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'I want a divorce': how lockdown tore us apart

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 03/06/2020 Flic Everett

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Nobody ever got married planning to divorce – but then, nobody anticipated lockdown, either. Almost three long months of enforced, 24/7 proximity have shone a harsh spotlight onto Britain’s marriages, and while some are emerging closer than ever, a sizable number of couples are climbing out of their lockdown bunkers and heading straight for the nearest solicitor.

Post-lockdown divorce rates have soared around the world – one legal practice in Western China saw 300 couples demanding a divorce over just three weeks, while enquiries increased by 30 per cent across Italy.

And though Britain’s divorce rate was falling faster than anywhere else in Europe back in January, the unexpected trauma of Covid-19 has seen a dramatic turnaround in demand.  

Between March 23, the day lockdown was announced, and mid-May, Co-op Legal Services saw an increase in divorce enquiries of 42 per cent on last year, and online searches for “I want a divorce” are up 154 per cent. 

Annoyed unhappy married couple arguing in lawyers office get divorced, angry family spouses split up having disagreement disputing about breaking up and divorce settlement, legal separation concept Annoyed unhappy married couple arguing in lawyers office get divorced, angry family spouses split up having disagreement disputing about breaking up and divorce settlement, legal separation concept

“We’ve certainly seen a higher than usual level of tentative enquiries,” says Theo Hoppen at Langleys Solicitors. “We suspect many people are biding their time until lockdown is further eased before taking a more formal approach.”

Beleaguered spouses, it seems, have had enough; cosmetic doctor, Nadiya Abbas, 39, among them. “Culturally, divorce isn’t great for me, and my family are really upset by the idea," she says, "but my husband has always had a temper and living in lockdown with him has been a huge struggle. I wanted a divorce a couple of years ago, but he persuaded me to try again.”

Their lockdown experience, however, has confirmed that “life’s too short to feel I’m constantly walking on eggshells. He’s not physically violent, but he yells, slams doors and sulks, and I’ve been tense for months. I can’t live like this anymore, and I don’t want the kids to either.”

Luckily, as the main breadwinner, Nadiya adds, “I’m able to support myself. I’ve already spoken to a solicitor, and I’m going to divorce him on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. I'm glad lockdown has finally pushed me into a decision.”

She’s not the only one – many who have been dithering over divorce for years are finally committing, having been forced to confront ongoing issues.

Gold wedding wedding rings lie on a disposable protective medical mask for protection against dangerous deadly diseases of microbes and viruses by the coronavirus covid-19 on a blue background. Gold wedding wedding rings lie on a disposable protective medical mask for protection against dangerous deadly diseases of microbes and viruses by the coronavirus covid-19 on a blue background.

Normally, it only takes a fortnight of enforced proximity for divorce requests to spike: “Our peak times are usually after Christmas and the school summer holidays,” confirms Toby Atkinson, of the divorce and family team at leading law firm, Stewarts. “[But] the additional emotional and financial pressures that lockdown has placed on many families are, frankly, enough to test the strongest of marriages.” The firm is now “anticipating a rush of new enquiries,” he adds.

Of course, with children at home all day, it’s not just couples who are unhappy, but entire families. “We cannot underestimate the impact on children of parents struggling to resolve their conflict,” says family solicitor and child protection specialist, Kate Young (safeguardingassociation.com). “Research tells us that children who are subject to parents’ unresolved conflict are more likely to struggle academically, have trouble with their own social relationships and can suffer psychologically,” she explains. “This situation is already difficult for children to navigate, with the changes to their education, social lives, and activities, and they have had nowhere to go outside of the family home for support.”

So it may be that a divorce will provide relief for everyone. And while a just-about-OK marriage can survive normal life with plenty of time apart, she adds, “Lockdown may have revealed [couples] now have little in common or that those little foibles they previously could live with are just no longer bearable.”

Certainly, witnessing their partners in high-res surround-sound, after years of living in relatively separate lanes, has been eye-opening for some. “I’ve been married to James for eight years, and we’ve always been very different,” says Lauren Weaver, 43. “That’s become more obvious since we had our [five year-old] twins, Max and Alice. He’s a strict parent and I’m much more liberal. He’s also from a far posher background than me – boarding school and the military. He’s normally away a lot with work, but three months of being with him non-stop has made me realise how little we have in common.”

Gallery: Too much love & other strange reasons people filed for divorce (StarsInsider)

Their main conflicts are over parenting: “I genuinely think James’s draconian attitude is really damaging to the children; he’s so unforgiving,” she says. Though she is yet to instigate divorce proceedings, “I am definitely going to get some financial advice on where a split would leave us. After the last few months, it’s over for me.”

Given the trauma of Covid-19-induced confinement, combined with financial, schooling and career issues, it’s understandable that so many are planning to part, thinks US-based therapist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity and host of popular podcast Couples Under Lockdown.

She recently told The New Yorker, “If we want to look at the challenges of communication, of sexuality, of desire, of conflict in relationships, this is such a Petri-dish moment,” adding, “in times of distress, our priorities get re-organised, and the superfluous often gets thrown overboard. And disasters function as accelerators as well, so people are making big decisions.”

Katie Spooner, partner and Head of the Family Law team at Winckworth Sherwood agrees that lockdown has proved a tough testing-ground for togetherness.

Frustrated sad girlfriend sit on bed think of relationship problems Frustrated sad girlfriend sit on bed think of relationship problems

“When you add into the mix the uncertain economic climate and increased health concerns resulting from the pandemic, it’s understandable that peoples’ relationships are being strained.”

Worse still, those desperate for a speedy split may now find that the financial impact of lockdown has muddied the waters further.

“We were divorcing when lockdown happened,” says Alexandra Naylor, 53. “I can’t wait to restart proceedings, but the problem now is, we’ve now lost savings and income, and the whole settlement will need to be renegotiated, at even more expense.”

“Where earning capacity has been impacted by coronavirus, not only is there less money to support everyone’s needs, but people feel more protective over what they [do] have,” says Spooner. “In addition, it may prove very difficult to accurately value assets such as housing or businesses.”

And if you’re determined to go ahead, are lawyers even available?

© Peter Cade

“The majority of what we do can be done remotely and many firms already have the technology in place,” says Spooner. “The same applies to mediators and other professionals providing services to separating couples.”

As for how long it will take to ensure your freedom, with the anticipated vast backlog of petitions? Brace yourself.

According to research by Resolution, a professional family law community, the London and South East Divorce Unit is currently experiencing delays of up to seven months in processing applications – and ‘significant delays’ in producing Decree Absolutes.

Stressed unhappy couple arguing about huge expenses with laptop and papers, angry husband blaming wife of overspending debt, family having conflict fight about wasting money financial problem at home Stressed unhappy couple arguing about huge expenses with laptop and papers, angry husband blaming wife of overspending debt, family having conflict fight about wasting money financial problem at home

Perhaps now lockdown is easing, allowing much-needed distance from infuriating spouses, some may find an opportunity to re-assess.

“Try and find some time outside the home to talk,” says Kate Young. “Communication is often the first element of a relationship to stop and that ultimately leads to its destruction. Try going for a walk together or having a conversation when the children have gone to bed.”

Even if you’re certain things have gone too far for a reconciliation, she says, seek mediation or therapy to help you negotiate the tricky path ahead. “If there are children involved you will need to work together and communicate for the rest of their lives,” she adds. “So start now.”

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