Dealing with a relationship breakdown in the wake of a holiday hangover

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One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic has been the increased pressure placed upon relationships and 2020 saw the biggest percentage rise in divorce rates since 1972.

Historically, more people petition for divorce in January than at any other time of the year and this is often attributed to the pressure of the family Christmas get-together. Under the current restrictions and the stress that situation brings, it’s anticipated that the numbers of relationship breakdowns may amount to more than in previous years.

Early in the pandemic, a survey by the relationship charity Relate found that nearly a quarter of people reported that lockdown had placed additional pressure on their relationship, creating a ‘make or break’ environment according to the charity. Interestingly, however, whilst 8% of respondents to a later survey said that lockdown had made them realise they needed to end their relationship, 43% reported that it had brought them closer to their partner. This later finding supports a report by the Marriage Foundation suggesting that more marriages improved during the pandemic than worsened.

Unfortunately, for many who are in vulnerable relationships, the lockdown has exacerbated issues around social isolation and economic hardship. As family lawyers, we have found that those hardest hit by the lockdown have been couples who were considering or had already started the process of divorce. The pressure of a concentrated and unusual Christmas, where decisions regarding social and family bubbles may have been contentious, is likely to have created added challenges for anyone in that situation.

Whilst no-fault divorce will be available in the near future, with the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 having received Royal Assent, grounds for divorce under the existing Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 require one party to prove their partner is at fault through adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour. The only alternative to a fault-based petition currently is a period of separation: two years where both parties agree to divorce, or five years if one side does not consent.

If couples feel they cannot see a future together in 2021, then working out how to navigate the split in a way that is supportive of each other, and most importantly any children involved, is best for everyone. Talking things through, perhaps through a mediation process guided by professionals, is likely to provide the best opportunity to reach an agreement over asset sharing or arrangements for children.

Access to advice remains available despite the COVID-19 restrictions and where face to face meetings are not possible, video calls, telephone, email or messaging can be used instead.

Ultimately, taking a collaborative approach can go a long way towards easing the emotional distress caused by a relationship breakdown and maintaining a focus on positive communication will help to secure the best possible outcome for families facing this situation.