Relationships are on the rocks during COVID-19

The pandemic has caused divorce and separation rates to go up, along with instances of domestic violence

(Kristen Frier)

Since March 2020, Canadians’ lives have been largely confined to their homes in one way or another. What at first might have been thought of as a fun two-week vacation has now turned into an almost year-long prison sentence.

The numbers vary across Canada, but it is hard not to notice some disturbing trends.

“There was actually a decrease in calls at first,” says Nancy Nguyen who works at the Nova Transition House in Richmond B.C. The Nova Transition House is just one in a series of shelters that provide women and children assistance when fleeing violence at home.

Once processing and other formalities are finished, those who seek refuge at places like Nova Transition House are allowed to stay for 30 days. Once that time is up, the victims are assessed and evaluated. If the situation remains dangerous for the victims then their stay can be extended.

There are many variables that go into this decision-making process. Access to a safe environment, a stable financial situation, and the safety of children if applicable, are all taken into consideration.

In the first few months of the pandemic, 59 per cent of responding victim services reported an increase in the number of clients they served. And 29 per cent of other victim services said the amount of people in their facilities stayed the same, while 17 per cent of victim services reported a decrease, according to Statistics Canada.

Nguyen explained how the lull which had occurred for most of 2020 abruptly ended in December and January.

However, Nguyen is not alone.

Many people whose work involves dealing with failing or dysfunctional relationships, abusive or not, have been witnesses to a troubling year.

Katya Richardson, a family lawyer with Westside Family Law in Vancouver, is quick to note that 2020 was a year like no other.

Family lawyers deal with divorce, separation of common-law couples, property division, custody of children, prenuptial agreements, and more. The process of contacting a family lawyer is straightforward and simple, however it is far from inexpensive.

The prices can change drastically depending on where people live, what they own, what kind of relationship they are in, and if children are involved. Like many other family lawyers, Richardson has seen a swell of calls and new clients in need of her services since the pandemic began.

Places like Westside Family Law offer consultations with clients to give them a clear understanding of what will be asked of them if they chose to take things to court. Once the ball starts rolling, Westside offers a base rate of $1,500 plus tax. From that point, people will be expected to pay an hourly wage.

The YLAW Group, another Vancouver-based family law firm, claims that the average five-day trial will cost between $50,000 to $75,000 in fees. Individuals could be looking at a triple-digit payout should the trial continue.

Richardson recommends that any couple thinking about going through any legal proceeding should be proactive and not let anything fester.

“The worst thing you can do is nothing at all,” says Richardson.

While both the courtroom and shelters are used as last resort for those in dire situations, the majority of couples who are facing trouble turn to people like Laura Bradly for help.

Bradly specializes in mending and healing relationships that are tearing at the seams, she and her colleagues at Steadfast Counselling thought they had seen it all. But there was nothing like the past year.

“COVID-19 has presented so many different challenges when it comes to a healthy relationship,” says Bradly.

Much like everyone else, Bradly has had to move her sessions with her clients online. Her meetings now take place over Zoom and other similar platforms. This might seem like a major disadvantage for a therapist, but Bradly believes that this new medium can offer some advantages when compared to a more traditional format.

“These new sessions are surprisingly intimate,” says Bradly. “The couples are now much closer to one another and are able to display a level of affection that wasn’t really possible before.”

In regards to the rise in divorce and domestic violence instances, Bradly points to lockdown restrictions as one of the main contributors.

Conflicted, Bradly says she finds it very tough to see her patients go through considerable pain and grief, but she believes that the restrictions set in place by the B.C. government are necessary.

Bradly also understands the lack of physical space available to couples is a large reason there is so much tension. What was once something that was enjoyed freely without much thought, personal space has now become a scarce and finite resource.

“Our time alone, something which we used to take for granted, has now largely been stripped away, and people are left without the tools to deal with that loss,” Bradly says.  “The amount of stress that people are under is enormous.”

Bradly categorizes the couples that she deals with into three distinct groups.

The first group could be best described as those who resolve or recover from whichever predicament they found themselves in. These couples tend to be emotionally mature, cooperative with one another and the counsellor, and open to solving their problem.

Bradly estimates that this group makes up a small but not insignificant portion of her clientele.

The second group, which is the largest of the three, tends to be those with many unsolved issues. Bradly describes these couples as chaotic, lacking communication skills, and poorly managing newfound stress.

The people in the second group can either end up like the recovered couples or wind up in the third group, Bradly says.

Group three are couples whose relationships are sadly ending, who face irreconcilable differences, or experiencing some kind of abuse — whether physical, mental, verbal, or otherwise. In cases where physical violence is a real possibility or has already happened, Bradly and others in her profession are forced to contact the police.

Thankfully group three couples are still a minority, according to Bradly,  but they are a group that has noticeably grown since last year.

“The thing couples need to do is acknowledge that they have a problem. Try to have compassion for their partner and give each other space,” Bradly says. “Don’t leave the problem alone until it’s too late.”