With the pandemic putting relationships under pressure and divorce rates recording their biggest percentage rise since 1972, family professionals and support groups were encouraging couples to focus on the wellbeing of the family over the festive season.
Traditionally, more people petition for divorce in January than at any other time of the year, which is attributed to the pressure of the family Christmas get-together. This season it’s expected that many more relationships, already under stress as a result of the life challenges brought about by coronavirus, may struggle to survive.
Early in the pandemic, a survey by the relationship charity Relate found that nearly a quarter of people reported that lockdown had placed additional pressure on their relationship, creating a ‘make or break’ environment according to the charity. A follow-on survey, later in the year, found 8% saying lockdown had made them realise they needed to end their relationship, but 43% saying it had brought them closer. This later finding supports a report (1) by the Marriage Foundation suggesting that more marriages improved during the pandemic than worsened.
“It’s heartening to see that spending more time together has helped some couples to work on improving their relationships. Unfortunately, these figures also suggest that vulnerable relationships have felt the impact of the lockdown, not just because of the added economic pressures, but also because there was less opportunity to spend apart. As family lawyers, we saw the lockdown was hardest on those who were considering or had already started the process of divorce, as many were still living together under the same roof, while having to deal with the pressures and distress that inevitably result in dealing with a separation,” said family law expert, Yashin Masoliver of Berry & Lamberts Solicitors.
“Now we have the pressure of a concentrated, and uncharacteristic Christmas, where decisions had to be made about who was part of the ‘bubble’, in the knowledge that there will also be further disruption and restrictions ahead. December brought unique challenges, but the months ahead will continue to be a test for many relationships.”
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show an 18% spike in the rates of opposite-sex divorce in 2019 with 107,599 cases. While the size of the increase is partly due to a backlog of divorce petitions which resulted in higher numbers of divorce petitions completing during 2019, this figure is the highest since 2014. It is also the largest annual percentage rise since 1972, when The Divorce Reform Act 1969 opened the way to an easier process for divorce. Alongside, the number of same-sex divorces among both male and female couples has increased each year since 2015. In 2019, there were 822 divorces among same-sex couples, which is nearly double the previous year and of these, 72% were female couples.
Most divorce petitions in opposite-sex couples came from the wife, at 62%, and unreasonable behaviour was the most common ground for the divorce, cited by 35% of all husbands and 49% of all wives.
And while no-fault divorce will be available in future, with the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 having received Royal Assent, under the existing law grounds for divorce require one party to prove their partner is at fault through adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour. The only alternative to a fault-based petition currently is on periods of separation of at least two years.
Yashin added: “If the worst happens and couples feel they cannot see a future together in 2021, then it is clearly best to navigate the split in a way that is supportive of each other, and most importantly any children involved. Talking things through, where possible, and trying to resolve issues by agreement, with some expert advice, before you make any decisions over asset sharing or arrangements for the children, is sensible.
Some people are worried about how to access advice while the Covid-19 restrictions and health concerns are with us, but for family lawyers across the country, we know how important it is to be there for couples, and while we can’t meet face to face, there are all the other ways to talk things through, whether video calls, telephone, email or messaging.
Ending a marriage is one of the toughest things anyone will ever deal with, but a sensible and pragmatic approach can go a long way towards easing the emotional distress. The best Christmas present for the whole family, at such times, is being focused on keeping communication positive.”
(1) According to analysis of 2,559 parents who completed the UK Household Longitudinal Survey Coronavirus Study conducted by Essex University
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