Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. In our past instalments over the last year we’ve covered everything from the effect of lockdown on divorces to whether they’re contagious and have now spoken to dozens of women – including one whose husband announced he was leaving her to have an open relationship with a 19-year-old and another who was quite literally ghosted by her own husband. Today we’re looking at divorce month.
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This week we’re looking into the phenomenon that is ‘Divorce January’ and delving into the reasons why this month is the busiest of the year for couples deciding to end their unions. And, this year looks to be one of the busiest yet. We speak to a divorce coach to understand the reasons behind this increase…
It’s been a long time since divorce coach Kimberlee Sweeney took your average Kiwi summer off.
While many offices shut up shop for Christmas/New Year and we use those stat days to stretch out a magnificent two-week break – maybe even longer if we’re lucky – Kimberlee’s business, Degrees of Separation, is instead in the thick of it, working through the busiest time of her year.
See, January is often referred to by lawyers as “Divorce Month”, with many firms reporting that they receive the highest number of enquiries – by far – in the first three months of the year.
Unfortunately, for a good chunk of January, it’s also a time when many lawyers are also away from the office, meaning Kimberlee’s phone can be running hot.
“This is my seventh year, and each year just gets busier and busier due to, not only people Googling, but also referrals from past clients all over NZ or referrals from lawyers on holiday who suggest their clients contact me first for support until their lawyer is back from their much needed break,” says Kimberlee.
Last week, things thankfully slowed down a bit, so she took a bit of a break and spent some afternoons at the beach with her daughter (although she’s still been fielding three or four calls a day from people looking to make an appointment, or needing advice immediately about a dire situation). Last week was her sweet spot before things ramp up again.
“Many people are now reaching out to lawyers who returned to work last week so I could take a breather before they call and come back around for next steps over the coming weeks/months, once things progress with their lawyer,” she says.
In their lawyer’s absence, Kimberlee has done all the prep work to ensure her clients are ready for their legal meetings and have clarity about what they need from their lawyer, so they make the most of that time and don’t end up running up exorbitant fees.
“Then they’ll come back to me for next steps, communication breakdowns, more guidance and support in the process and parenting plans,” says Kimberlee. “I help keep them on track working towards their desired end goal. This can take months.”
It’s a sad situation, but one she sees running like clockwork each year, right after the bubbles go flat from New Year’s Eve celebrations.
So why is it that January spells death for so many marriages each year?
It seems that adage of ‘let’s just hold on until Christmas is over’ does really play a big role in it.
“Business always increases in Jan and Feb, as couples want to give the kids one last Christmas together or one last family holiday together, or get the kids back to school in Feb and then reach out, or the kids are leaving to go to University and it’s now time to say goodbye to what was the family unit for 20-25 years and start their new lives apart,” says Kimberlee.
And January 2022 – just like it was in 2021 – has again seen an even greater number of Kiwis getting in touch, likely due to the strain that extended lockdowns had on couples and families last year.
“I don’t think Covid created all the marriage issues, but it has brought things to a head for many clients this past year or two,” shares Kimberlee. “The juggle of working from home, parenting children and home schooling has put a lot of pressure on relationships in most households. People have realised with lockdowns, lives have to change. No matter what their situation is, Covid has caused us all to rethink how we work/live/juggle life and we call want to do something better now, right? Relationships, friendships, family connections… it’s made us all rethink how and what we do.”
Aucklander Jane* can whole heartedly agree with everything Kimberlee has said. When the first lockdown in 2020 hit, she and her husband – and their three kids – limped through it, making it across the finishing line exhausted, emotionally drained, but still together.
Jane runs her own business from home – which largely relies on importing goods from overseas (making the pandemic a particularly stressful time for her company), while her husband, Colin, works in finance. They have three children – all primary school age – who have now spent a lot of time long-distance learning.
When the news broke that Covid-19 was active in the community once more last August, Jane immediately burst into tears.
“I knew that would mean another lockdown, and even the idea then that it might just be a couple of weeks – like I imagined it would be – was devastating,” she says. “Work had been tough, but I’d already had to rethink ways of doing things, so I wasn’t too worried about the implications for my job. But what it would mean for my family… that was another thing.”
Having Jane and Colin’s three children at home, all needing help with schoolwork, meant the house was immediately chaotic. While Jane tried to stay on top of her business – which, thanks to the work she’d put in previously, was now actually busier than ever – the kids were constantly needing attention, but Colin was focused on his job.
“He’d say things like, ‘I can’t concentrate with that racket!’” she says. “It was like, what, so it doesn’t affect me? Why is it all somehow my responsibility?”
Colin argued that his job meant he had to be available between 8.30am and 5.30pm, but that while she was running her own business, she should really be able to work her own hours.
“For a start, that was pretty unreasonable – I needed to be available during business hours too,” says Jane.
As their communication continued to spiral, Jane found herself holding down the fort, acting as teacher, private chef and cleaner during the day, whilst also trying to stay on top of her business – and then come 5.30/6pm she’d begin solidly working on her company, sometimes into the wee hours.
“There were two moments that were the straw on the camel’s back,” she explains. One was when she’d had a particularly demanding day – “two of the three kids were on ‘independent learning days’ with no Zooms or interaction with their teachers for the day” – when her husband walked in to the living room at 5.30pm and asked what was for dinner.
“The second was when I hadn’t been able to get any work done all day because the kids all needed my full attention,” she tells. “I came to bed at 1am, then remembered another email I needed to send. I typed it out on my iPhone from bed, but Colin got pissed off and told me off for keeping him awake while he had work in the morning.” Jane says she was so livid she could barely speak. “I was so exhausted I managed to fall asleep, but otherwise I would have been awake stewing all night.”
The injustice she felt about the whole situation also seemed to bring up a lot of old feelings and resentment that she’d been swallowing down for years.
“I kept thinking about how selfish he’d been throughout my pregnancies and when the kids were just babies,” says Jane. “I was annoyed at what he was doing right then and there, but suddenly I’d also have thoughts like, ‘remember when you wouldn’t stay in Birthcare with me because the bed was too hard on your back?’”
During one argument Jane suggested they go to therapy, or they would need to look at calling it quits. Reluctantly, Colin eventually agreed – but after six sessions, they were getting nowhere. “I realised I was wanting him to change for things to improve, and, sadly, he wasn’t about to. I couldn’t change the way he fundamentally viewed things.”
Jane and Colin agreed that they’d wait until the New Year to separate and tell their children – letting them have Christmas as a family one last time and then giving them several weeks of getting used to living between two homes before school resumed.
Kimberlee says that sadly, their situation isn’t all too uncommon, with the latest long lockdown bringing up wider issues for many couples.
“It made some couples have frank conversations they perhaps have put off having for months or years as they had previously been able to have escapisms with social lives/ work/ hobbies/ outside friendships, that they weren’t able to lean on outside of the home over lockdowns,” says Kimberlee.
But conversely, while some couples realised they’ve been running away from their relationship issues, for many others it actually improved their unions. “For some it’s brought them closer and they have realised they just need some couples coaching to get things back on track,” she says.
“I have found due to being locked down together it’s made, or forced some couples to communicate their thoughts and feeling. For some, it made them get on the same page together, or for others, to decide if they are to separate that they want to do it amicably and collaboratively. Which is wonderful as its makes for a less litigious divorce experience.”
She says she’s seen a wide spectrum of different attitudes and situations arise from lockdown – to some who have really just lost the spark or found themselves out of love, to others who have had fiery finishes to their marriages.
“Some couples who went through lockdowns realised they could no longer have open communication and they were just living like flat mates or worse – communicating badly together and losing respect for one another. One party generally comes to the realisation that they deserve more and make the call to end the relationship in hopes for a brighter future alone or with the hopes of finding a new partner – kids or no kids.
“Other people just found lockdown highlighted what wasn’t working any more for them. These clients require what I call a cheer leader to help them become un stuck and work out a plan to have conversations and work towards moving apart.”
But, for those couples still struggling, Kimberlee encourages them to get some help in their relationship – whether that results in finding a way forward together, or finding a way to separate as amicably (and inexpensively!) as possible.
It may feel like a daunting process, but this month, you’re certainly not alone.