GUIDANCE FOR FAMILIES STRUGGLING WITH DIVORCE, CUSTODY & DOMESTIC VIOLENCE DURING THE COVID-19 CRISIS

Dr. Elizabeth Degi DuBois, PhD and Christy A. Zlatkus, Esquire

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How to Deal with COVID-19 If Your Marriage Is Strained

How to ride out the tension
Now is not an ideal time to work on your marriage. Whether or not you are particularly concerned about COVID-19, it’s hard on your nervous system to be bombarded with news and emergency preparation meetings at work. Rebuilding a partnership requires a tremendous amount of patience, compassion, and a clear-headed ability to think long-term, all of which are hard to muster in the midst of wall-to-wall media coverage and school closings.

In the event that you are quarantined with your spouse, try to steer away from conversations about the state of your marriage or long-term plans. Big conversations often spark big fights. That’s fine and often necessary for working through conflict, but being confined together without space to process is not going to result in any productive outcomes.

Keep things as simple as possible. Binge Netflix, absorb yourself in telework, or reread the Harry Potter series from start to finish. If your spouse wants to do a deep dive on how to fix your marriage, suggest doing something lighter like watching a movie series together.

What to do if you know you plan to file for divorce
If you have had guidance from an attorney regarding your next steps for communicating your intentions to your spouse, stick to your attorney’s advice. If you know for certain you are leaving, but have not gotten any legal counsel, keep things as light as possible and avoid engaging in conversations about division of assets or similar legal matters.

If necessary, stick to other areas of the house or apartment. While this may be considered rude, if you know you’re done with the marriage, self-preservation takes precedence over being polite. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is to keep your distance in the service of preventing major blow ups.

Keep it together in front of your kids
Do. Not. Fight. In. Front. Of. Your. Kids. Even under the best of circumstances, arguments (screaming matches or silent treatment, not healthy processing of disagreements) in front of children can leave lasting trauma. Kids’ and teens’ brains process the world in absolutes; what you and you spouse may view as a terse standoff about something small can be extremely distressing for your children.

Again, this is where preservation of peace takes precedence over being polite. If you need to retreat to a separate part of the house, let your kids know you’d love to watch a movie with them or read some books together.

Your kids are experiencing stress right now, even if they aren’t speaking up or showing it. They need to see their parents as safe and sane. This doesn’t mean you should pretend to be the perfect couple, but it does mean not losing your cool in front of them.

If You Have Shared Custody

Regardless of past conflicts between you and your co-parent, if ever there was a moment to rally together for your kids, this is it. This is obviously easier said than done.

Use the following questions to guide a conversation for making a plan together for your kids’ immediate safety, supervision and emotional stability. Do not get drawn into ad-hominem attacks; stick to the questions below, and keep things businesslike.

Specifics you should address with your co-parent include:

  1. Who will provide care if your child becomes ill.
  2. When and how you will seek medical care for your child (for example, if you have concerns about your child being brought to a doctor’s office, discuss the possibility of video/phone appointments with the pediatrician)
  3. Who will provide care if you or your co-parent becomes ill.
  4. Who will provide care if your child’s school closes.
  5. What additional provisions (food, water, meds, clothes) your child will need at each house in the event of a quarantine.
  6. How your child will communicate with the other parent if a quarantine impedes your normal custody exchanges (regular phone or FaceTime calls are ideal).

Use the least conflict-ridden means of communication to make a plan
If you have open lines of communication that make it possible to have a phone conversation with your co-parent, have a call to discuss the questions above. If past experience has taught you that communicating by phone is going to result in arguments, keep things in writing via email.

What to do if you can’t communicate with your ex
If you have a history of abuse with your ex, you have a protective order in place, or stonewalling access to the children has been a problem in the past, contact your attorney to discuss the best way to proceed for making a plan.

If you do not have an attorney and can’t communicate safely, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for guidance, or contact your local sheriff’s office for support.

Finally, some family law firms in the US have provisions in place to do emergency virtual meetings with divorced families grappling with how to prepare for COVID-19.

What to do if you’re quarantined away from your children
Try to reassure your kids that you have everything they need in order to stay safe and comfy, and offer frequent opportunities to call the parent they are separated from.

Remember that kids thrive in structure; think about building in temporary routines that incorporate the parent they are separated from, such as mom reading the bedtime story via Facetime or dad “having breakfast” with your child via Zoom at the kitchen table.

How to support your kids’ emotional wellbeing
Whether or not they’re piping up about it, children of all ages are experiencing stress related to this outbreak. They are hearing about it at school, from friends, and what they are overhearing from the adults in their lives.

Answer kids’ questions as honestly as you can, without sensationalizing. COVID-19 has a mortality rate under 4%, and children specifically seem to be at lower risk. Yes, people are getting sick. But the whole world is working to help. Offer continual reassurance that you and your co-parent are going to work to keep them safe.

Above all else, try to be patient with outbursts from little ones and silent treatment or anger from teens. Being outside of their normal routine and away from a parent for an ill-defined period of time is going to throw them through a loop.

What To Do If Your Situation Becomes Violent

Assume things will get worse
Rates of domestic violence almost always go up in the midst of national or global crises. Relationships that are already stressed can tip over into abusive very, very quickly. Trust your intuition, and don’t question yourself into thinking you are overreacting if your gut is sounding alarm bells. Call 911, or leave.

Go to a Police/Sheriff Station or Emergency Room
According to the Montgomery County, Maryland Sheriff’s Office, police stations and sheriff’s stations will remain open regardless of any potential quarantines or restrictions on driving or travel.

If for any reason you feel unsafe, do not hesitate to leave. Anticipate that Lyft/Uber and cabs will be scarce, so have a plan of escape in place that you can enact solo. That may mean having an extra set of car keys in your purse or somewhere hidden in the house if you anticipate your spouse trying to block your access to keys.

Call 911
According to the Montgomery County, Maryland Sheriff’s Office, 911 calls will be responded to, again regardless of quarantines being imposed. That being said, arguments can become violent quickly, and call response time may be slower than normal. When in doubt, just get out.

What To Do If Your Relationship Has a History of Abuse

Plan to Ride Out A Quarantine Elsewhere
If your relationship has experienced violence in the past, or you strongly suspect that things may get heated in the midst of our global collective stress rates soaring, the safest option is to plan to ride out a possible quarantine with a friend. DO NOT DISCUSS THIS PLAN WITH YOUR ABUSER.

Find a friend who is willing to have the pleasure of your company (and host your kids, if applicable) for two-three weeks, and then stash clothes and meds at their place. If you have a faith community, consider asking your rabbi, minister or other faith leader to help you find someone safe to stay with.

Tap Expert Resources
If you don’t feel safe making a plan to stay with a friend, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 and ask for assistance planning.

Don’t Wait to Get Prepared
Have a place to go and a bag stashed at your destination or somewhere safe (your car, work, an Amazon locker, etc). DO NOT WAIT UNTIL YOU ARE IN THE MIDST OF A QUARANTINE TO MAKE A PLAN.

Again, if you find yourself in the midst of a situation that feels unsafe, leave or call 911.