We are living in strange and challenging times. Covid-19 has drastically changed our role and place within our family, at home and work. We have had to alter our habits and how we use our home and other spaces. Stress, conflict, uncertainty and feeling unsettled may be the consequences of such changes, which can, in turn, be the last straw for a marriage. Senior Associate Sarah Havers and Trainee Solicitor Emmanuelle Sultan in our Divorce and Family team, look at options available to separating couples who need extra help to avoid escalating tensions.
The breakdown of a relationship can be one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can go through. The added prospect of having to self-isolate with a former partner during lockdown is likely to be particularly challenging. The lockdown has increased the pressure on couples living together, especially those whose relationship has run its course. It is hard to find a way to release the tension, as traditional couples’ counselling, or simply taking a break from each other, is not an option. Moreover, arguments between parents may harm children, especially when everyone is under the same roof all day, every day. However, there are options available to separating couples who need extra help to avoid escalating tensions.
Your relationship has broken down: pursue a separation or wait until the lockdown ends?
One key piece of advice is to try to communicate well and to stay calm. It will often prove extremely difficult but will benefit everyone in the household. The lockdown might be an opportunity to sit down and calmly explain to your partner why you think your relationship has broken down. Family therapists and relationship counsellors are still able to offer their services remotely and are specifically trained to help facilitate effective communication. Even if your partner will not agree to engage, seeking advice from a therapist or counsellor on an individual basis can be invaluable, particularly in these unprecedented times. Once you have heard your partner’s point of view, you could decide to pursue your separation consensually during the lockdown or wait until the lockdown ends. If you decide to pursue your separation, it is important to note that legal support is available despite the current circumstances.
The Family Courts are still operating, and even though social distancing must be complied with, the court system has effectively been moved onto a remote platform. Family lawyers are working remotely and are available to assist clients in whatever way is needed. Mediators are also active, helping couples all over the country via video link to find ways of agreeing to childcare arrangements and corenting plans, as well as other practical issues arising from separation or divorce. As a result, it is possible to start divorce proceedings during lockdown should you wish to do so. A good starting point is to check the UK government’s website on how to get a divorce in England and Wales to familiarise yourself with the steps you will need to take.
If communication with your partner is not possible or likely to be acrimonious, there is nothing to prevent you from planning your separation discreetly and seeking legal advice and support remotely. If you fear for your safety as a result of expressing your feelings, you can get help by calling the Domestic Abuse Helpline on: 0808 2000 247.
If you decide to start divorce proceedings during the lockdown, the reality is that you will still need to live with your partner for some time. Finding alternative accommodation is rarely a straightforward process due to various factors, often financial. This can cause tremendous stress and fuel disputes in the home. To avoid or calm such situations, communication, establishing a routine and reaching an agreement on the ground rules will all be crucial. Organising your separation while living in the same household must be as structured and collaborative as possible. You could start by agreeing how you share your home, ie who gets which rooms and at what times, and how you share the household expenses. It is best practice to put everything you decide in writing. Although tensions and arguments are unlikely to disappear, trying your best to be organised and rational can prove useful. You can also use the time to discuss your situation further, although couples with children should protect them as far as possible from any acrimony that exists between their parents.
In some cases, the heightened tensions that lockdown can bring may necessitate one parent moving out. Both parents should give careful consideration to the physical, emotional and financial practicalities of taking this step in the current climate before deciding to do this. Spending quality time with your children and taking time to explain to them in an appropriate, kind and unbiased way the reasons why you have both reached such a decision are key steps to minimising the impact on your children. It is preferable if this discussion is had with both parents and the children together, and that the children are reassured that they are not to blame for the break-up. The objective is for your children to understand the situation, adhere to the new arrangements and be aware of the steps your family will be taking and how they will be affected. It may be helpful to receive impartial advice on how to minimise the impact of separation on your children, and mediators are available to assist parents to reach co-parenting agreements during the lockdown and also following a separation.
Going through a separation is a traumatic experience for everyone involved, and the current situation inevitably only heightens and adds to the emotional impact. It is important to seek support if you need help, whether through legal representation, counselling, mediation or just a person you trust and in whom you can confide. Communication with your ex-partner and with those who are able to support you, even if that communication has to be by telephone, video link or messaging, could make all the difference in managing conflict in the event of the breakdown of a marriage or a long-term relationship during the lockdown.
This article appears in Issue 4 of Mindset magazine, which was published in August 2020.
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