Here’s why we’ll see an increase in divorce after lockdown

Events in recent months have caused everybody to stop, reflect and take stock of so many aspects of their lives, assessing what is important to them and actioning those priorities will be part of the cathartic release as society moves away from the restrictions of lockdown. But do we anticipate an increase in divorce after lockdown restrictions are eased? Can we draw a thread between society’s approach to divorce and to the management of the epidemic?

There are in the region of 100,000 divorces across England and Wales each year, with this number on a general downward trajectory since the turn of the century, reflecting society’s move towards a growing tendency to prefer the informality and flexibility of cohabiting relationships over the formalities of marriage.

Almost inevitably, following the easing of lockdown restrictions, there may be an expected glut of parties rushing to initiate separation and divorce. Much like the epidemic itself, a significant “first wave” of divorce after lockdown is anticipated. The pressures of living in lockdown with a spouse, in a relationship already subject to a significant degree of strain, is going to be too much pressure for some.

Several Chinese cities have seen record numbers of divorce petitions submitted once lockdown restrictions eased. The Chinesw family justice system has struggled to manage the backlog. In the city of Miluo, Hunan, the local government website suggested local officials did not have time to stop for a drink of water, such was the length of the queue of people seeking to initiate divorce proceedings!

Refuge, the domestic violence charity, recently reported a tenfold increase upon the usual levels of requests for assistance in the early part of May 2020. The charity said the lockdown itself has not caused domestic abuse but could be seen to “aggravate pre-existing behaviours in an abusive partner”. Fears that social conditions created by the coronavirus lockdown could result in a spike in domestic abuse led the government to increase funding for services by £76,000,000.

Limited resources and HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s prioritisation of cases concerning children and domestic abuse has seen a growing backlog of paperwork and applications for divorce petitions. It is likely to be some time before the courts in England and Wales feel they are on top of their workload. Indeed, the Ministry of Justice’s concern will be that the backlog is diminished before any potential “second wave” of divorce after lockdown applications hits.

For many, the financial implications of the epidemic are seen as the potential cause of a “secondary wave”. Frequently cited as either a form of abuse within a marriage, or simply the cause of arguments and dissatisfaction in the relationship, the strain on the household purse strings is often too much to bear for many. Squeezed income as a result of furloughing, redundancies and company failures, and the demise of the high street all paint a grim picture for the country’s financial future and it is unlikely that any of us will walk away unscathed.

In considering the dire economic forecast predicted by many including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, we might turn to the last major, worldwide economic crash in 2008. The banking crisis saw the divorce rate in England and Wales for the following two years leap to approximately 114,000 (2009) and 120,000 (2010), before settling over the remainder of the decade, down to 90,000 in 2018. Before this, the “dot.com bubble” crash at the turn of the century saw the divorce rate in England and Wales climb to approximately 153,000 by 2003. History suggests that if the economy performs poorly, our matrimonial relationships will also suffer and we’ll see an increase in divorce after lockdown

In times of economic uncertainty, investors leave market positions that they consider “risky”. Cost-benefit analysis is undertaken to assess whether their position remains one worthy of continued investment. Marriage is no different. Is a relationship salvageable in these turbulent times? Will and I be better served striking out on our own now and making a fresh start? Can I afford to continue to expend emotional capital in this relationship?

Even when the pandemic wanes and society adjusts to its new normal, the effects of the Covid 19 and lockdown are expected to impact us all as individuals for a considerable period of time thereafter. Following the SARS crisis in 2002/3, the Hong Kong authorities reported elevated stress, anxiety and depression across their communities for over a year after the crisis there had ended. The 2004 divorce rate in Hong Kong was reportedly 21% higher than the pre-SARS crisis level.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. The lockdown and furloughing have left many with an opportunity to reflect on a potential separation and their relationship. It affords the opportunity to focus on a relationship without many of the other day to day distractions, such as financial insecurity, work commitments, the kids’ extra-curricular activities etc.

Some relationships will be salvaged. For those certain that there is no prospect of a reconciliation, the lockdown has offered an opportunity to consider their approach to divorce and disputes associated with the children or matrimonial finances. The depletion of court services and the prioritisation of other cases has seen many couples in dispute return to mediation and arbitration to help resolve matters. In the end, a rise in the rate of divorce after lockdown is likely, but as ever, it is important to obtain good advice on how you might best navigate the choppy waters of divorce.

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