Driven to divorce! Homework, cash problems, booze and ciggie bans leave SA couples frayed

Being confined together, without the usual distractions, has put many relationships under immense strain during the lockdown.
Image: 123RF/Sebnem Ragiboglu

Couples are seeking counselling or starting divorce proceedings after being “forced to confront the true essence of their relationship” while being cooped up at home during the coronavirus lockdown.

Irene Motaung, social worker, family and divorce mediator at The Family Life Centre told TimesLIVE that their online platforms had been useful to reach couples with internet access who needed help during the initial stages of the lockdown.

“When most couples were forced to work from home, they had to also learn to navigate the children’s schooling at home which was not planned for. Some couples found the circumstances a little too much to bear and manage,” said Motaung.

She said many relationship issues previously in the background were forced to the surface during lockdown.

Motaung said the issues that surfaced included unnecessary arguments, irritability, health concerns for themselves, partners, relatives and their children. There were also uncertainties about the survival of jobs, the fragile economy and online schooling.

“It goes without saying that every couple has their own unique challenges to deal with but when faced with a pandemic which then forces them to be in the same space 24/7, the dynamic becomes a little different,” said Motaung

“It’s clear that spending some time away from each other such as going to work for eight hours provides some buffer for relationships, the couple gets time to experience other relationships which may provide an opportunity for different perspectives and healing,” she said.

Motaung said though some reached out by phone and even WhatsApp, affordability was a factor in being able to get access to counselling for some people.

Specialist criminal defence and divorce lawyer Prof Billy Gundelfinger said that as the pandemic surged, so did the rate of divorce.

He said that couples had been compelled to spend considerably more time together, often unmasking flaws in their marriage, causing them to re-evaluate their relationships and lives together because they had more time for introspection and reflection.

“Before Covid there were many distractions in everyday life: going to work, business travel and socialising. They are now forced to confront the true essence of their relationship. This, amplified by financial strain, exposes the fundamental problems in their relationship. The withdrawal of alcohol and cigarettes have also worsened tension in some individuals and thus in their marriages,” he said.

Gundelfinger said couples had to have the ability to regulate themselves and each other in a controlled way and if they did not have that dynamic, the relationship quickly unravelled.

He said that the current divorce rate could be equated to the 2008 financial crisis. Couples needed to rely on shared common interests, expressing love and affection and enjoy being able to spend quality time together to survive Covid-19.

“Covid-19 has caused huge financial strain and since money is often the grease that turns the wheels of the marriage, without it the marriage grinds to a halt,” Gundelfinger said.

DIY Legal, which provides fixed-price online divorce and mediation services estimated there had been a 20% increase in divorce applications since level 4 restrictions in SA.

DIY Legal manager Brendan McNulty said though there was heightened interest in divorce during level 5 of the lockdown, it was not possible to process divorces, so the majority of couples waited until the regulations eased before proceeding with their divorce.

“According to the statistics from DIY Legal, most people in SA have multiple reasons for divorce, but most of them aren’t specifically referencing the pandemic. The most popular single reason, cited by 16% of respondents, is ‘there is no love, respect or affection between the parties’,” McNulty said.

He said many responses included specific issues with a partner, including adultery and substance abuse (either excessive drinking or drugs). This was more of an issue with women being the plaintiff and could contribute to the lack of respect between the parties being the most common reason to divorce.

Stats SA was unable to provide divorce statistics covering the lockdown period.


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