When most couples vowed for better or for worse, they likely didn’t imagine a scenario in which they’d be quarantined together indefinitely—while a global pandemic threatened their health. And their families’ health. And their jobs. And all of their normal routines. So, perhaps it’s not such a surprise that divorce lawyers’ phones are lighting up with distress signals from marriages collapsing under the strain.
Once the courts open back up, predicts attorney Heather Hostetter, “It’s going to be divorce-apalooza.”
In China, where life has slowly begun to return to normal, divorce filings are reportedly surging as people emerge from their lockdowns. Anecdotal evidence indicates there’s a decent chance the same thing will happen here.
Hostetter, a partner at Hostetter Strent, says she’s heard from one woman who believes she’s discovered her husband is having an affair. The woman was already suspicious pre-quarantine, says Hostetter, but spending so much time trapped under the same roof has heightened her anxiety. For one thing, “The other spouse is being super protective of the phone, in a way that seems out of character.” For another, says Hostetter, he’s been taking extra-long bike rides. “She raised with me, ‘I think he goes out to exercise and he’s seeing this person and having sex. Not only does that make me feel like crap, but then he’s exposing our whole family to a possible Covid-19 contact.’”
Tracey Coates, co-chair of the family law practice at Paley Rothman, has also heard from spouses who’ve come to suspect infidelity while under quarantine. “They’re grappling with overhearing hush-hush calls in a separate room,” she says. “Or texts are going off at all hours.”
One big problem: there’s not much they can do about it right now. Which is why Hostetter says she counseled her new client to “think about what you can handle. … Do you really want to ask? Because if he’s going to be honest with you, is this really the time you want to know?”
The courts are almost entirely closed. And the logistics of seeking marriage counseling or packing up and leaving have obviously been complicated by coronavirus. Not to mention, many couples have children at home who are already under enough stress without having to witness the dissolution of their parents’ marriage.
Even making the call to a divorce lawyer is tough under the circumstances: Attorneys report hang-ups mid-conversation, presumably because the other spouse has walked into the room. Hostetter says the woman who suspects an affair called from her car.
Sandy Ain, a partner at Ain & Bank, says he’s heard from spouses on the other side of the infidelity equation—people who were carrying on affairs before Covid-19, and are now unhappy in their marriages because they can’t see their paramours. “The level of frustration [with their spouses] is enhanced, because they’re precluded from engaging in activities that they’d prefer to engage in,” he says.
But cheating isn’t the only issue. As parents balance Zoom meetings with home-schooling, lawyers say resentment is creeping in. “Another thing we’re hearing is, ‘look, I’m the only one doing everything. Maybe I’m the only one bringing in income, and I’m certainly the only one managing my kids,’” says Coates. “I’ve heard that from two people recently— ‘I’m doing everything anyway. This is toxic and it can’t continue.’”
More serious problems have also been exacerbated by quarantine. “A couple of women who’ve called me have been with husbands who are very emotionally abusive, and verbally abusive,” says Cheryl New, a partner at New & Lowinger. “It’s magnified when you’re stuck in the house.” (Though courts are deferring most cases, they are making exceptions for matters that could become dangerous.)
Hostetter predicts that yet another category of spouses—she calls them “Machiavellian thinkers”—will view the tanking economy as convenient for a divorce, since forgoing half their assets won’t equate to as big of a blow. She says such clients also sought her out after the 2008 crash. “Maybe it wasn’t the quarantine that did it, but maybe they know their marriage isn’t till death do us part,” she explains. “And they’ll decide to end it while their net worth is in the toilet.”