation about it entirely. I’ve genuinely said if one thing will eventually split us up it’s our differing political beliefs.”

Tom and Charlotte aren’t alone. A 2016 survey by the relationship charity Relate found that around a fifth of counsellors had worked with clients who had argued over Brexit. As counsellor Gurpreet Singh explains, the heightened tensions of Brexit can reveal cracks in a relationship. that went unnoticed before.

“Arguments over Brexit, who to vote for and other topical debates, can bring up underlying issues within the relationship as they highlight where couples have a lack of shared values,” Gurpreet told The Independent.

Arguments over Brexit, who to vote for and other topical debates, can bring up underlying issues within the relationship

“Our values are hugely important to us so when our partners don’t agree with them it can feel quite concerning. Despite this, some difference in beliefs and values can be a healthy thing as it can help to keep things interesting and help us to see things from a different perspective.”

Fame and fortune don’t make you immune from the stresses of Brexit either. Actor Michael Sheen revealed last year that his four-year relationship with comedian Sarah Silverman ended shortly after the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump.

The reason for their breakup was a little more positive, though. Both Sheen and Silverman felt compelled to tackle the extreme right-wing views being championed in their home countries, sparking their desire to “consciously uncouple” and become more involved in their nation’s politics.

EU can’t choose your family

While dinner table feuds over politics are hardly uncommon, some families have found their differences have become more prominent since the Brexit referendum was first announced. Sam Estall, from Camberley, is one person who can attest to that.

“Prior to Brexit, I had a healthy relationship with my extended family. There was a lot of love each way and we were always civil, but the day the vote was cast, I started to notice increasingly racist rhetoric on their Facebook accounts,” Sam said.

“Most notably a post from my aunt about wanting to deport ‘the Chinese’ next door because either they smelled, they ‘are all rude’ or any other kind of backwards logic. This led to a lot of arguments. It got to the point where I wasn’t letting it go and she blocked both me and my parents.

“With my granddad, it was after the People’s Vote march. I posted a status about going and how great the atmosphere was and was met with every bit of snide ‘your generation don’t care, the will of the people etc’ from my granddad. I genuinely love my granddad and to see him belittle me for standing up for what I believe in was the last straw, so I deleted Facebook from every device I own.”

It got to the point where I wasn’t letting it go and she blocked both me and my parents.

Cath Roberts, from Farnborough, has also felt the strain in her family. Contact with her father-in-law has all but ceased after political arguments soured their relationship.

“My father-in-law is pro-Brexit and continually harps back to when the agreement to go into Europe was signed and that the politicians lied to the public about the extent of the UK’s involvement in the EU. He says people voted for a common market and not the other things that have developed over time. He doesn’t see the investment the EU has made in Wales where he lives as a positive thing.

“He just disagrees and flatly refused to listen to any other view if it disagrees with his own, even when faced with the information in black and white. It’s put a huge strain on our relationship and I rarely see him now.”

EU got a friend in me

Even long standing friendships have taken a hit. Faye Summers, from Reading, lost contact with a friend and roommate over their opposing Brexit views.

“My ex-housemate and I had been friends for a number for years, probably around seven or so before we decided to live together. When the time came to vote, we had avoided the topic as we both knew we would be voting opposite ways.

“I had heard her talk to her other friends saying she didn’t care about the majority of people and wanted to keep her high paying job and family money because that’s all that affected her. Even though she agreed that it would probably be more beneficial that we Leave, for purely personal reasons to make sure she was comfortable she wanted to Remain.

She said that she was really upset and disappointed that Brexit had happened, and I was part of the reason why.

“When the results of the polls came in early the day after the vote, we were getting ready to leave for work when she said that she was really upset and disappointed that Brexit had happened, and I was part of the reason why.”

Faye’s roommate eventually decided to move out, claiming that she only wanted to move in with her boyfriend. But, Faye suspects that their differing political views was the real underlying factor.

“The tension between us had started because of the referendum and our relationship never got back to how it was. We haven’t spoken properly in just over a year. I have no hard feelings about the situation and I accept that people will always hold different views, but I think that it’s a huge shame how much division it’s caused between so many people.”

With the Brexit crisis is reaching its crescendo in the Commons, we appear to be a country at breaking point, our people split into leavers or remainers. A deal, or a lack of one, is only the beginning of the struggle. But, as the future of the country hangs in the balance, many of us are feeling these divides much closer to home.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved

Images: Flickr/eugenia_loli

This piece was written as part of the author’s final project for their Newspaper Journalism MA at City, University of London.