Broken marriages becoming pandemic's other toll

COVID-19 is taking a toll on relationships and creating a boom for divorce lawyers, couples therapists and even debt counsellors who are helping newly single clients chart a path forward through the pandemic.

Isolation giving many couples the time the needed to figure out things aren't right

Becca Atkinson and her husband celebrated their 10th anniversary in February 2020. Four months later, they separated. (Submitted by Becca Atkinson)

COVID-19 is taking a toll on relationships and creating a boom for divorce lawyers, couples therapists and even debt counsellors who are helping newly single clients chart a path forward through the pandemic.

"What would ordinarily be a bump in a regular marriage is amplified," said Russell Alexander, a lawyer specializing in separation agreements and divorces. "That's leading people to decide their partner is not right for them."

Alexander, who oversees seven family law offices across Ontario, said their client base has grown by about 30 per cent since the pandemic began.

"We've hired five new lawyers recently to help us with the workload," he said.

Some clients are seeing a different side of their spouse that they didn't know existed.- Russell Alexander, lawyer

Becca Atkinson and her husband celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary in February 2020. Four months later, they separated. Both are public servants who began working from their home in Gatineau, Que., when COVID-19 hit.

"It was certainly stressful all being at home. Then, when the kids went back [to school] in May, it was just the two of us," said Atkinson. "There was nothing else to do except kind of stare at each other and go, 'OK, now what?'

"We were able to examine the situation and say, this isn't working anymore," said Atkinson. "Everything just became clearer. I look back at it as a blessing ... because it provided us the time to address what we hadn't been addressing."

Atkinson and her ex now share custody of their two kids, and are on the same page when it comes to parenting in a pandemic. 

The pandemic has many people realizing ‘their partner isn’t right for them,’ lawyer says

2 years ago
Duration 1:02
Russell Alexander, a lawyer specializing in separation agreements and divorces, says he’s seen a rise in the number of couples looking to separate during the pandemic as regular routines are disrupted and stressors mount.

That's not the case for many divorcing couples, according to Alexander.

"We had parents who unfortunately were using the pandemic to change parenting arrangements, unilaterally trying to make changes to perceived wrongs that they think had occurred prior to the pandemic."

Alexander saw examples of parents failing to return kids after the weekend over fears the other parent's job as a first responder or nurse on the front lines of COVID-19 could put them at risk. Parents also argued about social bubbles and in-person schooling, he said.

"There are lots of good marriages that end in divorce with or without a pandemic," said Alexander. "But some clients are seeing a different side of their spouse that they didn't know existed."

Even the pandemic-fuelled real estate boom may be playing a role, he said.

"If you're living in a home in Toronto that's [worth] $1.5 million, you can move an hour outside the city and buy a home for $500,000. That's a big motivator for lots of people to uproot and move, or maybe end a relationship."

‘COVID is showing us how short life is’: How the pandemic puts strain on relationships

2 years ago
Duration 1:29
Pamela George, a financial literacy and credit counsellor, says she’s seeing more clients who are looking to get their finances in order after separating from their spouse.

Arguments over money are Pamela George's bread and butter. The Ottawa financial literacy and credit counsellor said she's noticed a sea change in her clientele since the pandemic started.

"Pre-COVID, I would work with couples to help them figure out their finances together," said George. "Now, 80 per cent of my clientele are women who are looking to leave a troubled marriage, or women who have just left and need help to figure out their finances.

"They were all busy running around to dance lessons and hockey and karate and skating and busy going to work and the commute. They did not have the time to stop and think … and deal with the issues," said George. "Then the world stopped and they had no choice."

Finally, George said, they reach their breaking point. "'I've had enough of this,'" she said they tell her. "'COVID is showing us how short life is.'"

Often, George said, money problems aren't the real issue. "It's easy to say that [a job loss] brought stress onto the marriage. But from my experience, the clients who had that happen to them, they just got closer and stronger and they're making it work."

Couples therapist Sue Johnson is the founding director of the Ottawa Couple and Family institute and author of the book Hold Me Tight. She's also a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa. 

She describes what's happening to some couples during the pandemic as a "perfect storm."

"If you're in a relatively distressed relationship, just when … your whole life is screaming at you that you need the support, you can't find it," said Johnson. "If the couple doesn't know how to deal with that pressure in a way that brings them together, it's going to pull them apart.

"There's a huge relational toll. And unfortunately ... when I'm overwhelmed with stress, I'm not very good at turning to you and looking into your face and picking up your emotional cues and giving you empathy," said Johnson. "It takes too much bandwidth."

Statistics Canada is still crunching the numbers on "changes in relationship status since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic," and said results will be published later this year.