Pandemic divorces: ‘Because of lockdown, they can’t tolerate it any longer’

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Relationships already under strain hit breaking point under lockdown

The pandemic is taking a toll on marriage. Irish solicitors report a spike in divorce enquiries as relationships fray in an unprecedented year. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, for some, lockdown is doing the opposite.

Dealing with a deadly virus and homeschooling children, while trying to work, wasn’t meant to be anyone’s “happy ever after”. Marriage was about being together, but not all together, all the time. Covid-19 restrictions mean support networks and activities – once a release – are cut off. Common irritants of housework, childcare and money are amplified. Relationships that may have had their troubles have become intolerable.

“I’ve been speaking to people who have been sitting in their cars because it’s the only place they can get privacy for a call,” says Avril Mangan of Mangan & Company Solicitors. She has seen an increase in enquiries since March last year. Initial queries, mostly from women, didn’t at once proceed. “They were saying, ‘we’ll just get through this bit of home schooling’,” says the Dublin-based solicitor. “Quite a few of those have come back now. They were able to suck it up for the family and the good of the children and were getting the children through the Leaving Cert and would deal with their marriage after, but actually, no, they can’t do that now. Because of lockdown, they can’t tolerate it any longer.”

For solicitor Keith Walsh, the uptick started in April last year. He says the biggest group is those who had been meaning to separate or divorce, but just hadn’t got around to it. “There is always a long list of people who are cohabiting, but the relationship is over. They’d kind of come to an accommodation. It wasn’t the final accommodation, but it worked for them and maybe for the kids.” But lockdown has unseated things. “These people are a particularly unfortunate victim of Covid because with both of them in the house all the time and the children, what was previously workable has become very hard.”


“All of those people who may have planned to come to a solicitor in the next three years, quite a lot came in the space of a number of months,” says Walsh. It may not be that more relationships are breaking down, but those that already had done so now want out.

Another cohort lifting the phone is the relatively newly-wed. “This [lockdown] was imposed on them. They had something that, if it had been given a bit more time and space, might have survived. Maybe they wouldn’t have separated,” says Walsh. For some couples, busy dual careers, status in the office, work-related travel, friends and outside interests were part of the deal. Being grounded at home in exclusive togetherness was not.

In too many relationships, lockdown has meant physical violence or the fear of it, psychological or emotional abuse, and coercive control

For some already separated or divorced, the pandemic has seen amicable arrangements sour. “I’ve been doing this 20 years, and I have never had the likes of what I had last summer,” says Walsh whose practice is based in Dublin. “Disagreements about where people were going on holidays, unwillingness to be flexible, a lack of trust where there had always been trust, holidays cancelled and parents wanting a different week and there being a huge row about it. For parents, and I think for children, it was a very difficult summer.”

Under pressure from school closures, work, social isolation or elder care, tempers flared.

When it comes to custody and access, Mangan is seeing less agreement between parents. “You have one parent who has all the shoes at the door and the sanitiser and they aren’t seeing anyone and they are in complete lockdown mode, and then you have another parent who is seeing this person and that person and they are travelling to the UK.”

More frequently in her view, courts are calling in a psychologist or family therapist to help decide matters. “Now because of the different issues, like children being diagnosed with anxiety, that is more common,” says Mangan.

In too many relationships, lockdown has meant physical violence or the fear of it, psychological or emotional abuse, and coercive control. An average of 2,000 women and 411 children were in receipt of some kind of support from domestic violence services in each of the first six months of the pandemic, figures from national agency Safe Ireland show. Offenders more easily triggered by pubs being closed and children being out of school have made things especially difficult for victims who are now mostly at home. The overwhelming majority of domestic violence involves males targeting females, says the Garda but many men are also being victimised, and violence within same-sex relationships is coming to attention.

In some relationships, lockdown has seen abusive behaviours begin. Others are reporting abuse always present, or present and now escalating, for the first time

“Previously if someone had a narcissistic or manipulative partner, they’d be able to ‘manage’ it better,” says Mangan. “They’d make sure the kids were going over to a friend’s house, or they were bringing the kids to climb up a mountain on Saturday; they had access to extended family or they could meet a friend. Men could play their five-a-side or go to the gym. It gave you a break; it gave you some space. In a lot of cases, where there was volatility in a relationship, it has become magnified.”

Some behaviour, once insidious, has turned physically violent, says Mangan. “I think that’s definitely where lockdown has had a big impact on people deciding to separate.”

In some relationships, lockdown has seen abusive behaviours begin. Others are reporting abuse always present, or present and now escalating, for the first time. Safe Ireland says an average of 575 women and 98 children accessed abuse support services for the first time from March to September last year. The 2018 Domestic Violence Act criminalised psychological abuse and controlling and coercive behaviour that causes fear of violence, or serious alarm or distress. Operation Faoiseamh was put in place by the Garda to tackle rising domestic violence during the pandemic. “Before, the guards were between a rock and a hard place – ‘He took the buggy away from me’ – really what could they do about that?” says Mangan. “Now victims have more confidence they will be heard and something can be done.”

“I’ve rarely come across a barring order or domestic violence order in the middle of a [divorce] case, that’s just not something that happened, but it happened last year,” says Walsh. The abuse is happening where couples live together or where they live separately, often during the handover of children for access visits. Whether this is due to pandemic pressures or greater awareness and reporting of domestic violence is hard to know, he adds.

There were 4,073 new divorce applications in 2019, according to Courts Service data, an increase of 5 per cent on the previous year

Anger in divorce cases had been increasing in recent years anyway, but has been heightened by the pandemic, says Limerick-based solicitor, Daniel J O’Gorman. “The level of vitriol between couples in text messages, Whatsapps, [and] Snapchats, there is nothing left unsaid.” Boredom and alcohol in lockdown is fuelling it, he says.

While legal matters such as applications for barring orders and maintenance cases were being heard in court in Limerick, as were some consent divorce cases where couples had resolved their differences, up until recently more fraught “contested” cases were not. “There was one week of contested cases in Limerick in November, and another scheduled for December was cancelled,” says O’Gorman. The delays meant that for some families in trouble, there was no out.

“The delays in my opinion were unnecessary and they are extremely damaging for children in particular,” says O’Gorman.

He describes the newly-built courthouse in the city, with six large courtrooms, as the “Taj Mahal” and queries why some courthouses, “suitable and safe” in his view, were not used. “People are doing their best, but this is something, in my opinion that could have been resolved.”

The reality of the decision to postpone means some children were being parented and homeschooled in “dysfunctional, chaotic and often oppressive surroundings”, O’Gorman wrote in a letter to The Irish Times in March. “We so profess to care about our children that we pass a constitutional amendment vindicating some of their rights. Is it not time for someone with authority to start walking the walk?”

The delays mean fraught families will remain in limbo until the backlog is cleared. “There is a backlog now from here to China, it’s months and months.”

Another solicitor describes an abusive relationship in a relatively affluent family where a number of children were being homeschooled. The woman contracted Covid-19, and on emerging from 14 days of isolation in her bedroom, she was told by her abusive husband he wished it had killed her. “She spends the day wandering around the local park or sitting in the car,” the solicitor says. “There is sufficient money in the case to rehouse both and sort it out. The case is still awaiting a hearing.”

In Dublin, while some in-person consent rulings proceeded virtually, contested divorce cases, which take place in the Circuit or High Court, did not, says Mangan. In the High Court, contested hearings are now starting to resume. In the Circuit Court, solicitors are hopeful the county registrar will soon start to fix dates for hearings.

It’s too late, however, for those whose difficult family circumstances pressured them to agree to settlements that may have gone differently had the courts been open. “There are things like people not making full and frank disclosure [of finances],” says Mangan. “If you have full and frank disclosure in the Circuit Court or High Court, then people can draw a line under it and know it was the fairest deal on the day. But people were under pressure to agree things because they just want to bring it to an end, and who could blame them?”

Family law case progressions haven’t been happening either; this is where parties’ documentation is checked and a hearing date is assigned. Where a spouse is unwilling to engage, the situation can facilitate them.

“In coercive control cases, where one person is determined to frustrate the other leaving the marriage, this is assisting them. It’s torture if you are under the same roof.” The courts finish their term in July, says Walsh. “There simply won’t be the capacity to deal with everything.”

There were 4,073 new divorce applications in 2019, according to Courts Service data, an increase of 5 per cent on the previous year. Figures for last year are not published yet, but divorce in a pandemic will have a long tail – for the courts, for couples and for children.

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance