Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
“She was the only person I wanted to be with in older age. But the day the Russians invaded completely changed our life. As we were saying goodbye, I had the feeling I was seeing her for the last time.”
“I had a long and happy marriage. We met when we were young. It was a big love, and we got married because we were expecting a child.”
How War Destroyed a ‘Long and Happy Marriage’
The conflict in Ukraine has split apart millions of families. The story of Andrii Shapovalov and Tetiana Shapovalova reveals how a couple’s bond can become a casualty.
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By Jeffrey Gettleman
Jeffrey Gettleman interviewed dozens of Ukrainian men and women about how the war has affected their relationship, as well as marriage counselors, judges, psychotherapists and divorce lawyers.
Andrii Shapovalov, 51, and Tetiana Shapovalova, 50, had a fantastic life together. They were married nearly 30 years, raised two sons and pursued careers that meant something to them — he as a psychotherapist working with drug addicts, she as an executive at a large ice cream company. Up until last year, they were easing into a new stage of life together as empty nesters in Dnipro, an up-and-coming city in central Ukraine.
But when the Russian Army crossed the border into Ukraine last February, it set into motion a sequence of events that their marriage wouldn’t survive.
They separated that first day, as missiles slammed into Dnipro and shook their windows. Tetiana set off on a refugee odyssey. Andrii drifted through the empty rooms of their family home.
They would go on, like so many Ukrainian men and women, to experience the war very differently. Tetiana was thrust into a whole new world, discovering a new country, a new language and, in a shock to Andrii, a new boyfriend. Andrii found himself on the front lines counseling depressed soldiers and, for the first time since he was a teenager, living alone. He was effectively blocked by law from visiting his family.
Both believe they would still be together if it hadn’t been for the war. They have been unusually open about what happened to their relationship. (Their interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Andrii and Tetiana are just one of the tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of couples splitting up as the country experiences, in the words of Anna Trofymenko, a Ukrainian psychotherapist in Kremenchuk, a “divorce epidemic.” It may be one of the war’s most far-reaching social consequences, potentially shaping dating patterns, family structure, the way a whole generation of Ukrainian children will be raised and the trajectory of the country’s population for years to come.
Every major conflict sends people fleeing. But Ukraine’s has been different. One of the first steps President Volodymyr Zelensky took was passing a decree that prohibited men aged 18 to 60 from leaving, with few exceptions. The intent was to preserve a fighting force inside the country. It also created a one-sided exodus.
Passengers, some fleeing eastern Ukraine and heading for Poland and others returning east, crowded the main train station in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv in April last year.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
Ninety percent of the eight million Ukrainian refugees have been women and children, and many women, married or not, do not plan to go back. They are moving on and developing new, entrenched lives. Some are fleeing abusive relationships in Ukraine, and the law that blocks men from leaving has created a safe space for Ukrainian women now in Poland, Germany and other countries to seek the divorce they have been thinking about for awhile.
But that same law has also created a lot of pain for men with refugee children. Their wives or former wives may have left Ukraine with their children, and at the moment, there’s no way for the fathers to travel abroad to see them.
After more than a week of driving all day and all night through 10 countries, Tetiana and the couple’s oldest son finally arrived in Turku, Finland, where their youngest son, a semipro hockey player, lives. It was there she realized that she didn’t want to go back home.
The number of marriages ending in Ukraine this past year was twice or even three times higher than before the war, according to the estimations of Ukrainian mental health professionals, divorce lawyers, dating gurus, court clerks and judges. The experts claim that what’s driving Ukraine’s divorce rate, which has always been high compared with that of other countries, is not so much war-related stress, though there’s plenty of that, but the enormous scale of separation.
Dr. Trofymenko, the psychotherapist, said that when people are disconnected from their communities they start re-evaluating everything.
“People start asking questions,” she said. “Like: Is this person who I spent so many years of my life with still the right person for me if I don’t know who I am anymore?”
Tetiana, by her own admission, experienced something like that. Their marriage had never been bad, she said, but as the years passed she began to feel “a void.” She and Andrii tried a million different things to rejuvenate it — fixing up their primary house, buying an apartment, getting a new dog. But nothing worked, she said, and for her, the relationship was starting to feel like “a book you have already read.”
Loyalty kept her in it. But fleeing to a new country put her in a new frame of mind.
A few weeks into her life as a refugee, Tetiana met a Finnish man. She said it was very difficult to bring this up with Andrii. She called him on the phone and said: “I don’t want to continue our relationship. I want a new place, a new relationship, a new everything. I want a new life.”
In Ukraine, it’s possible to get divorced from thousands of miles away. People send in marriage certificates, birth certificates, passport scans and tax documents. Because their sons are adults, Andrii and Tetiana didn’t have any custody disputes. They actually didn’t get into any disputes over their house, their shared assets, nothing, once they agreed to split up.
But for many Ukrainian couples, the custody issue is especially complicated right now. When a nation is not at war, it would be difficult for a woman to leave the country with a child without the father’s consent. But now there is a war.
What do judges do if a woman has left the country with a child and the couple is splitting up and the man is stuck in Ukraine but wants to see the child?
“I can’t order the woman to come back with the child,” not with daily missile attacks, explained one judge in Kyiv, Ivanna Yerosova. And she said she doesn’t have the power to grant men the authorization to cross Ukraine’s borders to visit their children abroad.
So that leaves her — and even more so, the couples whose cases she is deciding — in a less than ideal spot for now. Judges can order mothers abroad to allow their children to communicate with their fathers by videochat. And when the war is over, Judge Yerosova said, she envisions new divorce settlements that outline a father’s right to see the child, wherever that child is.
For Andrii, it’s been heartbreaking not seeing his sons.
According to Ukraine’s Justice Ministry, the number of divorces dropped to 17,893 in 2022 from 29,587 in 2021. But experts say the data is misleading. The war has severely hampered all aspects of Ukraine’s court system, and judges, psychologists and divorce lawyers all said the number of couples separating and soon to be divorced was sharply increasing.
The consequences of so many separations in one country are likely to be far-reaching. Ukrainian demographers are already beginning to model the effects, along with the refugee outflows and war casualties.
“We forecast the population to continue to reduce,” said Oleksandr Hladun, a demographer at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Since the 1990s, Ukraine has been steadily losing people, to 38 million now from 52 million in 1991. In the next 15 years, experts predict, it will drop to 30 million.
Andrii and Tetiana finalized their divorce in December. They haven’t seen each other since the first day of the war. Tetiana is studying Finnish and preparing to become a Finnish citizen. Andrii lives alone.
He spends much of his time working with soldiers struggling with drug and drinking problems, which he says have increased since the war started.
The other day, he took Tori, their newish dog, an intensely loyal Shar Pei, for a walk in a Dnipro park. Looking down at Tori, who was constantly looking up at him, he half-joked: “This is all that’s left of my family.”
What do he and Tetiana think would have happened if their country hadn’t been invaded?
Katya Lachina and Tetiana Pavliuk contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.