The COVID-19 pandemic is placing a significant strain on many marriages, co-habited, and long term relationships. While some couples have weathered the storm, others reached their breaking points. The ripple effect of the uncertainty connected with COVID-19 mounted a lot of pressure on couples, and separating or divorcing individuals were not immune. Comments posted to online forums are increasingly showing that when couples spend long periods together, close to one another, the underlying issues of their relationship are almost certainly going to surface. For couples already battling relationship disconnects or marital discord, the quick and drastic lifestyle shift of remaining at home and re-drawing lines of responsibilities may have done more harm than good.
Having to observe social distancing, working from home or facing employment insecurity, having limited mobility, and caring for a family with no traditional support systems is making the quarantine difficult for everyone. But it was particularly harder on those whose relationships and marriages were already shaky. It wasn’t COVID-19 that ruined bonds, but the conditions that came with the pandemic caused the separations to happen a lot sooner. In the United States, sales of online self-help divorce agreements increased by 34% in the spring of 2020 compared to the same time the previous year, while family lawyers’ polls in April and July of 2020 reported a 25% to 35% increase in requests to begin divorce proceedings compared to the same period in 2019.
My dad’s been sleeping in the basement for the last three months now – he’s set it up like an apartment. It’s strange cause no one’s saying why he’s doing this.” Emma – Age 11
Effect of Separation or Divorce on Children
When parents divorce, the impact on children within the family is varied. Some children react to divorce in a rational, understandable way, while others may find it difficult to adjust and will seek to heal or adjust to the separation through a range of ‘acting out’ behaviors. However, there are some commonly seen effects of divorce or separation that parents can manage.
Poor Academic Performance
Children often get distracted and confused as they try to understand the changing dynamics of the family and their place or sense of security within it. This distraction often surfaces outside the home in their academics. Research has shown that children whose parents divorce usually have lower grades and even face a higher dropout rate when compared to their peers.
Feeling neglected, scared, insecure, depressed, or distracted by the increased conflict between their parents are possible reasons why these children may have a tougher time focusing on school and their academic grades.
I don’t know – I guess I just don’t care about anything anymore. I’m in my room all the time and I just don’t want to talk to anyone.” Brandon – Age 9
Families are faced with several emotions when navigating the uncharted path of separation and divorce, and children are no exception. They often become overtly or covertly emotional. Overt ‘explosions of anger, or sharp waves of fear and sadness are common and normal for children who feel safe expressing those feelings within their family. For those children who have learned that emotional expression is not welcome or safe in the family many will resort to covert expressions of anger such as self harming, detachment or high risk taking behaviors outsider the home, or for some depressive, reclusive emotional states. Less common still are those children who seemingly overnight become ‘perfect’ in their behavior, or more mature and adult-like in an attempt to save their parents’ relationship. All of these behaviors are understandable considering their world is changing and they have little control over it.
Lack of Interest in Social Activity
Divorce, according to studies, can affect children socially, as well. You might observe that your once active or engaged child has become withdrawn or timid.
There is no way around having the tough discussion of separation or divorce with your children – especially when you’re already at the point of knowing the primary relationship is over. But it’s always helpful to have an honest and open conversation with your kids and to keep the following concepts in mind:
- While your primary relationship may be over your role as a parent remains. In your childrens’ minds you are still their parent and part of their family.
- Your children will look for causes for your relationship coming apart and they will do this from their perspective at whichever developmental age and stage they are in. Children, even younger adolescents have little full understanding of the nuances of adult relationships and therefore struggle to understand how a relationship can be un-repairable. Keep your explanations age appropriate and honest.
- Your children are not your emotional containers nor your emotional supports. If you know you need support for what you’re feeling search out other adults and professional counselling to process and work through your feelings.
- Your children are not your ‘ambassadors’ or ‘spies’ with your former spouse and these forms of overt and covert manipulation on your part as a parent will undermine your child’s trust and respect for you.
It is essential for those contemplating separating or in the process of a divorce to be aware that the pandemic will affect every aspect of their life, including the most important and most vulnerable – children.