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Josepha Madigan: Covid has forced many couples to the point of separation. How they handle it is key

The Fine Gael TD and lawyer says lack of social supports during Covid means many relationships are feeling the pressure.

Josepha Madigan Fine Gael TD for Dublin Rathdown

PILE LOCKDOWN ON top of a relationship already stretched to the limit and the end result is marital disaster. I worked as a family lawyer for two decades.

I met a lot of people going through the worst of times. Witnessed a lot of broken dreams. A lot of broken people.

I never met a client who expected their marriage to end. No bride walked up the aisle in her stunning white bridal gown anticipating a costly four-day divorce trial (yes, it is actually called a trial) at the end of her marriage.

No groom wished for nights of constant fighting or weeks of silent treatment before accepting the marriage was over.

The way forward, or the way out

At without-prejudice settlement meetings arranged at the courthouse, much negotiating happens with legal teams going over big issues like property, pensions, access and maintenance.

All can be going relatively smoothly until a seemingly innocuous matter tips the scales. I remember the eleventh-hour negotiations over a silver candelabra. It was a gift from the husband’s parents. The question was whether it belonged to him alone or to them both?

It is not possible to cut a candelabra down the middle unless you have an electric saw nor would it add any value to the object. It’s obvious of course, to anyone with a modicum of intuition, that the argument is not about the candelabra at all but a symbol of that subtle struggle for influence that exists within every marriage. Who is willing to relinquish control first?

For some marriages, the pandemic has proven to be the thing that has tipped the scales. Most ‘contented’ couples share an amiable camaraderie. It can be heaven. However, when it goes wrong it can be hell.

In my view, the most danger arises when a relationship teeters on the precipice of the proverbial cliff but doesn’t actually fall off. It can seem like it happens overnight but in truth, the resentment has festered for a long time. However, neither husband nor wife wanted to admit it to each other not to mind to themselves.

Forced introspection

Khalil Gibran speaks in ‘The Prophet’ of Marriage: ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness’ he says, ‘And stand together yet not too near together’.

Giving each other space isn’t possible in a lockdown. Everyone is forced to stay at home. Most of us are either in prison or in nirvana or somewhere in between depending on which way you look at it.

Yet a marriage that is based on truth, on a solid foundation of mutual respect and on real love (warts and all) will survive. Anything less than that will careen down the side of the cliff as quick as you can say the words ‘divorce court’.

Over the last number of months, I have spoken to countless people, imprisoned, literally and metaphorically, in a terrible marriage. That old adage of being lonely but not alone never rang truer.

Quite a few are drinking too much to numb the pain, to literally swallow the bitterness and drown out the stark realisation that their reality has changed rapidly. Children are caught in the crossfire, many only recently getting back to school, some grateful for the reprieve away from warring parents.

Domestic violence, as we know too well, has escalated significantly, forcing many to leave the family home into emergency accommodation.

Thankfully this is not the reason in all cases. Most of the people I have spoken to, constituents and friends, male and female, tell me that there was nowhere for the limping marriage left to hide.

In other words, lockdown forced them to look inwards at their marriage. Up to this point they had got away with avoiding the introspection. Now there is no choice. They tell me either that they are fine, but the marriage isn’t, or they aren’t fine and neither is the marriage.

Often not enough oxygen is left in the tank to save everyone. Prior to the lockdown, many marriages survived because life was too busy for them not to survive. But once everything stopped (and allowing time for a brief interlude of recalibration where everyone was home all of the time all of the day and all of the night) they realised that they simply couldn’t face spending time with each other.

The busy-busy constant distractions of life were no longer available. As one woman said to me, you can do only so much home-schooling, walks, housework, baking and Netflix.

The challenge is when the very presence of the other spouse in the house runs the gamut from a mild irritant to a malevolent force. When it’s at the malevolent force end of the continuum, then it’s like being in a war zone. And it’s then that they need to get help.

A decade ago, some couples just about survived the recession, their businesses hanging on by a thread. Now their finances are being battered again, they can’t take the strain anymore. It’s an emotional minefield.

The legal process

From my experience as a lawyer, I know that there is a good way and a bad way to divorce. How you approach it at the outset will determine how it will end. It will determine how well you survive it and how good your relationships with all (including children and in-laws) will be post-divorce.

If someone finds themselves in this situation, the first thing they should do (other than where urgent domestic violence or child protection reliefs are necessitated in which case the Gardaí and/or a solicitor should be the first port of call) is to talk to a close confidante or ring one of the emergency 24-hour helplines.

No rash decisions should be made. But that doesn’t mean suffering in silence. Most of us are feeling more isolated than normal, the scaffolding of family and friends collapsed immeasurably.

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Before the pandemic, a domestic crisis might be helped by rattling the normal support structures. But it’s still possible to reach out to someone trustworthy (professional or otherwise), to help them take the sequential steps they need to take day by day.

Online counselling, while not ideal, is still available. Consider mediation where possible. Some neutral third-party mediators even mediate online to help the couple establish ground rules while still living under the same roof.

Get legal advice so they know their rights, but a recommendation is always better than cold calling. It’s always better to have an expert in family law to advise you rather than a general solicitor for example.

In 2019, by an overwhelming majority, Irish people voted by referendum in favour of reform of our divorce laws. However, we should not rest on our laurels. The need for stand-alone family courts, specialised training for judges, better supports for couples and families facing difficult cases – many other areas of family law are ripe for reform.

Thankfully, reform efforts are underway. The recent publication of the General Scheme of the Family Court Bill by the Department of Justice is the start of an important reform process that will hopefully lead to the establishment of dedicated family courts.

Though this proposal is only at the start of the legislative process, it demonstrates a clear appreciation of the challenges that exist and a desire to make a change.

The need for a dedicated family court, in a purpose-built setting is crucial. Divorces, separation, custody battles – these can all take a huge toll on everyone and are all the more upsetting when children are involved.

Sometimes, parties may not be speaking to each other. In addition, people feel unable to progress personally and move on with their lives until the distressing family law case hanging over their heads is resolved.

Family law cases are currently held primarily in either the District Court or the Circuit Court, depending on the issues involved. In parts of the country, these courts deal with a huge number of cases of all varieties, and that can result in delays for weeks or months on end.

Families facing emotional distress may have to share the building with parties and suspects in all manner of legal disputes and criminal cases. Court buildings can often be small, crowded and not well equipped to deal with people facing marriage or familial breakdown.

The Government has positive plans afoot in relation to new dedicated family courts. In the interim, family law matters on consent and interim applications are being heard remotely.

Help also exists in the form of social welfare. Above all, anyone in a troubled relationship made worse by lockdown should mind their hearts and mind their heads. Find the sunshine beyond the clouds.

Josepha Madigan is a Fine Gael TD and is Minister for Special Education. She is also a lawyer. Resources: The Mediators’ Institute of Ireland (The MII), The Law Society, An GS, Legal Aid Board, Samaritans, MABS, Women’s Aid, Amen.

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About the author:

Josepha Madigan  / Fine Gael TD for Dublin Rathdown

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