This article was written by Zosia Bielski and appeared in the Globe & Mail on Oct. 12, 2020.
Tara Mandarano woke up on Aug. 6 like it was “any other day in our new COVID world,” unaware her husband would shortly be asking for a separation.
The 43-year-old writer and editor worked on her laptop in bed while her spouse dropped their six-year-old daughter off at the grandparents'. When her husband got home, he broke the news. Crying, Mandarano followed him out to the driveway in her pajamas to talk but could see the “finality on his face.”
Looking back, Mandarano says she believes seven anxious months spent at home together pushed dormant issues to the surface in their marriage. She has multiple health conditions and her husband had taken on a difficult caregiving role. Underlying resentment also simmered around parenting, with the mother often feeling sidelined by chronic pain. Instead of talking through these jarring months, the spouses retreated to their own screens at night.
“It was a perfect storm to fall apart as a couple,” Mandarano said. “My hurt and grief are amplified because I’m already shaken and unsettled by the world outside my door and how it’s transformed. When my husband said he wanted to separate, it just seemed like another disaster.”
For some marriages on shaky ground, the unrelenting stress of this pandemic is becoming a breaking point. With a second wave of infections now bearing down on Canadians, many divorce lawyers, mediators and couples therapists say they are fielding more calls from spouses contemplating separation than in years past. The new realities of job loss, evaporated child care and upended marital roles at home have pushed some in strained relationships to the edge. Amid widespread uncertainty, it’s a particularly trying time for a marriage to break down.
“The couples who were showing cracks before, the pandemic became like an amplifier,” said Andrew Sofin, president of the Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Working in Montreal, the worst affected city in Canada, Sofin is seeing a surge of couples on the verge of divorcing seeking intensive therapy.
“People are worried about going into the second wave. They’re frantic,” Sofin said. “It’s a fear of, ‘I can’t do this again.’”
During the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns in spring, Sofin said many couples were in survival mode. Through the relative calm of summer, some spouses stepped back, re-examined their time locked down together and realized, “I don’t really like you – and you don’t really like me,” Sofin said.
Some partners who used to work long office hours and are now cocooned at home are discovering they’ve grown apart, said Laura Paris, an associate lawyer with Shulman & Partners, which specializes in divorces in Toronto and Vaughan, Ont.
“People are realizing they don’t want the same things out of life,” said Paris, whose firm reported a 19-per-cent jump in new clients this June compared to last. “You get caught up in the day-to-day and you forget what it takes to maintain a relationship.”
Linda Long, Edmonton founder and managing partner at Long Family Law Group, said her firm saw more client intakes this September than any year prior.
“When these things happen the world holds its breath for a time, but it can only hold its breath for so long,” Long said. “Marriages that might have been foundering before may move to a separation as a result of this additional pressure."
Marriage counsellor Darren Wilk said spouses crammed in together at home have developed heightened expectations of each other, but few communication skills to match.
“They’re being blunt and that never works,” said Wilk, co-founder of BestMarriages.ca, which offers relationship counselling in Vancouver, Victoria and Langley, B.C. “They thought they were better friends and they aren’t.”
With a four-month waiting list, Wilk said he’s never been busier. Spouses tell him that lockdowns gave them more time to seek help, pointing to work-from-home arrangements and therapy conveniently offered over video call.
The workload has also grown intense for Awatif Lakhdar, a family law litigator and mediator with Lavery Lawyers in Montreal.
“Our work increased so that we cannot even breathe sometimes,” Lakhdar said.
Aside from new clients, Lakhdar is hearing from existing clients who want to push their separations forward. She’s also seeing new tension points. Facing financial trouble, some clients are renegotiating support arrangements. Others are bickering about child custody and back-to-school decisions. Some are accusing exes of being negligent through the pandemic, while others have raised the alarm about ex-partners who work in health care.
“We are faced with unusual, exceptional circumstances,” Lakhdar said. “People are worried about everything.”
Erin Crawford, managing partner at Grant Crawford LLP, a Toronto firm specializing in family law, said this year feels extra busy for her and her colleagues. She said a “big point of discussion” is the division of child care and domestic labour as parents struggle to work from home.
Amid serious financial uncertainty, Crawford said many exes are reluctant to negotiate final deals, with some halting the process altogether. She and others noticed more couples turning to arbitration and mediation, which are less costly than the courts, now acutely backlogged.
With so many unknowns before them, some couples are slowing down the separation process, waiting and seeing about the next few months, according to Tina Sinclair, founder of Peacemakers for Families, which offers divorce mediation in Calgary.
“People who would otherwise perhaps be separating quite quickly are trying to find ways to live under one roof in a creative kind of way and waiting,” Sinclair said. “Can they divide the house in such a way that they’re not always on top of each other?”
Newmarket’s Mandarano knows three other couples separating right now. She and her husband are hoping to end things amicably through a mediation process slated for December. In the interim, he’s found a new place and they’ve agreed on informal custody and financial arrangements.
Splitting amid the pandemic has been an isolating experience for Mandarano. She can’t confide in friends in-person and can only speak with her therapist by video call. Her mediation will play out on three computer screens: hers, her husband’s and the mediator’s.
“It seems even more cold and distant that my husband and I won’t be in the same room together as we decide our future,” Mandarano said. “It just feels less human somehow.”