COVID-19 forced many Albertans apart but it may have kept many married couples together — at least for now.
In 2020, there were 6,801 divorces in Alberta — the fewest the province has seen since 1979, Statistics Canada data shows.
“In the midst of a disaster, people tend to put major decisions on hold because they’ve got other things to worry about,” said Matthew Johnson, a family sciences associate professor at the University of Alberta.
“When [the pandemic] was first starting, people were worried about their jobs, their health, the health of their families… [Divorce was] just not the most pressing need at the time.”
The same trend occurred for marriages, another major life decision. Provincial data shows there were 14,274 marriages in Alberta in 2020 — nearly 3,850 fewer than in 2019.
Johnson expects the number of divorces to increase as the world returns to normal.
Being in such close proximity for so long has likely highlighted aspects of couples’ relationships that they were able to ignore pre-pandemic, he said.
“Some of those couples getting on the other side of COVID are going to face reality and say, ‘Yeah, it’s time to call it quits here.'”
Lidia Handous, a family lawyer at Chadi & Company in Edmonton, is seeing that play out now in her practice.
In 2020, she was still taking as many divorce calls as normal, she recalls, but fewer clients could not — or chose not — to continue further with the process.
“The pandemic itself had left a lot of people in difficult financial situations, so they had to think twice about whether they had the resources and the financial ability to move forward,” Handous said.
Divorce proceedings can be costly, especially if there is child or spousal support or disputes over major assets like a home, she said.
Some couples got partway through divorce proceedings then decided to try to make it work — and so far have, she added.
But with Alberta opening up in 2022, Handous is seeing a return of clients who paused proceedings, sometimes because a drop in income meant they couldn’t afford to put down a retainer.
“We do see that picking up again. People are back to work. People are able to afford to get their matters moving again,” Handous said. “On that end, it’s gotten a little bit better in that people aren’t stalled.”
Marriages lasting longer: data
Alberta experienced a record-low divorce rate — 7.1 per cent — in 2020, data shows.
That’s still above the national average. But the province’s divorce rate has been declining, with some fluctuation, since Statistics Canada started recording the metric in 1991.
And marriages that end in divorce are lasting longer on average.
In 1979, the last time there were few divorces in Alberta, the average marriage lasted 10.7 years.
At that time, the average Albertan was marrying when they were nearing 24 years old, and getting divorced when they were 34.
In 2020, though, the average marriage lasted 14.6 years. The average Albertan married at about 30 years old and divorced at 44.
“There are a whole bunch of societal factors that have contributed to this,” Johnson said.
Forty years ago, marriage was viewed as the only acceptable way to have a committed relationship in which you could raise children, but that’s no longer the case, he said.
People are also waiting longer to get married now for reasons ranging from finishing their education or securing a career, Johnson said.
Historically, people with more education and a higher socio-economic status have had longer-lasting marriages and that trend is being represented further now, he said.
Alternatively, people on the fence about marriage — those who may have previously gone ahead with it due to “fewer societal options” — are just holding off, he said.
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