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Divorce during coronavirus: Will splits soar after pandemic quarantines end?

  • June 03, 2020

Nashville, Tennessee, relationship coach Lee Wilson thought it was odd when one of his clients recently asked to meet with him at a golf course. Once he got there, he understood why: His client had already called a divorce lawyer. “He said, ‘I had to get away from her.’ ” 

Just 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 Lee, a couples coach for 20 years and founder of myexbackcoach.com, which offers online courses, videos and products such as “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.

Even divorcing celebrities are feeling the COVID-19 effect: When Mary-Kate Olsen sought an emergency divorce from husband Olivier Sarkozy in New York City, she was turned away because it wasn’t deemed an “essential” matter in New York’s pandemic-closed courts.

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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.

“Pandemics, quarantine, the effects on life and society as we know it changing – that is about as uncertain as you can get,” Lee says. “Couples are facing more challenges, they have less resources and a low bandwidth to manage all of this. Sadly, this is the perfect cocktail for increased divorce.”

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Mary-Kate Olsen and Olivier Sarkozy, here in New York in November 2012, are getting divorced after five years of marriage.

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.

Venus Nicolino,a relationship therapist and media personality, predicts future research will establish a direct connection between coronavirus and a surge in divorces.

“Just as we are seeing increases in domestic violence, anxiety, depression, unemployment, loss and grief, we will see an increase in divorce directly related to COVID-19. When our relationship with society is affected, our relationships with each other are, too,” says Nicolino, known as “Dr. V.”

Wilson cites his own unscientific email survey of couples (conducted in late April and including 734 respondents) for his assessment that COVID-19 quarantines are exposing couples who already have poor “relationship dynamics.” 

He says his survey found that about one-third (31%) of couples who responded said the quarantine had harmed their relationship; less than one-quarter (23%) said there was no change.

“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.”

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COVID-19 is a pressure point, though it's difficult to tell which couples are splitting now because of the pandemic or because of the usual reasons.

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. 

Even in counties where courts have remained open, as in Florida and Georgia, it’s not possible to distinguish between couples filing for divorce for all the usual reasons and those filing because COVID-19 made them do it. 

It’s not like there’s a box you check on documents, says Nicole Sodoma, founder of Sodoma Law, a family law practicebased in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she says courts are set to reopen in June.

“Not everyone will acknowledge if (their divorce) was pandemic-related, but there’s no doubt it’s created additional conflict,” says Sodoma. “You’ll have a couple where two months ago he was traveling for work a lot and now he’s been home for two months, they’re already not getting along, and they don’t know if they can make it work.”

An April survey of the nearly 1,600 lawyers of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 68% of firms reported a decrease in their business since quarantines began, says academy President Susan Myres, even though demand remains high, based on calls. 

“Clients are calling and indicating their intention to divorce but court closures, income reduction, temporary reduction in the value of property and stock all make it difficult for them to pursue the divorce right now,” Myres says.

Peter Walzer, founding partner in a high-end divorce practice in Los Angeles with a celebrity clientele, is glum about how the pandemic has affected his firm. 

“Maybe I hope for a surge,” he says, laughing sheepishly. More seriously, “I sense pent-up pressure (for divorce). People are not going to say, ‘Let’s forgive each other and decide to stay together.’ Marriage is hard, COVID or no COVID, and with COVID, it’s even harder.”

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Financial worries and having everyone under one roof may spur couples to try to work things out, at least during the pandemic.

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.

In one of her cases, she says, the husband changed his mind about splitting once their adult children came home to quarantine as a family. “He didn’t want to be the bad guy with his kids,” she says. In another case, after lockdown lifted, the wife could secretly leave to look for a new place to live without tipping him off or being asked where she was going.

“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.  

“They see a bigger picture of what is required of each to get through this together,” Pearson says. “They do a lot of listening and asking questions to more fully understand each other. It is not easy to do this, but if they do it reasonably well they can get through this stronger and as a team.”

Wilson says he knows couples who are leaning on each other more and sticking it out. 

“She says to me, ‘He’s my rock,’ ” Wilson says. “Two years ago I thought this couple was done, I gave them my best and I was pretty sure they were not going to be married (for long), so it was surprising. But even if some couples benefit, it’s more of a negative for more people.”

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.”   

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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.

“It could be an opportunity to resolve a conflict more quickly but I don’t know if people will jump to that – it doesn’t feel like ‘having their day in court,’ ” says Sodoma. 

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.

“Judges you never thought in a million years would ever do it have become super-efficient and are even teaching courses,” Gervais says. (Even the long-resistant U.S. Supreme Court, is adapting, holding its first oral arguments by live audio stream last month.) 

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.

They may have no choice, predicts Daniel Lipschutz,partner at Aronson Mayefsky Sloanin New York City, because in the foreseeable future more and more civil court proceedings will be done virtually, including divorce cases.

“There will be a push to trying to resolve disputes collaboratively,” he says. “We don’t yet know the impact of that, although it’s likely it will result in making things more efficient.

“However, sometimes there is a lot to be gained from resolving things on the courthouse steps” or in the courtroom itself.

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