The COVID-19 crisis is changing how we live and is also creating unique challenges for families across the country. For separated families, the pandemic is amplifying many conflicts, straining personal relationships, and further complicating co-parenting. It is presenting new pressures of homeschooling and challenges of working from home, leaving many of us struggling to cope emotionally and financially. There is no question that family dynamics are changing; to move forward, families need to do their best to adapt to the “new normal.”
How to Adapt to the COVID-19 Crisis During Divorce
Even under the best circumstances, raising children with a former spouse can be an uphill battle. With the spread of COVID-19 and the country’s subsequent shutdown, divorced parents have encountered even more obstacles – especially those who experienced job loss or sickness. The challenges families are facing now are unique, so we do not have a rulebook to reference for answers. Therefore, divorced spouses must work together, communicate effectively, and be flexible with parenting schedules to accommodate any changes brought on by the pandemic.
If adjustments are needed for parenting schedules, it is important to remember that this is not an opportunity to “keep score” or settle a grudge with a former spouse. The Court will be watching – if not presently, in the near future. Remind yourself that the priority is the well-being of your child. Coordinate with your co-parent to see if you can set some time aside to bond with the kids once the pandemic is over.
Not all former spouses are on good enough terms to make certain necessary adjustments to parenting schedules. Under these circumstances, you may need to petition the Court for a modification of your child custody agreement. Any modifications granted may be temporary depending on the changes in circumstances that occurred. Regardless, it is critical to comply with your child custody order. If your co-parent is trying to take advantage of the situation, you should consider taking the matter to Court to ensure your rights as a parent are protected.
New Pressures Emerge
Caring for children while working from home is a challenge for any parent. Now add in five-day-per-week virtual learning and it may seem impossible to juggle. According to a 2020 Women in the Workplace report, “Many working mothers are shouldering the burden of additional child care and online schooling, and are considering leaving the workforce.”
The best way to cope with and balance these new pressures is by maintaining a steady routine and establishing clear boundaries with your children and significant other. While no two household routines look the same, finding common ground and having open communication is key to getting through it as a family.
Without predictable routines in children’s lives, they may begin to misbehave or struggle to keep up with daily, expected tasks. With clear rules in place and a firm understanding of expectations, kids will feel less stressed, have better self-discipline, and further develop their decision-making skills. This structure will also allow parents to have space to focus on themselves and their personal success – a critical aspect of the family dynamic.
Financial and Emotional Tolls Grow
There is no question that the pandemic has caused extreme levels of stress and taken a toll on the mental health of many people. Social isolation, fear of illness, and economic insecurity are all hard circumstances to work through. For those with marital issues, the impact of being home with a significant other due to stay-at-home orders is exponential. When anyone, let alone those with marital problems, are in the same household with a significant other for an extended period of time, it is common to feel tired or bored. This can lead to extreme unhappiness and fighting that wouldn’t typically occur.
In fact, according to WebMD, Monmouth University held a survey and “26% of the more than 500 polled respondents say the pandemic increased their stress given everything else they have to deal with.” A significant number of married couples have actually separated during this time because of the financial and emotional burdens brought upon by the virus. The survey also stated that “Family lawyers…reported a 25% to 35% increase in requests to start divorce proceedings compared to the same time in 2019.”
The financial impact of the coronavirus is also likely to be playing a major role in breakups and dysfunction within families. With so many people furloughed, laid off, and asked to bring home smaller checks, it has been very difficult for families across the globe. For those co-parenting, it is important to be sympathetic and do your best to assist in any way possible to ensure the best quality of life and happiness for your child.
Future of Family Dynamics Post-Pandemic
Looking back at this past year, the pandemic has been extremely disruptive to families and motivated many to re-evaluate life choices and reflect. While divorce rates continue to rise and the COVID-19 crisis continues to cause increased strife within families, it is important to note that some family dynamics have remained strong due to healthy patterns and communication. Paula Pietromonaco, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said that “some couples are able to deal with the stress because they already had healthy patterns in place – they draw upon past experiences, communicate in effective ways, they don’t withdraw from discussions and display less anger or criticism.”
To ensure healthy habits with your family, take a step back, be respectful, and communicate as effectively as you possibly can. Do not dwell on the past and do your best to move your family forward.
Unfortunately, with divorce rates on the rise due to the ongoing crisis, it is not likely that a decline is coming anytime soon. This equates to more co-parenting during some of the most challenging times in history. Even though the pandemic has disrupted the lives of many families, it is crucial to remember that – despite dynamic changes – with flexibility, communication, teamwork, and sympathy, families can get through the issues at hand. Whether it is being flexible with parenting schedules or having empathy for a co-parents’ job loss, it is important to come together as a family during the pandemic and remember that adapting is key to ensuring continuity as a family.
Considered by many as “the fixer” in Massachusetts family law, Matthew P. Barach is an esteemed family law trial and appellate attorney. He is the Founder and Principal of Barach Family Law Group, LLC, a boutique law firm, and author of The Family Law Guide to Appellate Practice (ABA Book Publishing, 2019). www.barachfamilylaw.com