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If you’re considering divorce, don’t do it now

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As families are forced into lockdown together, the fault lines in relationships become clearer, which has increased divorce in some countries by as much as 30%. In South Africa, a number of local lawyers report the same phenomenon.

Sasha Goldstein, a family law specialist attorney at Bregman Moodley Attorneys, says, “Our firm has seen an increase of about 35% to 40% in divorce consultations. Enquiries seem to be of a much more urgent nature.

“First, lockdown has proven unbearable for many who find themselves in unhappy or abusive marriages, and second, clients have more time on their hands. Before COVID-19, for many, starting the divorce process was a low priority. Many were daunted by the process, and couldn’t find the time to research lawyers, consult, and start the divorce process.

“It suits many couples to avoid initiating the process as they live completely separate lives while married. By taking away the office and replacing it with work-from-home situations, many couples are finding themselves having to take another look at their marriage.

“If someone is truly unhappy or in an abusive relationship, they should first consult an attorney to find out their options and ‘get their ducks in a row’. Many clients, especially women, feel they are trapped in unhappy marriages due to financial dependence on their spouse. After consulting with an attorney, they will find out they actually have more options than they thought.”

Says Goldstein, “Don’t be scared of the [divorce] process. Many clients feel a lot more at ease after the initial consultation, and actually wish they had done so sooner.”

Divorce attorney Hugh Raichlin says he hasn’t witnessed a noticeable increase in divorces in his practice. However he notes that “financial difficulties are a well-known cause of problems in a marriage, and the lockdown has created a pressure-cooker effect for many families. It appears that there are also couples that have experienced an improvement in their relationships.”

As an attorney and a qualified mediator, Raichlin says, “It’s always recommended that parties see a therapist before embarking on divorce. Very often, what seems to be insurmountable problems can be overcome with therapy. The couple will still be raising their children, attending school functions and celebrations together, so it’s in everyone’s interest to avoid a total breakdown in communication.

“I encourage both parties to attend mediation sessions to start a conversation about how to get divorced amicably, thinking about the best interests of their children, and ideally drafting a parenting plan to set in place the parameters for raising their children together but separately.

“This includes discussing maintenance and the division of assets, with a view to entering into a settlement agreement that can be made an order of the court, without a full-blown, expensive trial.”

“It’s definitely worthwhile to wait until things normalise prior to making a life-altering decision to get divorced,” advises attorney Yossi Shishler. “One of the greatest challenges that people wanting to get divorced are faced with is strained finances. Generally, most households are able to just make ends meet on two salaries. Under lockdown, finances are strained, and in a post-divorce scenario, those two salaries will now have to finance two households. It is always a worthwhile exercise for parties to consider the financial implications of divorce prior to proceeding.”

Clinical psychologist Beverley Marcus says, “Lockdown puts a magnifying glass on the cracks that are already there. Couples whose marital issues were masked by the hustle and bustle of everyday life may find themselves in a fragile and vulnerable space, leaving things feeling broken beyond repair.”

Children may be particularly impacted by divorce under lockdown. “In the current situation, everyone is traumatised to a greater or lesser degree, and this includes children. All of the constants that they could previously rely upon have been taken away. A child whose parents are divorcing during lockdown is likely to experience quite complex trauma that will hook into all the other losses.

“They may feel as if their world is falling apart, and if this is the case, it’s important that the child is provided with a safe therapeutic space to help them process this trauma, deal with the loss, and adjust to a different family structure.”

Says attorney Graeme Krawitz, “Some people are rushing into divorce, and should wait for life to return to ‘normal’ before making such a life-changing decision. The impact of divorce will affect the entire family for decades to come.

“It’s best to consult an attorney, and consider the financial and other ramifications of a divorce, and also the matrimonial regime under which one is married. Courts are running at a reduced capacity and more slowly than normal because of lockdown procedures and reduced staff. For couples with or without children, the division and distribution of assets, housing, adjusted standards of living, and all other concomitant financial considerations must be carefully weighed up.”

Dana Labe, a clinical social worker based in Johannesburg notes that everyone is in survival mode, which means dysfunctional patterns are heightened. Four particular behaviours are the most damaging: criticism, blame, contempt, and stonewalling (the silent treatment). To prevent these, Labe says it is vital to prioritise respect. “You may feel like you are drowning and your partner is on the shore, but in fact you are both drowning and doing your best to get to shore,” she says.

If it’s clear that a marriage is over, “Lockdown is a good time to decide if you want to get divorced, but it’s not a good time to execute it,” Labe says. “Try to hang in there and get help, even if just for the short term. It is not necessarily going to save your marriage, but it will save your sanity. The practicalities of getting divorced right now aren’t easy. Some can pull it off, but this time requires fortitude, patience, and respect.

Regarding children, Labe says, “What happens between parents is the playground your children walk on. It can have shattered glass, or be a safe environment.” If a divorce is respectful and their well-being is prioritised, children can emerge relatively unscathed. “If we can’t make a good marriage, we have the opportunity to make a good divorce,” Labe counsels.

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