What COVID-19 has meant for divorce

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Tara Mandarano, who has been asked to separate during the COVID-19 pandemic, poses for a photo at Fairy Lake in Newmarket, Ont., October 8, 2020.

Tijana Martin / Le Globe and Mail

Tara Mandarano woke up on August 6 as if it was “just any other day in our new COVID world”, unaware that her husband would be asking for a separation soon.

The 43-year-old writer and editor worked on his laptop in bed while her partner dropped off their six-year-old daughter with grandparents. When her husband returned home, he broke the news. Crying, Mandarano followed him down the aisle in his pajamas to speak but could see the “finality in his face.”

Looking back, Mandarano says she thinks seven anxious months spent together at home have brought dormant issues to the surface of their marriage. She has multiple health issues and her husband had taken on a difficult caregiving role. The underlying resentment also simmered around parenthood, with the mother often feeling sidelined by chronic pain. Instead of talking about those difficult months, the spouses retreated to their own screens at night.

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“It was a perfect storm to break up as a couple,” Mandarano said. “My pain and grief is magnified because I am already shaken and disturbed by the world outside my door and the way it is transformed. When my husband said he wanted to separate, it looked like another disaster.

For some marriages on unstable ground, the relentless stress of this pandemic becomes a breaking point. As a second wave of infections now affects Canadians, many divorce lawyers, mediators and couple therapists say they are receiving more calls from spouses considering separation than in the past. The new realities of job loss, the disappearance of child care and disrupted marital roles at home have pushed some people into strained relationships. Amid widespread uncertainty, this is an especially difficult time for a marriage to break down.

“Couples who showed cracks before, the pandemic has become like an amplifier,” said Andrew Sofin, president of the Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Working in Montreal, the hardest-hit city in Canada, Sofin sees a wave of divorcing couples seeking intensive therapy.

“People are worried about entering the second wave. They are frantic, ”Sofin said. “It’s a fear of ‘I can’t do this again’.

During the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns in the spring, Sofin said many couples were in survival mode. In the relative calm of the summer, some spouses pulled back, re-examined their time locked up together, and realized, “I don’t really love you – and you don’t really love me,” Sofin said.

Some partners who worked long office hours and are now cocooned at home find they have separated, said Laura Paris, a partner at Shulman & Partners, who specializes in divorces in Toronto and Vaughan, Ont.

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“People are realizing that they don’t want the same things in life,” said Paris, whose company reported a 19% increase in new customers in June compared to last. “You get caught up in everyday life and you forget what it takes to maintain a relationship.”

Linda Long, founder of Edmonton and managing partner of the Long Family Law Group, said her firm registered more clients in September than any other year before.

“When these things happen, the world holds its breath for a while, but it can only hold its breath for so long,” Long said. “Marriages that might have broken down before can turn into a separation because of this added pressure.”

Marriage counselor Darren Wilk said spouses crammed together at home have developed increased expectations of each other, but few communication skills match.

“They’re straightforward and it never works,” said Wilk, co-founder of BestMarriages.ca, which offers relationship counseling in Vancouver, Victoria and Langley, BC. “They thought they were best friends and they’re not.

With a four-month wait list, Wilk said he’s never been so busy. Spouses tell her that the lockouts have given them more time to seek help, pointing to work-from-home arrangements and therapy conveniently offered by video call.

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The workload has also become intense for Awatif Lakhdar, litigator in family law and mediator at Lavery Lawyers in Montreal.

“Our work has increased so that we can’t even breathe sometimes,” Lakhdar said.

Besides new clients, Lakhdar hears from existing clients who want to move their separations forward. She also sees new points of tension. Faced with financial difficulties, some clients renegotiate support agreements. Others bicker over child custody and back-to-school decisions. Some accuse exes of being negligent during the pandemic, while others have sounded the alarm bells about ex-partners working in the health sector.

“We are facing unusual and exceptional circumstances,” Lakhdar said. “People worry about everything.”

Erin Crawford, managing partner at Grant Crawford LLP, a Toronto-based family law firm, said this year has been feeling very busy for her and her colleagues. She said a “big talking point” is the division of childcare and domestic work as parents struggle to work from home.

Amid severe financial uncertainty, Crawford said many exes were reluctant to negotiate final deals, with some halting the process altogether. She and others have noticed that more couples are turning to arbitration and mediation, which is less expensive than courts, which are now very late.

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With so many strangers ahead of them, some couples are slowing the separation process, waiting and seeing the next few months, according to Tina Sinclair, founder of Peacemakers for Families, which offers divorce mediation in Calgary.

“People who might otherwise go their separate ways rather quickly are trying to find ways to live under one roof creatively and while waiting,” Sinclair said. “Can they divide the house so that they don’t always overlap?”

Mandarano from Newmarket is currently experiencing three other couples who are breaking up. She and her husband hope to bring matters to an amicable end through a mediation process scheduled for December. In the meantime, he found a new location and they agreed on informal custody and financial arrangements.

Parting in the midst of the pandemic has been an isolating experience for Mandarano. She cannot confide in friends in person and can only speak with her therapist via video call. Her mediation will take place on three computer screens: her own, that of her husband and that of the mediator.

“It seems even colder and more distant that my husband and I will not be in the same room together deciding our future,” Mandarano said. “It’s just sort of less human.”

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