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Breaking up in the time of Covid-19 brings new challenges

There comes a moment in many relationships where the partnership is no longer viable, and where separation — or, for married couples, divorce — is the unavoidable next step.

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Terry Ward
CNN — There comes a moment in many relationships where the partnership is no longer viable, and where separation — or, for married couples, divorce — is the unavoidable next step.

And while divorcing or going separate ways is rarely easy, couples dissolving their households during Covid-19 are facing new woes.

The jury is still out regarding spiking divorce numbers as a result of the pandemic. But without a doubt, for many people, relationships — not to mention sex — have become more complicated in 2020.

When it's a case of emotional or physical abuse, the right time to get out of marriage or a relationship is always right now.

For marriages and relationships involving the usual strife, the stress of job losses, shared housing, co-parenting and health insurance worries have been exacerbated by the pandemic. That has couples weighing when (not to mention if) it's the right time to bow out.

For many couples — married or not — the time is now

For Missy, 43, an information technology consultant (we're not using her real name to protect her privacy) the moment she decided it was time to finally end things for good with her partner of nearly 20 years came in April.

The couple married in 2001 and had two children. "Sometime late last year, I started feeling like we'd grown into different people," she said. "And I started to realize that if I was going to choose a person now, it would be someone different than him."

Then the pandemic hit.

"I was working from home since March and was thinking, there's a pandemic, I can't (split up) now," she said. "Where would we live? How would we do this?"

"At the very beginning (of lockdown), I absolutely thought, 'We need to stick together, we have to ride this out,'" Missy said.

But by April, after a fight that was finally the last straw for her, Missy said, she and her ex-husband decided he would move out.

"Don't let Covid be your excuse to stay in a bad relationship," she said. "I am really glad I ended mine when I did."

Coveting a different future

Missy is one of many people pushed to a breaking point and breakup during the pandemic.

"In 'normal' times, a crisis would force couples into a cooperative pattern," said Clarissa Silva, a New York City-based behavioral scientist and relationship coach. "But Covid-19 is creating and re-creating patterns of uncertainty for many families. Covid-19 has extended the disillusionment phase to be part of everyday life."

For many people forced into closer proximity and more time with their partners, this sense of disillusionment has brought into sharper relief the behaviors and beliefs they can and cannot live with anymore.

"Some people are really planning their escape or their next step in life for their freedom right now," said Kem Marks, founder and chief attorney of Just In Time Legal Solutions in Bessemer, Alabama.

Marks said she fields constant queries from her clients about when they can expect their divorce proceedings to be finalized. "People are coveting this ideal life they never had time to think about or plan before."

Some divorces may be happening faster, thanks to Zoom

Divorce proceedings have changed since the pandemic began, said Frances Martinez, a family law attorney with Older, Lundy, Alvarez & Koch in Tampa, Florida.

"There seems to be the perception the courts are closed or people don't have access to the courts right now, but that's totally false," Martinez said. "The courts are 100% open, and if anything, we are getting into court faster."

Being able to do many things on Zoom video conferencing has saved time, too. "What used to be a five-minute hearing that you'd spend an hour in court waiting for has been eliminated by these Zoom proceedings," Martinez said.

But that hardly means the emotional toll of getting divorced right now isn't taking a toll, she said —especially when it comes to formulating parenting plans, with so many uncertainties still surrounding the coronavirus and schooling options.

"I have been doing this for 15 years as a high-conflict parenting litigator, and I have all the stories. But anxiety levels are at an all-time high for most people," she said. "This is some of the most hysterical behavior I've seen in a long time."

"Parents are fighting over virtual or in person, they want to deny time-sharing because of these things," she said. "How you run your household may be very different than how your parenting partner runs their household, and that's been highlighted."

Teetering on the edge

The pandemic has people teetering on the edge more than ever due to both the overall stress of the pandemic and the inequalities that have been further highlighted because of it, said Linda Waite, a professor in the deparment of sociology at the University of Chicago.

"Most professionals have kept their jobs," she said. "They've been able to work at home, most have their kids in schools that are doing a good job at staying on top of things, or maybe they've made learning pods."

The stresses and losses have "fallen disproportionately on people who don't have a lot to begin with," Waite said. "Those are likely to be Blacks and Hispanics, but many Whites, too, with only a high school education."

Women have also suffered disproportionately during the pandemic compared to men, with the bulk of the responsibility of child care falling on them, she said.

As a result, for some people, "marriage has gotten more fragile because they're under so much stress."

Couples without kids are also suffering

Couples without kids who are separating or divorcing are also enduring huge losses right now, Waite said.

"If you lose your partner, even if you don't have kids, you still have to find a new place to live," she said, not to mention sharing assets. "And it's very hard to replace a partnership now."

Bruno Duprat, 25, a performer and composer in Boston, just decided to divorce two weeks ago after seven years of marriage.

"The pandemic definitely stirred things up," Duprat said. "I think the urgency that the pandemic brings makes people reflect on their deepest goals and what they want."

And what he and his wife found out, he said, is their life goals no longer matched. "We've been together so many years," he said. "And not having each other now at the same time everyone is locked inside or 6 feet apart is going to be difficult."

"It's almost like the pandemic has been a preparation for the tough period ahead of us," he said. "We're both worried about the other one a lot."

Moving forward

Having empathy with your soon-to-be ex is a best-case scenario when it comes to separating — although not always attainable.

Martinez said she encourages her clients to go to individual counseling during a divorce "to deal with the emotional and psychological trauma they've experienced, mostly in parenting situations, since you have to interact with that person forever."

Consider hiring a mediator, too, which can potentially save you thousands of dollars on lawyer fees.

"Mediation, which is a great tool to resolve a divorce case, is also being conducted virtually, and we have been highly successful in resolving cases using this process," wrote Daria Wise, founding partner of The Wise Law Firm in Marietta, Georgia, in an email to CNN.

If you have decided it's time to involve a lawyer, Wise recommended scheduling a consultation with a family law attorney, calling several to see which attorney best suits your needs.

While you can expect some things to go more smoothly during the pandemic, other factors may be more difficult.

"In certain cases, it may be harder for some (people) to handle mediations or court appearances virtually," Wise said. "Divorce is an emotional process, and sometimes that human connection of having your divorce attorney in your actual corner can be calming."

Once couples have decided divorce is the only path forward, said Gail Nankervis, a certified divorce financial analyst whose business, Changeover Divorce Transitions, offers mediation and financial adviser services for couples who are separating, there are several things to keep in mind.

"Try to stay as flexible as you can. If you are unavoidably heading for divorce, get your ducks in a row by knowing your financials and what you need your bottom line to be in the future," she said.

"Because of the uncertain economy, if a couple has decided to divorce, I would suggest they move forward quickly at this time," Nankervis stated via email. "The sooner everything is bound contractually, the easier it will be to move forward."

Parenting classes previously offered in person are now offered online, she said, which can be less stressful.

Especially when children are involved, she said, it's important to focus on what's best for your entire family, no matter how mad you are at your ex-partner.

"Even after a divorce, you are still a family," Nankervis said. "It just looks different."

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