Before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the U.S., sickening almost 1.4 million people, both marriage and divorce rates were on the decline. During the pandemic, however, divorce lawyers are predicting an increase in filings. This could mean the U.S. will endure similar divorce trends as China, where filings spiked under quarantine.
Sheltering in place may be exacerbating stress among couples whose marriages were already on the brink, according to Sinead Smyth, a Gottman Institute certified marriage counselor in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I think it's just this awful toxic stew of too much togetherness,” Smyth told TODAY, noting that anxiety related to job losses and the fear of getting sick are exacerbating conflict. “And then you've got a lot of folks trying to homeschool kids which is, speaking from personal experience, a nightmare,” she adds.
Before you file for divorce, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Conflict in your marriage doesn’t necessarily mean it’s doomed, says Smyth. Rather, she says it’s usually feelings of isolation and loneliness that ultimately drive couples apart.
“If there's no real positivity, if there's no respect, if there's no friendship, and people are really lonely, and they have been for a while, that's a tough relationship to get back on track,”she says. “If they can't see anything positive about each other, even if they try, they just can't, it's dead. Like the idea that the tide's gone too far out to come back in.”
If you are getting a divorce, you’ll need to be prepared for the reality that it will likely take a long time, according to Penelope Hefner, family law attorney and principal at Sodoma Law Union in North Carolina. Courtrooms throughout the country have shuttered, she says, limiting their ability to operate.
“You are now taking your spot at the very back of all of those cases that are already backlogged,” she says.
Complicating things further, many people have lost jobs or have had their businesses shuttered. Without knowing their financial futures, negotiating child support and alimony are almost impossible, Hefner explains. As a result, many couples may need to postpone their divorces until they have a clearer picture of their income. She says divorce judgments that would typically be processed in just a few months may now stretch into next year. “This is an unprecedented time,” says Hefner.
In many areas, people splitting from their spouses may also have a tough time finding a new home, as real estate agents postpone showings, though some are doing virtual showings and “drive-thru” closings.
If you find yourself enduring a lengthy divorce under quarantine, here are some steps you can take to ease the process and the pain, according to experts.
Step 1: Before you do anything, talk to a lawyer
Some states will allow you to file for divorce online, though it’s not always advised, especially in the case of contested divorces where you cannot agree to certain terms. The biggest mistake couples tend to make when getting a divorce is not consulting a lawyer first, says Hefner. “I would recommend against making any kind of signed contract on their own,” she says. “People think that that's going to be temporary or that it won't be binding if it's signed, and depending on the laws of your state, it may just be enough for it to be signed.”
Many divorce lawyers are currently offering online services, according to Hefner, who is currently counseling her own clients virtually. In certain states, she says divorces can be performed virtually by a private attorney who acts as a judge. “If [couples] want to be collaborative about it, they can move the case pretty well forward without ever needing to step foot inside the courthouse,” she says.
Step 2: Get a virtual divorce coach or marriage counselor
Typically, couples are living apart from each other during a separation, and negotiate the terms of their divorce between lawyers. But under lockdown, many couples are separating and enduring mediation under the same roof. Things are likely to get awkward, if not downright heated, according to Hefner.
“That's hard when you know, accusations are being made back and forth, when you're breaking very bad news to the other side about what they can expect to get or have to pay,” Hefner says.
To ease the conflict, look for a marriage therapist or divorce coach who offers virtual counseling, says Smyth, who has been coaching her own clients over the internet.
If you can’t find a virtual counselor, she recommends having a plan for how you will deal with conflict before tempers flare. If you have kids, she says it’s especially important to keep the split as congenial as possible.
“Agree in advance that if things start really spiraling quickly, that we're going to take a break, and to have that agreement in place before any conversations happen, so that if somebody says, ‘Hey, this is going off track, we need to take a break,’ that then they can immediately separate and separately work on calming down,” says Smyth.
Once you step away from your partner, do something that is psychologically calming, she says, whether it’s listening to music, going for a walk, or meditating. If there is a lot of contempt in your relationship, keeping calm may be easier said than done. One way to stay grounded, she says, is to focus on any qualities you still admire in your partner.
“Maybe you can't stand your partner, but she's a great co-parent,” says Smyth. “It's good to keep that stuff in mind, as well, because it's very difficult to do that under current conditions.”
Step 3: Determine a co-parenting plan and visitation schedule
If you have children, Hefner advises figuring out a visitation/parenting schedule in advance that will work for both of you. This plan should anticipate the impact of social distancing, she adds. For instance, public spaces like parks in some areas, where parental visitations often take place, may be closed for the foreseeable future, she says.
“Places that we would normally feel as a safe place to do an exchange or visit are out,” she says. “So we really have to be thinking through in those types of situations. Where can the visit happen and people still feel comfortable?”
Step 4: Create a divorce checklist
Once you’ve spoken to a lawyer and understand the steps you need to take, you can create a checklist of divorce “to-dos” to chip away at under lockdown, Hefner says. This may include digging up years’ worth of financial information, she says, which is often required when getting divorced. Gathering these documents now can help speed the process so you’re ready to go when things go back to normal, she says, especially if your partner isn’t cooperating.
“If they're thinking the other person is not going to be collaborative, what they need to be doing now is getting their hands on as much information as they can, which can be done virtually or remotely,” she says. “They can be looking online and getting statements and documents, they can be contacting financial institutions and getting what they need, they can be going through the house and taking an inventory of what’s there.”
Step 5: Create a post-divorce budget
While you may be tempted to move out as quickly as possible, Hefner cautions against making any rash decisions without first having a budget. Before you commit to any new financial obligations, you need to understand that your cost of living will likely double once you split from your partner, says Hefner. Any alimony or child support payments will also impact your finances, she says. She advises creating a post-divorce budget that gives you a picture of what you will be able to afford. It’s also important to consider how the pandemic may influence the future cost of housing and any retirement accounts you have, she adds.
“Separating before you've got a parenting schedule down and a budget down is something I would advise against,” she says. “Because, you know, someone moved out, they sign this lease, or they buy a new place, and then it turns out that they have a greater obligation to the other [partner] than they thought they would, or that child support is more than they thought it would be.”