THE FACT OF THE MATTER
My late father, very much a man at his best in just his own company, once said to me that loving someone was one thing but “liking them and living with them another matter altogether”. He and my mother were one year short of 50 years married when they died within 10 weeks of each other in the Millennium year.
Such a lengthy time with my mother may have, down the years, got under my father’s skin — his shortcomings more at fault than her’s — but breaking up was never, would never have been, a consideration. Mind you, they annually holidayed separately.
I doubt, though, my father would have survived lockdown with my mother. And, if that remark seems somewhat unkind, well, so be it.
He obviously would not have been alone. Applications for divorce reached their highest level ever last year, according to data from the Courts Service. Some 5,266 applications were made, an increase of 29% on 2019, and by far the highest annual figure since divorce was introduced in 1997.
Legal experts put the massive rise down to changes in the law in 2019, which reduced the waiting time for divorce from four years to two, and to the impact of pandemic lockdowns on struggling marriages.
Sadly, the Covid-19 effect can also be seen in data on domestic violence applications which jumped by 12% last year.
“One factor driving the increase is a whole new cadre of people became eligible for divorce in December 2019 as a result of the referendum,” says solicitor Keith Walsh SC, a member of the Law Society’s Child and Family Law Committee.
“Another factor is Covid. The effect of the pressure of lockdown on individuals was huge. Marriages already under pressure maybe crumbled a little bit quicker.”
In the decade up to 2020, the number of divorce applications annually ranged between 3,330 and 4,314.
In the first global lockdown there was much debate about whether the pandemic would prove a boom time for the birth rate or for divorce lawyers. Debated, because, when the world went into quarantine in March of last year, it was regarded by those who concern themselves with such matters as one vast social experiment. And we now know the pandemic has had life-changing effects on so many aspects of global society, not least relationships.
Early signs were not promising. A report from north-west China, a year on, in March 2021, described a record number of applications for divorce as the registration offices reopened. In 2020 the UN called the rise in global domestic abuse cases the “shadow pandemic”.
Other data, too, suggested falling birth rates across Europe.
Over a lunch of tapas the other day my psychologist friend from Magherafelt said: “I don’t think anyone who got married in the past 50 years expected they were making a vow to spend 24/7 in the same small living space with a spouse, while educating their children at home, working at home, and having no real outlet.”
As we ordered a shared desert of apple crumble, he argued that, if a relationship was troubled to start with, lockdown likely exacerbated the situation.
I agreed that, without the distractions of separate workplaces and nights out with friends or whatever, many couples perhaps wondered what they had in common. That said, the rising death toll made us all acutely aware of the fragility of life. Lockdown sparked an existential line of self-reflection that many of us are no nearer solving all these months later.
Many couples, however, have found their time of enforced togetherness beneficial. They’ve had more time together, family time together. They haven’t had the stress of the daily commute. Figures for those wanting to continue working from home would suggest this, as would the many happy families and couples I have seen out and about, minding their social distance.
My psychologist friend proffered that, for most couples, the impact of the pandemic on their relationship probably lay “somewhere between affection and affliction”.
I am divorced, but my ex-wife and I, the last eight years, have had an amicable relationship. Indeed, as I spent more time that she the last year and a half confined to barracks, the mother of my three adult children — a frontline worker — more than rose to the occasion in checking on my welfare, making sure I was fed and watered.
I thank her for that.
Meantime, for many relationships negotiating the road back to ‘normal’ as restrictions ease could prove challenging.