Unprecedented spike in divorce applications during lockdown
By Karishma Dipa and Kashiefa Ajam
Financial hardship, too much time spent together and couples simply tiring of each other, during the Covid lock down has caused a global rise in divorce applications.
While research and anecdotal evidence suggests that most nations are experiencing marital distress and permanent breakdown in marriages, South Africa is not exempt from this phenomenon, local family and divorce lawyers told The Saturday Star this week.
“We have most certainly experienced a huge influx in divorce applications even during level four of the lockdown in May,” a family lawyer at SKV Attorneys in Randburg, Johannesburg explained.
He added that this current huge surge in separations were even higher than what they experience in January each year. This, he explained, follows a festive period when tensions commonly reach boiling point as couples spend an extended amount of time together during the holidays, along with New Year’s resolutions to make life changes.
“If I had to estimate, our firm had an increase of between 20-30% in divorce applications compared to January which is usually our busiest time,” he said.
These sentiments were shared by Jennifer Mynhardt at Jennifer Mynhardt Attorneys who agreed that the lockdown has also resulted in her firm receiving more inquiries for divorce than at the start of every year, which is also when they experience the bulk of marital separation applications.
“The lockdown has been really tough and there has definitely been an increase in divorce issues.”
Specialist divorce lawyer Billy Gundelfinger also said he had seen an “absolute” spike in divorce applications during the Covid 19 lockdown.
“Covid exposed the fault lines in marriage, where couples were forced to reevaluate their relationships because they had time for introspection and reflection.”
He said he had been enquiries from across the board, with even older married couples deciding to call it quits. But there was also a positive to the lock down, where Gundelfinger saw marriages saved by Covid.
“Before Covid you had couples getting divorced then because they ended up spending so much time together, they reestablished those common denominators that got them together in the first place.”
While issues facing couples have been in the forefront during the ongoing lockdown, divorce lawyers said that children and the family set-up in general have borne the brunt of it.
“These issues between a married couple trickle down to the children, with some witnessing and even experiencing domestic violence during the lockdown,” the SKV attorney who did not want to be named said.
“In some cases, parents left a certain province with their child or children without the consent of the other parent before level 5 even kicked in so we have also had to deal with issues relating to minor care and custody issues.”
Mynhart added that some families did not have a parenting plan or divorce order to transport children during lockdown.
“In these cases the child or children stayed with one parent for an extended period of time and now some of these parents refuse to give up residency of the minor or minors,” she said.
While family squabbles and a spike in divorve applications have been rife during the Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa, many other parts of the world have not been immune.
The Guardian recently reported that some New Zealand family lawyers have been overwhelmed with enquiries with many even having to resort to turning prospective clients away because they were simply unable to deal with the increase in newly-separated couples seeking legal advice during their lockdown.
“We’re having new inquiries daily, certainly more than usual,” Alissa Bell, a partner at McVeagh Fleming in Auckland told the publication.
Bell was also quoted as saying that the Covid-19 shutdown caused a similar or even higher demand for divorces than that of their post Christmas period.
The Guardian added that while there are no official figures on the number of couples breaking up, the surge of new clients noticed by some New Zealand lawyers mirrors Australia research suggesting 42% of couples had experienced negative changes in their relationship.
In Wuhan, China, where the pandemic is believed to have begun , applications for divorce also have doubled since the outbreak of the pathogen.
Several local family and couple therapists previously told The Saturday Star that while a certain amount of conflict is somewhat inevitable in relationships, experts insist that the Covid 19 pandemic has exacerbated matters.
This is as life under the coronavirus has meant that partners around the world have less time and money and are dealing with an unprecedented amount of chaos and uncertainty.
Many romantic relationships were also already strained and were facing unresolved issues prior to the global health crisis and now partners are buckling under the pressure induced by the deadly virus.
“The lockdown had an usual impact – for good and bad – on people’s relationships and they were faced with problems and situations they never faced before,” Parktown North couples and relationship counsellor Michael Kallenbach explained.
“Suddenly you notice that the person you’ve been living with for years, and whom you thought you knew so well, chews with their mouth open, they might make strange noises that you’ve never noticed before, they leave their shoes lying around the house or sometimes they just blink and that irritates you enormously.”
In South Africa, the measures implemented to curb the spread of the disease have also unintentionally had deadly consequences for women around the country.
Scores of them have been brutally murdered by men as Gender Based Violence (GBV) too, continues to spread at an alarming rate.
“South Africa is a conservative and patriarchal society with economic and educational disparities for different genders,” Johannesburg clinical psychologist Michael Sissison previously told The Saturday Star.
“Many people still operate with the idea that men know better and that women are considered less significant and as a result, more open to abuse.”
These sentiments were echoed by the Family Institute who said that something was inherently wrong with our society.
“We live in a culture that objectifies women, and inadvertently sends a message to men that women are there to satisfy their needs,” the organisation said.
“This is reinforced through many forms such as roles and responsibilities at home, in love relationships, media messages about women’s sexuality as well as private male discussions where women are made to be trophies.”
Meanwhile, the SKV attorney encouraged quarrelling couples to exhaust all options available to them to restore their marital bliss before they consider a divorce.
“They should try and resolve their issues or even try marriage counselling before getting a divorce,” he said.
“The lockdown might have heightened your emotions and forced your hand but when these couples come in for divorce consultations and realise the consequences of their decisions, some change their minds.”
Mynhart agreed and added that while financial issues have been one of the biggest contributors for a divorce, even the richest who were all living in close proximity to their family members felt the tension during the lockdown.