Melissa Lesson of Mishcon de Reya LLP, and Dr Catherine Sykes consider the legal and psychological ramifications of taking the first step in the divorce process, how these are intertwined and the significant impact they can have, against a background of living with a pandemic during the course of 2020.
For some, the pandemic has accentuated existing strains on their relationships, others may feel that they have to face the reality that without the hustle and bustle of normal life they can no longer recognise the person they are living with. Yet, working up the resolve to leave a dysfunctional and unhappy relationship can take time. The timeframe from entertaining the possibility of divorce to taking the steps to facilitate it can take years. Often one party is far ahead emotionally and psychologically which makes it very difficult for the party playing catch up, especially when divorce proceedings may be initiated at a point when they are not ready to accept that the marriage is at an end.
In the context of the pandemic, the timeframe to take action to divorce can be slower particularly when much of the process is going to have to be played out whilst living under the same roof, in some form of COVID-19-related lockdown. Divorce is an interrelated emotional and legal process that can take its toll over a long period of time (the legal process on average can take nine months to two years to complete) so it is no wonder that staying in a familiar, albeit fraught, situation can seem better than facing the reality of divorce.
The first step to deciding whether divorce is right for you is to gather information. For many, having an initial consultation with a divorce lawyer can allay many of their fears, particularly for the financially weaker party, by reassuring them and clarifying the process.
The reality of divorce does involve losses and changes. These need to be set against the potential benefits. Considering and writing down the emotional and legal losses and the changes that a divorce would bring, alongside the future benefits can help with taking the first steps. As you go through the emotional process of divorce, having these considerations available will be useful, especially if you are able to name and categorise what you are experiencing. For example, you may feel a deep sadness about life plans that will no longer be possible. This deep sadness can cloud judgement as we are generally programmed to avoid pain. If you have children, the thought of spending less time with them can be incredibly hard and lead to intense guilt. Guilt is another powerful emotion that can take over and prolong the divorce decision-making process. Divorce can often be perceived as a failure, for some people, a divorce can be their first encounter with this feeling and they may not have the coping skills for dealing with perceived failure. They may worry about losing the social status of being married.
There is also often anger: anger at the spouse perceived to be causing emotional pain, anger at being in a situation not of your choosing, anger at not being with your children, anger at having to part with financial security that may have been built up over a lifetime. Anger often feeds a desire to attack the other party which can feed into the divorce process in a very negative way, propelling a family into costly and destructive litigation that could have been avoided or managed very differently. Many expect, or hope, that divorce as a legal construct, will equate to 'justice'. It is often said in legal circles that a 'good outcome' is one where neither side gets exactly what they want, and compromises have to be made. This is often the case when dealing with the financial disengagement of a couple: the financial upheaval can be very stressful. Many people are very attached to their family home and it can take time to come to terms with the fact that it will have to be sold, for example.
In proceedings relating to children the approach is different, with the child being central to all considerations. The loss of time with a child can feel insurmountable and is undeniably, for most people the single most painful aspect of divorce. The situation is slowly improving however, with many more children being able to enjoy an equal (or close to) division of time between their parents.
Understanding and remembering that there are losses and changes alongside the benefits can help to ease the process of divorce and lessen any decision-making fatigue, especially coupled with legal advice to demystify the process and provide reassurance.