The novel coronavirus outbreak led to a “substantial” increase in couples seeking legal advice on separations as COVID-19 puts a magnifying glass on relationships, family lawyers say.

Times of Malta spoke to four family lawyers, who all reported an increase in people seeking their advice on marriage breakdowns since April as couples spent more time together when under partial lockdown.

The final push to go their separate ways seems to have been down to proximity and the lack of distraction that the pandemic caused, forcing couples to think – and decide they want out.

Family lawyer Anne Marie Bisazza, who has been working in the field for 18 years, said she has never been so busy with rekindled requests for legal advice on separations, as well as new clients.

“Life got slower and, with more time to rest and think, rather than just work and play, some marriages started to feel like forced cohabitation,” she said.

Patience ran out after Easter

Family lawyers noticed a similar pattern: from March to Easter week, couples seemed to be waiting it out. But the moment they sensed the situation would last longer, patience ran out and an element of panic set in.

Those in the process of separating and still living together reached the limit and their situation became intolerable while family lawyers also dealt with new cases of couples who had never considered separating.

Then, suddenly, parents started wanting more than Skype calls

A boom in separations is usually experienced after Christmas and even summer, following holidays, parties and time together, but these unprecedented circumstances gave rise to another spike – and worse, lawyer Anne Marie Bisazza said.

Such was the urgency to get out of marriages that partners worried about a second wave of the virus and wanted to be alone before COVID-19 struck again.

From her experience over the last couple of months, Bisazza can say the pandemic has been hard on the best of marriages, let alone those that were not solid.

Relationships that thrived on outside factors could not withstand the impact of a coronavirus shutdown. But it was also the last straw for couples who had thought about separating and never voiced it.

“Those who seemed to have it all, enjoying the good life and lots of frills, as well as travelling regularly, found it hardest,” she said.

“Their marriage was moving on because their focus was on their social life, their friends and their children’s activities but not on each other. And when it became only about the family unit, they were forced to realise just how mundane their relationship was.”

Some couples cannot converse if it is just the two of them

Rather than adultery, it has been a case of partners being unable to take each other anymore, faced with a lack of diversions, Bisazza maintained.

“Some couples cannot have a conversation if it is just the two of them. Now, they found they did not even have a ‘buddy’ and are more aware of the importance of a companion at home. They are asking themselves: do we actually like our partners or do we only like what they bring to the table and our lifestyle?”

What is “strange and sad” is the separation of couples in years-long courtships who had only been married for months.

“COVID broke them. Life was fast and, suddenly, when an element of sacrifice was involved, they could not cope. It put couples to the test,” Bisazza said.

Her own take is that COVID-19 opened wounds; it was like a little voice asking what people really wanted in life.

Family lawyer Stephen Thake said he also experienced a “palpable spike” in non-Maltese residents seeking separation advice in this period. But he did not yet have enough information to determine whether this phenomenon was connected to the pandemic.

Speaking about how the “interesting phenomenon” panned out, family lawyer and mediator Christine Bellizzi said being stuck at home also aggravated alcohol and substance abuse.

Previously, a partner may have tolerated drinking that would start in the afternoon and would go out to avoid it.

But when a spouse started to be heavily under the influence by 10am and they had nowhere to go, it sparked the start of proceedings, filing of urgent applications and protection orders to get them out of the house.

Up to Easter, parties seemed to be cooperating even regarding access to the children and accepting that this had to be reduced. Then, suddenly, parents started wanting more than Skype calls, she said.

They queried whether social distancing due to COVID-19 justified that they could not see their children and police reports began to be filed.

Anxiety was also evident in cross-border cases, with foreign parties wanting to return to their native country, Bellizzi said, witnessing a rise in requests to issue warrants of prohibitory injunction to avoid a parent eloping with a minor.

The burden on the children

Children of separated couples suffered most during the partial lockdown, according to family lawyer Sandra Sladden, who said some situations were “totally mishandled” and taken to extremes.

In the first weeks of self-isolation measures, attempts to abuse court decrees regarding access to children were rampant, she noted.

Sladden said she was inundated by calls asking when the courts would reopen. Clients had plucked up the courage to take the first step to separate and, suddenly, everything was suspended.

“The uncertainty was really tough,” she said.

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