The sharp increase in clients seeking divorce early on in the pandemic indicates that COVID-19 and the necessary response to contain the virus played a role.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of life in the U.S. since March 2020. The most readily apparent changes resulting from the pandemic are protective health measures and economic fallout. While waves of layoffs and lackluster revenues in certain industries are in the news, COVID-19 has had a less-discussed but equally significant impact on family relationships, particularly between married couples.
More Couples Are Looking to Get Divorced
Data indicates that the number of couples looking for a divorce spiked between March and June, the first few months of COVID-19-related lockdowns in the United States. The company, Legal Templates, which sells various legal form documents saw a 34% increase in sales of its divorce agreement between March and June of 2020 compared to sales of the divorce agreement during the same period in 2019. Some network divorce attorneys, like Vantage Group Legal, are also seeing a rise in phone calls from potential clients seeking divorce.
According to Legal Templates, the number of couples looking for a divorce peaked within 2 to 3 weeks of the beginning of shutdowns. Couples who usually spent their days at separate offices or with one spouse at the office and the other spouse at home were now together 24 hours a day. This level of proximity has the potential to exacerbate existing problems in a marriage. Couples who frequently argue now had no time apart during which to cool off or reflect on the source of conflicts. In addition, COVID-19 introduced countless new stressors, such as home schooling children, financial strain, and concern for the health of loved ones. While financial difficulties can increase conflicts and contribute to driving some couples apart, it may also work to keep some couples together. Getting divorced is expensive, with attorney fees starting around $100 an hour. With some large companies still announcing large layoffs months after the initial shutdowns, people do not feel secure in their finances. This uncertainty is likely to make couples consider holding off on divorce proceedings if possible.
Additionally, the practical aspects of a divorce, such as moving out and meeting with lawyers to draft a divorce agreement, were difficult or impossible to manage at the height of the pandemic. During the initial response to the pandemic, many businesses closed completely for a time. Aside from that, the thought of risking contracting the virus by not only leaving home but permanently moving in the midst of shelter-in-place orders made divorce out of the question for many.
COVID-19 Further Strains Struggling Marriages
There is significant evidence that most of the couples getting divorced in the last six months were already having issues prior to the pandemic. According to relationship coach, Lee Wilson, couples who are struggling do not have any positive interactions with one another. During the peak of the COVID-19 response, with many people working from home or laid off, there was the potential for even more interactions between spouses without an increase in positive interactions. Married people could no longer get a break from one another. In addition, activities that each member of the couple once relied on to relieve stress—such as going to the gym or socializing with friends—were no longer possible.
As stress builds and negative interactions accumulate, many couples realized that they could not make the marriage work. Others realized that they did not want to make it work. It is possible that the crisis situation that is the COVID-10 pandemic made some married people realize that life is too short and unpredictable to stay in a relationship that just isn’t working.
Peak Demand for Divorce Agreements Occurred Early in the Pandemic
The fact that peak demand for divorce agreements occurred in mid-April could also indicate that the desire for divorce aligns with the “disillusionment phase” of the phases of disaster response.
The phases of disaster response is a model for how individuals and communities respond to traumatic and unprecedented events. Soon after a disaster event like the COVID-19 pandemic occurs, many people experience a short burst of optimism. During this period, people and communities feel equipped to respond to the emergency and recover quickly. As the disaster continues and community members’ needs for assistance outpace the community’s ability to provide assistance, people can become increasingly hopeless, entering the disillusionment phase.
During the disillusionment phase, people begin to exhibit negative reactions to the external stressors of the disaster. These negative reactions—which may include irritability, exhaustion, mood swings, and substance abuse—can strain otherwise happy marriages and break marriages that are already struggling.
Newlyweds More Likely to Seek a Divorce During COVID-19
Data shows that new marriages were more susceptible to the challenges of disillusionment. The percentage of couples purchasing divorce agreements from Legal Templates who were married within the last five years increased by 16% in 2020 compared to the previous year. These recently married couples comprised a majority of all couples purchasing divorce agreements between March and June 2020 at 58%. The percentage of couples married within the last five months pursuing a divorce almost doubled.
The pandemic may have forced recently married couples to face certain issues sooner than they would have in the absence of COVID-19. For example, couples who got married when they were financially stable and then experienced layoffs had to deal with financial strain during the first few months of their marriage when they otherwise might have faced these issues years down the road or not at all. It is possible that couples pushed toward divorce by the coronavirus pandemic would have divorced in the future anyway. The pandemic and accompanying lockdowns may have merely sped up the process.
Too Much Time Together
Regardless of how long two people have been married, there is evidence that spending more time together in close proximity increases the chance of divorce. Divorce rates are typically high in January after couples have spent the holidays together, often without the buffer of either spouse having to go to work. In addition, when China began to ease its COVID-19 response measures by ending lockdowns in early March, divorce filings increased dramatically. Couples emerging from lockdowns much more strict than those in place in the U.S. were filing for divorce at record rates.
Is COVID-19 Definitely the Cause of the Increase in Divorce?
Increasing divorce rates may not be entirely due to COVID-19, however. Data indicates that there is an optimal age range for a lasting marriage. People who get married before this age range or after get divorced more frequently than those who marry in the middle of the range. The average age of marriage has been increasing for both men and women since before COVID-19. More people may be getting married past the age range for which a divorce is least likely.
There is no way to know for sure how much of the increase in divorce filings is due to the pandemic. Certainly, the sharp increase in clients seeking divorce early on in the pandemic indicates that COVID-19 and the necessary response to contain the virus played a role.