Being married is hard. Being a parent is hard. These are facts that are true during the best of times. And to put it mildly, we are not living in the best of times. We’re living through a pandemic.
“These are quite unprecedented times,” said Diana Isaac, a family lawyer based in Toronto. Her firm, Shulman & Partners LLP, has seen a 40 per cent increase in questions about separation and divorce since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
Given the uptick, Isaac welcomed the opportunity share some of the information she’s found herself repeating to clients. She told HuffPost Canada some of the tips she has for couples with kids who are considering divorcing in the pandemic era.
Remember to focus on what’s best for the children
Stress levels are high, decisions about kids’ schooling are hard, and many people are facing financial insecurity. With so much anxiety in the air, it can be really hard for a lot of people to not live completely in their feelings.
But as much as you can, try to be rational about the situation you’re in, and not give way to anger at your spouse or sadness about your relationship, Isaac said. One of the most important parts of a healthy divorce is making sure the kids get through it relatively unscathed.
“I think sometimes separating yourself from the matter and being less emotional is important,” Isaac said.
Speak up about what you need
Yes, everyone knows communication is key, but not everyone does it. And now, when some couples who want to split up may be stuck in the same house, it’s more important than ever to speak up when you need compassion, or privacy, or for your spouse to just put the kids to bed already.
“Having the communication and providing each other updates about schooling, or who’s going to take care of the children ... allows for a flexible and solution-oriented arrangement,” Isaac said.
Make sure you talk to a lawyer before committing to any major changes
Isaac said lots of couples who want to keep things amicable will make arrangements about their next steps before they meet with lawyers. That could mean one parent moving out of the shared home, or couples deciding how they’re going to split time with their kids, or even something as simple as a parenting schedule.
Her advice is simple: meet with a lawyer before you decide anything.
“It’s best to speak to a lawyer as soon as possible, because it may have an impact on child-related issues,” she said. “It’s so complicated to deal with parenting issues, and add into the mix that we’re in a global pandemic. It becomes very difficult to navigate independently.”
Any decision you make for your children could have implications you don’t know even know for future custody agreements, Isaac explained. If one parent makes a choice for the child about anything medical or religious, for example, or anything about the child’s education, that can have implications when it comes to custody. But even agreeing to something like, “I’ll see the kids every other weekend” can have implications you might not understand until later.
“You’d be surprised how many people think, Oh, I could just speak to a lawyer after the fact,’” Isaac said. “But I think it’s important to be proactive and before you commit to some sort of parenting plan for your children that you speak to a lawyer to understand your rights and options.”
In an ideal situation — insofar as a divorce can ever be “ideal” — lawyers for the former couple would agree on terms. But if they don’t, there’s still a way to stay out of court, keep proceedings private, and save a lot of money: mediation. The process involves a third party negotiator who tries to find a solution both people can live with.
Isaac is seeing more and more of her clients opt for mediation rather than a battle in court, she said.
“People are really trying to roll up their sleeves and say, ‘You know what, let’s try to get this done in an amicable, civil way,’” she said. “It’s less emotionally distressful. It’s a lot faster. It will be a lot less costly — that’s something everyone is conscious of, [especially] during a pandemic where cash flow may be impacted. And it’s in a private setting, which is good for parents.”
Remember this situation is temporary
It’s unlikely that the pandemic is the only reason a couple might be considering divorce. It seems a lot more plausible that many marriages were in trouble already, and being stuck at home together in a state of heightened stress just exacerbated existing problems.
So, even if seeking a separation is the right move for you in the longterm, it’s still worthwhile to remember that this situation is a temporary one, Isaac said. It may not feel like it. It may be hard to see the end. But the pandemic won’t last forever, and the difficulty of whatever temporary arrangements you’ve had to deal with will eventually disappear.
If that knowledge doesn’t help much, and you have the means, Isaac said this could be a good time to seek out therapy, or counselling, or some other kind of help for mental health.
“Parenting pre-COVID, and post-COVID, and especially during COVID, is complex,” Isaac said. “There’s nothing wrong with people asking for help.”