REFLECTIONS BY A FAMILY LAW MEDIATOR ON COVID’S EFFECT ON MARRIAGES AND COMMON LAW RELATIONSHIPS, AND HOW A MARRIAGE CONTRACT CAN PROVIDE A SOLUTION
How has COVID affected people’s marriages and relationships, and if so, is there a viable solution?
The COVID crisis has forced us to live our lives inside our homes almost 24/7. The normal routine where spouses spend the workday in separate places has been shattered. Children do their schooling at home. Thus, the ability to ‘get away’ from one’s spouse and children has been sorely reduced if not eliminated. Today’s question is: Can marriages and relationships survive all this forced togetherness, and if so, how?
1. In ‘normal life,’ there are long marriages, good marriages, okay marriages, bad marriages and terrible marriages. By marriages, I am including common law relationships. For today I define a “good marriage” as one where the spouses are able to enjoy each other’s company, find space from each other even in the confines of the home, and most importantly they are able to face and handle conflict. By that I mean that the spouses are able to face conflicts when they arise, as is inevitable in relationships, and have the difficult conversations necessary to sustain a healthy relationship. Even these good marriages are being tested in this challenging time of COVID, and each party must put – in my view – extra energy and work into their relationship for it to continue to thrive.
2. Then there are the ‘okay’ marriages where, before COVID, the spouses were apart much more than they were together, with work, activities, get-togethers with friends and colleagues and so on, separating them through the week. Before COVID, this marriage worked because they could physically be away from each other most of the time. In these marriages, spouses often cannot deal with conflict and one or both sweep conflicts under the rug such that they become an insurmountable pit over time. These spouses stay together because of convenience, habit, common friends, because they like their way of life, etc. In this relationship, it’s probable that, because the spouses are now forced to be in close quarters with each other almost 24/7, their relationship is sorely tested. This is a relationship where, as COVID progresses and the shutdowns continue without a known end, the tension between the parties becomes thicker and thicker, with no resolution.
3. Number 3 is the bad marriage. This is a marriage where there was, prior to COVID, almost no connection between the parties, where they were like ships passing in the night (also previous). In this relationship, there is mental abuse and also, likely physical abuse by one party to the other. This situation is explosive and dangerous. It is a situation which is untenable and unsafe to remain in. There are many resources in the community for the spouse who is being abused. It is not in the realm of this article to discuss this extremely important topic.
There are remedies for spouses who are in situations 1 or 2 above. One remedy is that the parties can negotiate a marriage contract. They know that there are problems in the marriage/relationship but are not ready to leave. In fact, at this time they often can’t leave because of COVID. However, the parties (or one of them) want to have certain terms agreed upon going forward, including regarding the children and property and financial issues. These issues can also include who will get the home if the parties separate. Even such issues as division of labour in the home can be put in a marriage contract.
The law is clear that parties can negotiate a marriage contract or cohabitation agreement in the middle of a marriage. Most people think that a “Pre-nup” (an American term) can be negotiated only before marriage. However, this is not the case. In Ontario we call these “marriage contracts,” or “cohabitation agreements” and they can be made at any time during the marriage or cohabitation. A marriage contract can provide a measure of comfort and security to the parties in this time of COVID. They can be negotiated in many different ways. One positive way – if viable for the parties – is through Mediation. For more information on this, see my blog: ”Can People Negotiate a Prenup After they are Married, or is it Too Late; and, Using Mediation to Negotiate their Agreement.” (January, 2020). For information on the Mediation Process, see www.annefreed.com/six-process-options.
If you wish to explore the possibility of negotiating a marriage contract during COVID, I can be reached at (416) 368-0700, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This concludes my blog. To you all: Keep Safe!
Anne Freed holds a BA (Honours Sociology), JD (Juris Doctor, Law Degree), Master of Laws Degree (LL.M.) in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), Advanced Training in Mediation, Arbitration and Collaborative Practice, and Certification in Collaborative Practice, as well as 39 years experience in the practice of family law and mediation.
© Anne E. Freed, October 2020