Relationship coach Lee Wilson thought it was odd when one of his clients asked to meet at a golf course.
When he got there, he understood why: His client already had called a divorce lawyer. ”He said, ‘I had to get away from her.’ “
Another couple driven to divorce amid quarantine tensions? Yes and no.
”I knew they were already having trouble,” says Wilson, but being locked down together by COVID-19 made it worse.
“If a couple is having trouble, most of their interactions will be neutral or negative. But now [tension] is constant and in their face and they’re not able to have their typical routines, like doing their own things,” says Wilson, a couples coach for 20 years and founder of myexbackcoach.com, which offers online courses, videos and “emergency breakup kits.”
Count this as another in a long list of negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic: It has the potential to send America’s divorce rate — already embarrassing at nearly 50% — even higher once divorce courts are fully open again.
The now-familiar stresses of quarantine — money worries, boredom, lack of escape from each other, conflicts over the kids, conflicts over chores, lack of exercise — are forcing many couples to reconsider how they really feel about their partners, say lawyers and marriage counselors.
How can you split up if you’re cooped up 24/7?
But in practical terms, couples may find it difficult to divorce when they’re locked down. For one thing, they can’t easily separate (sleeping in different beds in the same house doesn’t count as separation in some states).
They can’t move out and find new digs if they’re scared to leave their homes or are forbidden outright. In the current real estate market, it can be difficult to do business, house hunt or close sales. And what about custody of the kids? What about divvying up assets when one spouse has lost a job?
“At some point the comparison is to 9/11: Either [the crisis] brings them together or it makes them realize they need to get out because life is too short,” says Michelle Gervais, a family law attorney at Blank Rome LLP in Tampa, Florida. “Only the strongest relationships are going to survive.”
In the best of times, even “easy” divorces require tremendous emotional endurance. The human brain can handle only so much stress and uncertainty, says Stacy Lee, clinical director of the Couples Institute Counseling Services in Menlo Park, California.
Anecdotal indications suggest a divorce surge is ahead
So far there’s no official data to confirm this because it’s too early. But some lawyers and counselors report they’re fielding more calls from people who say they’re considering splitting up as soon as they get out of lockdown. Or even sooner.
“Boredom can really rob a lot from a relationship,” Wilson says. “The same thing day to day can cause depression and couples already on the ledge might end up wallowing in any negative situation they find themselves in. Among my clients, [quarantine] is pushing them toward the ledge much faster.”
Quarantine divorce stats are hard to find
Tracking divorces during the pandemic is tricky, given the varying status of divorce courts in America’s 3,143 counties. In some, you can’t tell if divorce filings are surging because, as in Los Angeles County (the nation’s largest court system), the courts have been closed and there’s no electronic filing except for emergencies.
In other counties where courts have been closed and are now reopening, as in New York City, there’s a scramble to deal first with the backlog of divorces that were in process when the shutdowns were ordered.
Conversely, will the pandemic keep some couples together?
Is it possible quarantine stress will lead some couples to stick it out? Maybe, under the old “cheaper to keep her [or him]” theory, says Gervais.
“The two biggest indicators I’m seeing over the last three months is finances and kids being the reasons why people try to work it out,” she says. “At the same time, others are [divorcing] for those same reasons.”
Peter Pearson, co-founder of The Couples Institute Counseling Services, says some couples when exposed to a crisis can put aside their differences and begin to work together to cope.
But if people are determined to divorce now, they should follow some common-sense steps: Consult a therapist or marriage counselor, then consult a divorce lawyer. Work out co-parenting, visitation and child support plans in advance. Gather your financial records and work out a post-divorce budget. Being divorced is usually more expensive than being married, so don’t commit to any new financial obligations without first considering whether your new lifestyle can afford it.
And if money is an issue (say, because you lost your job), Wilson suggests you and your spouse consider hiring a private mediator to avoid the “all or nothing” approach of some divorce lawyers.
“It’s almost always cheaper than a divorce lawyer, and this route is less likely to end up with the two of you hating each other,” Wilson says. “A mediator works with both parties to come to an agreement that is fair to all involved. ... If your spouse refuses to use a mediator, be sure to protect yourself by acquiring an attorney. A mediator is good only if you both agree to it.”
What’s coming won’t be divorce as we know it
Even post-quarantine, divorcing couples should be prepared for major, possibly unpleasant changes in court systems, lawyers say. They may have to wait longer as courts adopt safety measures and tackle backlogs. They may have to go through court-ordered mediation or arbitration to get their divorce more quickly instead of dueling before a judge.
Almost certainly, “going to court” in the future will mean doing so virtually, as video conferencing becomes even more common for hearings, depositions and other civil legal proceedings such as divorces.
Some courts are on the cutting edge, with judges, lawyers and other court officials racing to learn how to use new technology.
But many American courts are still deeply traditional and reluctant to change, says Myres. She notes that many judges won’t consider Zoom or other video conferencing tools a desirable substitute for an in-person courtroom exchange in civil matters, given annoying technical glitches.
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