Trying to divorce during COVID-19: How do you live with someone you no longer want to spend your life with?

By Dr. Sara Schwarzbaum

Maybe you have been thinking about getting divorced, or have already made the decision to divorce right before the pandemic hit. Maybe your divorce is already in the works, but everything has been put on hold. If you were the one who initiated the divorce, your level of frustration or anxiety may be high. If you were not the initiator, you may be uncomfortable too. With the courts essentially closed, there will be most likely a backlog when they reopen.

Compounding the stress, you may have kids home from school, or are worried about losing your job, your health insurance, or a loved one. You would have to assume that your partner is feeling the same way, whether you are on the same page or not.

With no end in sight, here are some tips on how you can hold it together in this time of forced quarantine to someone you no longer wish to be married to or married to someone who no longer wishes to be married to you.

In the end, you want a divorce that is fair, amicable, and child focused. Whatever your circumstances, now is the time to bring forward your most patient, gracious, tolerant self. The issues that led you to divorce are not likely to go away, but there are steps you can take to keep them from getting worse and be a role model for your children.

General guidelines for surviving the quarantine:
• Remember – This is about surviving the quarantine day in and day out, not about changing your partner, or making a final agreement.
• This is time limited, even though it feels like an eternity right now. Try to remember that getting anxious about something you have absolutely no control over is not going to be helpful to you, it will only make you more anxious. Fighting against something you can’t control is a great way to become miserable. Get comfortable with the idea of radical acceptance.
• Think about the reasons for getting where you are. If you are the one who initiated the divorce or you are both on the same page, your partner is not going to be any different now. His/her behavior will continue to disappoint you, enrage you, make you feel lonely, out of control, not supported, not loved, or whatever led you to make this decision. Don’t expect that to change now.
• If you are not the one who initiated the divorce or you don’t want it, this is not the time to try to convince your spouse that she/h is wrong about wanting a divorce in the first place. It would only make things worse if you argue against the wishes of your partner or if you try to change her/his mind.
• Keep in mind that self-care is one of the best ways to improve your mood. The busier, more anxious and upset you are, the more important self-care is. Take breaks, go outside, meditate, exercise, eat well. Most of all, share your feeling with a trusted friend or journal instead of bottling them up or sharing them with your partner.
• Avoid unnecessary interactions. Your partner is now your roommate and/or co-parent, not your companion or your best support system.
• It’s appropriate to continue to prepare for the divorce independently, but try to avoid talking about the divorce with your spouse. If you have questions, ask a member of your legal team.

Communication guidelines:
Communication is always a key to a good relationship, no matter the kind of relationship. In a situation when you are confined together, skills to improve communication become essential. Most people already have these skills and they employ them with their co-workers or their neighbors, i.e., you are careful with what you say, you try not to offend, you communicate clearly and directly and you try to stop conversations that are not going well. Apply the same rules to your current situation with your partner.
• Find better ways to talk together about the division of labor, calendar issues, or the practical issues the way you would talk to roommate and have regular calendar meetings (more on that below).
• Express daily verbal appreciation for what’s working well.
• Treat each other with kindness and respect even if that has not happened before. Try not to tell your partner what to do. Make requests, not complaints.
• Remember, if you have felt misunderstood, not cared for, lonely, cheated on, and those are the reasons why you are getting divorced, why do you think he/she will change now?
• Try not to make impulsive decisions in a time of crisis. Consult with your attorney about major decisions.
• It’s essential to stop a conversation that is not going well before it turns into a fight. When tensions arise, or you get annoyed, triggered or upset, pause and think. Pause-Take a few breaths, blink a few times, and stretch your arms up high twice. Go outside or to a different room. Ask yourself-How is this conversation going to end? Can I take a break a resume it later, if it is important? What is the most respectful and least inflammatory thing I can say right now?
• When your repetitive issues arise, perhaps one or both of you can simply say, “It looks like we’re not actually going to resolve this right now?” and then do your best to let it go or at least table it until you feel less annoyed. You know how to push your partner’s buttons better than anyone else in the world, you can write the script for the repetitive conversations, and you even know how it’s going to end. Why not try something different?
• As you would with a roommate, try not to discuss every annoyance when it hits you, but do schedule weekly time to talk about the significant things that need to be addressed. Structuring your days, your space, and your time for self-care will help everyone in this situation.

Have regular calendar meetings:

• You are trying to survive. Don’t attempt to structure a parenting agreement for the future. Do what you need to do now to get through the next few weeks and be prepare to pivot and be flexible. You may need to revisit the plan as the situation changes.
• The main topics of discussion during a calendar meeting are the division of household responsibilities and parental division of labor. Don’t discuss the relationship during the calendar meetings. Think of them as business meetings with agendas and limits on time.
• These are not easy discussions to have when there’s distrust and hurt. But if you apply the communication skills described above, you may be able to get through them.
• Create and on and off duty parenting schedule, a clear schedule regarding who and when will be preparing dinner, bathing and putting kids to bed, helping with homework, who is responsible for purchasing food, who will do laundry, cleaning, etc. When it’s not your turn, back off and don’t interfere. It’s no longer your turf. Pretend you are not there. After all, that’s how it will be when you no longer share the same space. If you have an issue, bring it up during one of the meetings, not when it’s not your turn.
• Give each other space and create a schedule of who uses the space if both need access to the same space.
• If sitting down together is too difficult or not possible, consider a few sessions with an online couples counselor who is also a divorce counselor who can facilitate these discussions.

This may be a good time to make peace with the past. Let’s face it: a fight is a result of unmet expectations, which may be the reason you are getting divorced in the first place.  Ask yourself, when this is over, what do I want my children to remember about how I behaved during the months of the COVID 19 pandemic?

Dr. Sara Schwarzbaum, L.M.F.T & L.C.P.C., Founder
Couples Counseling Associates
737 N. Michigan Ave. Ste. 2130, Chicago IL 60611
312-416-6191 Ext 202