Preparing to divorce and then COVID-19 crisis hit?
Here are some tips on how to deal with "forced togetherness" during the quarantine, so your divorce can be peaceful once it's lifted.
Maybe you made the decision to end your marriage prior to the Coronavirus crisis, but had not yet told your spouse - you wanted to prepare for divorce first so you could take steps to keep things as peaceful as possible.
Or maybe you and your husband or wife agreed to divorce and took preliminary steps to interview attorneys or mediators, but before you went ahead and hired a professional and started the divorce process, self-quarantine and shelter-in-place directives were imposed.
Then, in an instant, your divorce plans came to a screeching halt.
If you are now quarantined together in the same household, you are likely feeling trapped, stressed and overwhelmed. And that anxiety is only compounded by kids home from school, working from home, job and financial uncertainty and concerns about your health and the well-being of your loved ones.
With no end to this in sight.
So we asked experts to share tips for how you can deal with the stress of life on hold and "forced togetherness" with someone you no longer wish to be married to. This way, you can (hopefully) stay clear of going to war with each other so that when the day comes that you finally move forward, your divorce can still be peaceful.
I hope you find their insights helpful!
Planning for Divorce in the Time of a Pandemic
There are so many ways this Coronavirus pandemic is impacting our lives. I would like to address some things you can do when sharing your home with a partner you intend to divorce.
Some of you may have discussed with your partner plans to divorce. Or perhaps you didn’t tell your partner yet, although you might have shared it with a close friend or relative.
Maybe you’ve met with a divorce mediator or consulted with an attorney and made plans to formally file for a marriage dissolution.
Then, seemingly overnight, you found yourself in a global crisis.
Your stress is escalating due to fears about your health, the health of your loved ones, financial concerns and job concerns. Suddenly the state of your marriage in the context of a global health pandemic can feel like way too much to handle.
So how do you continue to manage your life in this very new and unexpected world?
And how do you live with someone you no longer want to spend your life with?
Please know that it makes sense that you may be feeling very emotional. Symptoms of anxiety may be showing up, including but not limited to constant worried thoughts, physical pressure in your chest, sweating, trouble sleeping, frequently checking the news for the latest updates in the hope that there might be some good news amidst all the bad news. Feelings of overwhelm can come from uncertainty in your job, or adjusting to working from home. If you need to home school your child as well, you might feel pushed over the edge.
If you are having a hard time living with a pandemic, you can easily assume that your partner is having a hard time as well. Here are some specific suggestions for handling this difficult situation:
1) Begin to explore what makes it difficult for you to accept that this is how things are for now.
Remember that it is time limited, even though it is unclear how long things will be like this. Remind yourself “this too shall pass”.
2) Find healthy ways to acknowledge and express your feelings.
Journal them, draw them, move them through your body by doing an online exercise, workout or listen to music and dance.
3) Find someone supportive to talk to.
It might be a friend or a family member. It might be a therapist. Call, email, set up a video call through Facetime or Zoom or Skype. You might not want to share the state of your marriage and that’s okay. But the stress of living in a pandemic is something we all can relate to.
4) Create time each day for quiet reflection.
Find a free app and do a guided meditation, go for a walk, take a bubble bath. Read something that connects you to a spiritual perspective that offers comfort. If it’s something that helps you, make time to pray.
5) Give each other space.
If conversation only leads to arguments, give yourself permission to take care of yourself and avoid unnecessary interactions.
6) Be kind.
You might not like who you’re living with, but kindness can help how you feel about yourself. Small thoughtful words or actions can ease the tension and create a more peaceful home environment.
- Susan Mason, LCSW, Individuals and Couples Therapy in Skokie, IL
Skills for keeping all couple conversations 100% cooperative always make a difference.
Being cooped up together, potentially for weeks, with a spouse you have come to dislike or distrust, these skills become all the more essential.
Fighting plus forced togetherness can become a dangerous combo. Better to work on finding better ways to talk together.
Keep your focus on what your partner does that you appreciate. Express your appreciation enthusiastically. At the same time, do zero criticism: make requests, not complaints. And do zero controlling, that is, telling your partner what to do.
The combination of focusing on the good and refraining from critical/controlling statements hopefully will keep the peace with surprising effectiveness.
- Dr. Susan Heitler, PhD, Clinical Psychologist and author of The Power of Two
My best advice or perhaps wish, is to treat each other with kindness and respect, even if that has been absent from the relationship for a long time.
The pressures that we are all under with COVID-19 cause us all to feel stress and anxiety. I don't think it's productive right now to compound that with detailed discussions about divorce.
Instead, consider creating an agreement with your STBX about how you are going to live together. It could cover everything from sharing of household expenses, defining essential expenditures, division of household tasks and parenting responsibilities. These are not easy discussions to have when there's distrust and hurt. Using a mediator to facilitate this discussion makes sense and many are now offering online-video mediation.
I think it is entirely appropriate to continue to prepare for divorce.
You might gather your financial data, research home prices and rentals for options about where to live, and do look at possible parenting time schedules. Unless you are splitting every account down the middle, I would hold off making any firm decisions on dividing the finances. There's just too much fluctuation and uncertainty right now to be able to make decisions confidently.
Many of the courts are essentially closed and handling only public-safety related matters. That also most certainly means there's going to be a backlog when they do reopen so you should expect that working through the legal process is going to take you longer than normal.
- Mandy Walker, Divorce Coach/Mediator/PC-DM and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst ® in Boulder, CO
Some suggestions for all couples living together under "stay home" rules, are as follows:
Keep in mind that small fights are likely to break out due to generalized anxiety and distress about the pandemic.
Each of you may become a lightning rod for each other's general distress. So don't take these blow-ups too seriously; many will not be "about you."
Try to follow the Three C's with your partner and family members.
When you feel yourself getting angry or annoyed, take a few deep breaths and then try to be CALM, CURIOUS, and CARING.
Being curious about what is going on in you and your partner will also help you and your partner calm down. Remaining curious will also help you be a better listener, which is probably the most important thing to do. Finally, being caring and empathetic will help both of you.
Following the Three C's is not easy, but if you can do it, everyone will do better.
- Dr. Arthur Nielsen, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University & Faculty, The Family Institute at Northwestern and The Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis
Being quarantined together is difficult for everyone. For those couples who were planning to divorce or those in a dysfunctional relationship, it could be a devastating experience.
People are stressed out and emotionally traumatized as it is. When you are in dysfunctional relationship, another layer of stress is added.
I would like to offer few suggestions that might help you while you are quarantined together:
Take care of yourself. Find ways to connect with friends and family via social media.
Don't make impulsive decisions at the time of crisis.
Mediate your divorce at least partially (many mediators are offering virtual mediation sessions) and outline basic rules on how to co-exist together.
Written agreements will help, even though you can't separate and file these agreements to court. Structuring your days/weeks will help everyone in this situation.
Create an on-and off duty parenting schedule.
For example: you can discuss and come up with the schedule on days/times when either one of you is on duty to help your children with their homework. You can also set a clear schedule regarding who and when will be preparing dinner (that person may be responsible for purchasing food and other necessary items on that given week).
Give each other space and take walks by yourself.
Having personal space is important and can be very refreshing. Again, please have a very clear understanding of scheduling of these walks between each other, so that one of you can stay with the children and not be frustrated and angry with the other.
Communication is always a key. In a situation when you are confined together, it is absolutely essential.
Schedule your arguments as tense moments are inevitable.
Write out your frustrations in a notebook. Once a week, sit down and share a single criticism of your partner and try to resolve that issue. If you have children, do this as far away from their ears as possible.
Children don't need to hear you argue. They need stability.
Finances: Please discuss how your finances are handled during this hardship.
You were planning to divorce or are in a process of divorce when COVID 19 pandemic had started. Now you have to stay together for an unknown period of time. Have a very clear understanding on how you are covering essentials (who pays for mortgage/rent, how you are splitting all other costs while you have to be together).
The best thing is to prepare a written document (whether through a mediation process or by yourselves). This will help you to avoid unnecessary conflicts and distress.
- Maryana Kanda, LSW, APM, Divorce Mediator and Founder, NJ Divorce and Family Mediation Services
These are challenging times for us all as we are practicing social distancing and sheltering in place. Many families are spending more time together than they usually do and it makes sense that many of the family dynamics that existed before this crisis, are now exacerbated. This can be challenging for even the healthiest of couples.
So what do you do if you are now sheltering in place with a soon to be ex partner? Here are my suggestions on how to best cope:
1.) This may be a good time to make peace with the past:
Depending on the condition of the relationship prior to having to stay in place together, this may be a good opportunity to discuss ways to make peace with past grievances. If there are children involved, this may also be a good time to consider family therapy to process the separation, if you haven’t done so already. It may also be good to take a step back and have a new perspective on how you would like to see your relationship with your ex, after the divorce or separation.
If sitting down together is too difficult, consider seeking a few sessions with a therapist using tele-therapy. Your therapist should be able to help you set goals and organize the sessions so that each person is heard.
2.) Find time for self-care:
This is a perfect time to take the opportunity to create new healthier habits and making space for alone time is important, especially if you are sharing this time with a soon-to-be ex.
Find time in your schedule to go out for walks, meditate, explore a new hobby or simply listen to music with headphones! Even the healthiest of couples are likely to experience conflict during this time, so it’s especially important to take some time to be alone and create space for your thoughts and feelings.
3.) Seek out social support:
Although we are all confined to our homes and practicing social distancing, there’s plenty of opportunity to have social contact in other ways.
Host a virtual happy hour or dinner party with friends using video conferencing platforms, call a friend to vent and stay in touch with family members for support. It’s important to have an outlet to process your experience and help you cope with the challenges of maintaining civility during this time.
4.) Slow down and breathe:
Remind yourself that the relationship is over and soon enough you will both be able to go your separate ways and continue with your lives. Don’t allow the situation to define you and challenge yourself to express your frustrations in ways that can be heard. Creating more hostility will only make spending the time together more agonizing. Try to make the best of it and practice being less attached to having the last word.
Seeing the bigger picture and finding ways to get through this time together is what really matters.
- Jose Perez, MA, LMFT, Marriage and Family Therapist in Montclair, NJ / Adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University
Planning for a divorce is never easy. Coming to the realization that your relationship is over while trying to cope with a global pandemic has the potential to be emotionally overwhelming. But, much like a national disaster, you are better prepared if you acknowledge that divorce is on the horizon and plan for it accordingly.
There are still proactive steps you can take despite quarantine orders and social distancing:
Specific questions about your divorce - much like medical problems - cannot be answered with internet searches.
Many lawyers and mediators are available right now for online video conferencing or even a simple phone call. Talk to a lawyer to find out your rights and the details of your specific case. Just having a bit of detailed information can make your situation feel more manageable.
Look into options for divorce mediation.
Many mediators are prepared for online sessions despite this pandemic. In my practice, we've had several successful mediation sessions starting with Zoom and Skype conferencing. The goal is to open a dialogue and lay the foundation for a friendly split wherever possible.
Since mediation involves both spouses participating, an online format can work well - even if you and your spouse call in from separate rooms to reduce tension.
If you have kids then you are probably dealing with the stress of home-schooling, on top of everything else. In normal circumstances, when a couple lives together during a divorce (which is not uncommon due to finances) I advise them to work out a schedule for time-sharing with the kids that can be transitioned into an access schedule when the separation eventually happens. Generally, this can involve dividing up weekend time and giving each other some space during the week (if and when you can!)
If you are able to start that discussion with your spouse now and come up with a schedule - even if it means dividing up space in the house - it may help alleviate some of the stress of quarantine. It may also result in both of you sharing the heavy load of home-school and childcare that is happening across the country right now.
At the end of the day, the divorce process will still involve a detailed look at the finances.
Start gathering your paperwork so that you can be ready for the financial disclosure process. Pulling together tax returns, bank statements, credit card and utility bills for a minimum of the last three years will help you get ahead. Take time now to learn about the marital expenses and review the budget (especially if you haven't been involved with the marital finances). Finances are difficult for most people to talk about in normal circumstances, but the added stress and uncertainty right now may complicate these conversations.
You may not need to push for stressful conversations that make a deteriorating relationship worse right now. But you can gather the paperwork and start getting familiar on your own.
Finally, I think it's important for people to acknowledge the real difficulties they are facing in dealing with a divorce during this global disaster. This is hard. Treat yourself gently with a bit of grace. Take whatever breaks you can and find ways that help you de-stress.
You do not need to be perfect right now - you just need to do your best.
- Morghan Richardson, Esq, Divorce Attorney, Consultant and Mediator in NYC
Put a "Parenting Marriage Agreement" into place.
A Parenting Marriage is a marriage where the romantic connection is no longer present, but both want to continue to co-parent and see the kids every day.
There are certain informal, but stated agreements that spouses can put into place to avoid misunderstandings or dashed expectations. A Parenting Marriage teaches couples how to go from partner and parent to simply parent and co-parent.
Just as "conscious uncoupling" has partners be present for the process of splitting up, a Parenting Marriage gives couples support by putting scaffolding around their transitional arrangement. It can make a big difference and be a big relief during times of such uncertainty.
- Susan Pease Gadoua, LCSW, Therapist / Author of Contemplating Divorce, Stronger Day by Day and co-author of The New I Do
Create written schedules around intentional time and space apart while in the home dwelling. For example, have responsibilities, chores, activities that allow active distance, ie, one washes the vehicles while the other washes the bathroom, etc.
Have open communication around each other’s boundaries and reflect back what you’re hearing so there are no misunderstandings or confusion around these boundaries.
Devote an intentional time and space to meet together to go over necessities, ie. child schedules, chores, grocery shopping, etc. Do not use this time to talk about anything else.
Take the time to physically separate your belongings and move your sleep spaces. Assign different bedrooms (if they’re not done already). Own your new space!
Utilize any online platform you feel comfortable with to connect to your loved ones, social circle and family members to have an extra level of support.
Don’t have sex or physical intimacy that could cause ambiguity or confusion in your judgement and the direction of divorce.
- Bridget Tremblay, PsyD, LMFT, Individuals, Couples, and Family Therapist and Founder of Hope, Heal and Thrive in Portland, ME
So you were in the midst of divorce or separation and then COVID-19 happened and now you find yourself quarantined with a spouse you don’t want to be with... what now?
As a parent coach, I want to focus my advice on those of you with children in the house.
Whether they are toddlers or college age kids who have been forced home, you must show them your best selves right now. As a divorce survivor myself, I feel your pain. At whatever place you were in your separation or divorce proceedings, you had made the decision to end your marriage and now that is on hold.... along with the rest of your life. This situation is challenging for all and can seem untenable for those of you suffering in your marriage.
But, your children have to come first here.
They look to us for the answers and we don’t have many for them right now. They don’t know when they are returning to school, when they can see their grandparents, or when they can go back to the park. What you CAN (and should) do is practice effective co-parenting. If and when you are able to separate/divorce you will have to navigate co-parenting so it’s a good opportunity to practice. Stop focusing on you vs. me and start focusing on us vs. COVID-19.
Once you survive this crisis you can get back to figuring out your next steps.
While you are stuck inside together I do not recommend trying to negotiate the parenting plans for the future. Navigating issues around custody, visitation and vacation schedules is not optimal right now as it’s hard to take a break when things feel contentious. Instead work together to take care of yourselves, the kids, your work responsibilities and the house.
Check out my ten tips for parents. These are particularly relevant for you as you have the added stress of your in flux situation.
1.) Manage your own anxiety. Get the support you need so you don’t escalate fear for your children.
2.) Stay informed. The CDC website is loaded with valuable information for parents. In addition, stay on top of communication from your children’s school, pediatrician, tutors, etc.
3.) Focus on what you CAN control. It’s important for our children to still feel like they are empowered. Involve older kids in setting up hand washing stations in the house; create a checklist to wipe down handles, light switches and knobs regularly and assign the tasks.
4.) Make a plan. Structure is important for kids and they like being able to anticipate what is happening next. Post your daily schedule and use colors and pictures for little ones. Be mindful of work demands for yourself and your partner as you plan the day. NO parent can be effective if they do not have an opportunity for self-care.
5.) Be prepared to PIVOT. You may need to revisit the plan as the situation changes. Be flexible.
6.) Have family meetings. A weekly forum (or more frequent if necessary) to check in with each other will help manage the stress of all of this together time.
7.) Dedicate private space. Everyone should have a special place in your home that is just his/hers. It can be a fort in the corner of the living room, but privacy is important.
8.) Don’t isolate emotionally or psychologically. Stay connected to your extended family, friends and community. We are all in this together. Use technology (FaceTime, Zoom, WhatsApp) to check in and ‘see’ each other.
9.) Share your best ideas. Post a great pantry staple recipe. Share a fun family game.
10.) Do something for someone else. Have your kids write a letter to a senior in an assisted living facility. Donate to your local food pantry. Buy a gift certificate for a restaurant in your area.
- Dana Hirt, Parenting Coach
Get comfortable with the idea of radical acceptance.
This does not mean that you are happy about the situation or your spouse. It does mean that you accept the reality of the situation. Fighting against something you can’t control is the real misery-maker.
If you are stuck in the house with someone you’ve decided to divorce, radical acceptance is hard but not impossible.
At a minimum it requires, an acknowledgment of what the situation is (i.e. “There is truly nothing either of us can do about this.”), a whole lot of deep breathing, and, whenever necessary, physical and emotional space from each other.
- Kate Engler, LMFT, LPC, Couple, Family and Individual Therapist in Skokie, IL
When we are under high levels of stress and anxiety, like now during the COVID-19 Crisis, we often times struggle to truly regulate our emotions. Small things that typically roll right off of us feel insurmountable. We are quicker to anger and acting out.
Similarly, as we start to struggle in our relationship, we become more sensitive and reactive to things our partner does. We assume they have negative intentions behind most if not all their actions. We allow ourselves to lash out and feel entitled to air our grievance.
Put these two factors together and you are living in a powder keg ready to blow. Even if you are done with your marriage, now is the not the time for an explosion. Instead do the following to defuse the tension:
1) Your partner isn't all bad (even though some days it may feel that way), everyday remind yourself of 3-5 things that you appreciate or respect about your partner.
2) Acknowledge to yourself that your perception is tainted and choose to give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
3) Don't discuss every annoyance when it hits you, but do schedule weekly time to talk about the significant things that need to be addressed.
4) Share your feelings with a trusted friend or journal instead of bottling everything up.
- Irene Schreiner, MA, LMFT, Psychotherapist and Founder, Solid Foundations Therapy in Downers Grove, IL
No matter where you are in the divorce process: thinking about it, talking about it, or having taken steps, your divorce, and pretty much everything else in life, has ground to a standstill.
Maybe you’re now in the house alone together, maybe there are children at home. Maybe you’re facing newfound financial troubles that are making both of you even more anxious.
Whatever your circumstances, now is the time to bring forward your most patient, gracious, tolerant self. The issues that led you to divorce are not likely to go away, but there are steps you can take to keep them from getting worse.
When tensions arise:
Ask yourself, “What is the best, most respectful (or barring that, least inflammatory) thing I can say or do now?”
When your repetitive issues arise, perhaps one or both of you can simply say, “I guess we’re not actually going to resolve this, are we?” and then do your best to let it go.
One of the skills we need in all of our interpersonal relationships is the ability to manage our reactivity. You’re being asked to do this under the most difficult of circumstances. Give it your best. Try taking a step back, or taking a deep breath before you say anything.
Find ways to stay out of each other‘s way and when you do interact be as kind as possible. If you’re also co-parenting, see if you can have some good family times.
In the end, when we’re all on the other side of this and life begins to find its new normal, any investment you make in feeling better about each other or more appreciative will go a long way.
- Winifred M. Reilly, MS, MFT, Family Therapist in Berkeley, CA
These are challenging times even for people not on the brink of divorce!
Financially, people can start to get their affairs in order since they have the time. Using this time productively and being proactive will help them in the long run. How will they prepare? What will need to be done? What types of conversations are they able to have at the front end so that when they are able to file, they are in a good position?
This might also be a time to reach out to a therapist or coach that can help them organize/process their thoughts, and help them get things in order.
Emotionally, there are steps they can take. Are they reaching out to friends and family to talk to? Do they have the support they need? Journaling, exercising and making good personal choices -regardless of what their spouse is doing - is also key. They can start to some degree to move into a different mindset of moving on - despite having limitations at this time because of isolation and quarantine rules and regulations.
Space and distance to the degree they can is also important though this will depend on individual circumstances.
Lastly, if they are able to think about their 'end game' meaning where do they want to be once they are able to take the necessary and tangible steps to end their marriage, what would that look like? A person can use this time to their advantage so they feel more empowered and in control of their life. By surrendering to the current situation, it actually gives a person a feeling of being in control rather than focusing on what they cannot control.
Kristin Davin, Psy.D., Strategic and Solution Focused Relationship Coach and Therapist in NYC and Hoboken, NJ
Most of our clients take quite some time to come to the decision to divorce, and are usually on the same page about moving forward. So when they reach out to us, they want to move through the mediation process as efficiently (i.e. quickly) as possible.
Under normal circumstances, divorce mediation allows you to do that.
Now this Coronavirus crisis comes along, and throws your entire plan and timeline out the window. All the time you’ve spent discussing and planning for divorce feels like a waste.
As anger and resentment set in, suddenly your plan for an amicable divorce starts slipping away.
It makes perfect sense to be feeling hopeless and powerless, given the current situation, but you can maintain some sense of control by continuing to take steps forward.
Remember the reason you made the decision to mediate in the first place - to keep things peaceful for both you and your kids, and to preserve your financial well-being.
If you and your spouse are not comfortable starting the mediation process now, you can still do your homework and identify a mediator you’d like to work with. You can also begin gathering financial documents, creating a list of your marital assets and debts, creating a marital budget outlining your current monthly expenses living together and another outlining what your projected monthly expenses will be after you’re divorced and living in separate households.
You can make a plan for how you will interact with each other (and co-parent your children) during this interim period of self-quarantine.
And it goes without saying that you can begin or continue practicing self-care. Many therapists (including the contributors to this post) are offering tele-sessions. There are also online exercise programs that don’t require any equipment and virtual support groups to help you stay connected.
While it’s no doubt devastating to think that your life, and the lives of those around you, have been put on hold due to this pandemic, don't let yourself become a victim to your circumstances. There is much you can do to move forward.
- Divorce Mediator Joe Dillon, MBA and Divorce Coach Cheryl Dillon, CPC, Equitable Mediation
Looking for more divorce preparation tips? Here are a few of our favorite resources: