The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of millions of Canadians. Homes are now indistinguishably used as schools, day-cares and workplaces as individuals have now been forced to isolate together for months within the four walls of their residences. Although workplaces are beginning to open, the process is slow and there will still be more time before life is back to normal. Suffice it to say, couples — whether living together or social distancing across residences — have had their relationships tested during these unprecedented times.
Couples who were in the midst of a separation and have now been forced to live separate and apart under the same roof due to COVID-19 are facing their own obstacles. Whether there are children involved or property issues in dispute, being forced to stay together can increase the tensions of all involved.
It may be true that difficult times can bring people together. However, as is evident with the number of recent court cases involving custody issues, the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 have been used as a mechanism to disrupt the status quo. There have also been a number of cases in which parties have sought judicial intervention to obtain exclusive possession of a matrimonial home.
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Since the suspension of regular operations at the Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Justice, only “urgent” family law events — as determined by the presiding judge — or events that are statutorily required to be heard, will be heard during the COVID-19 emergency. This means that it will be beneficial to parties living separate and apart under the same roof to work together amicably and cooperatively to avoid the need to take their matter to court.
Whether together or separate and apart under the same roof, here are some tips for people to ensure a healthy relationship between those staying together or separating, as we navigate our way through the last stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(1) Ensure both individuals are not working at all hours of the day
If working from home, people may find their workdays stretched beyond what they would ordinarily work at the office as the line between “work” and “home” has been blurred and distractions mount in the completion of even the most routine job tasks. Adjusting from a fully-supplied office to a makeshift home office has also made it difficult to complete the day’s assignments by a time of day couples previously became accustomed to.
To mitigate any extension of a workday, an individual can block off time to enjoy the company of his or her significant other throughout their workday. Break schedules can be coordinated to allow for coffee breaks (whether in-person or virtual) to occur at the same time. Stopping for a lunch break to discuss topics other than work can help couples stay connected.
For people who are living separate and apart under the same roof, they can coordinate their breaks to ensure that they are alternating the time they spend in specific rooms, on telephone calls or with any children.
(2) Establish a routine
Establishing a routine is a great way to ensure couples are on the same page when it comes to work, caring for the children, taking time for themselves and taking time to spend together. It is important that people plan, but not too rigidly. For example, as we are being forced to work from home, it may be difficult to stick to a routine down to the exact minute. Couples should allow for some wiggle room when it comes to the activities they have planned and remember that it is okay not to do everything on the “to-do” list every day.
From eating breakfast to doing laundry or bathing the children to walking the dog, a “set” routine will allow people’s days to run smoothly. A day can be separated into different sections, such as “early morning”, “morning”, “afternoon”, “early evening” and “evening”, to avoid a schedule set by the hour. Couples who are physically distancing could attempt to build in time daily to have a FaceTime, Skype or Zoom session.
One thing couples can include in their weekly routines is a date night. Whether it is a candle-lit dinner over Zoom or pizza, movie and a “quarantini” in the basement, date nights are a time couples can look forward to when stuck in isolation.
A family dinner for people who are separated and living together with children, can maintain a healthy, positive and stable environment for the children. As stated by the Honourable Justice Pazaratz in Ribeiro v Wright, in “troubling and disorienting times, children need the love, guidance and emotional support of both parents”.
(3) “Scheduling” Disagreements
Arguments are inevitable when couples are forced to spend 24 hours of each day with one another — matters that were previously considered annoying or trivial may now trigger a monumental argument. For people who are in the midst of a separation, scheduling arguments can be a positive step in a direction to avoid unnecessary litigation.
When couples feel an argument coming, they should (1) stop and (2) make space for themselves. An argument in the middle of a Monday may not have been previously possible because both parties would be at work. “Scheduling” a time to fight can mean setting aside differences during the workday but reconvening in the evening. This will show that each partner respects the other’s work environment by choosing to defer their argument until “after hours”. This is also beneficial because it inevitably gives each person time to “cool down”, reassess the situation and ultimately decide whether proceeding with the argument or fight is ultimately the most constructive conflict resolution option available.
These tips may help a relationship survive during isolation and may also help people going through a separation effectively co-parent. This can mean the difference between entering into a separation agreement and proceeding to court.