(Syda Productions/Adobe)

Louis, an Austin business owner and father, knows three couples right now who are getting divorced.

With his own 20-year marriage on the rocks, he would, in other times, be joining their ranks. But he's been furloughed and their kid is about to start college.

The idea of a second rent and more emotional wreckage sounds, to Louis, even less attractive than staying in a bad marriage for a few more months.

"There are a lot of people that are logistically married right now," Louis said, asking that his last name not be used to protect his family's privacy. "That's probably the camp I would put us in, depending on the day."

Stories of strained relationships abound during the pandemic, and the numbers of divorces being filed in Travis County, according to court records, have been increasing every month since April, the first full month of the shutdown and shelter-in-place rules.

But, due to a confluence of factors unique to these times, only half the number of local couples are filing for divorce now than they were at this time last year. Instead, they're choosing to ride out the storm together, for better or for worse. At least for now.

In Travis County, divorces from March through June dropped from 5,334 in 2019 to 2,802 for the same period this year.
In neighboring Williamson County, divorces are down from 2,022 to 1,322 for the same period.

Data on divorce filings provided by the head of court administration for Travis County.(Data courtesy of Kirker Davis)

Austin family attorney Holly Davis said calls to her firm about family problems exacerbated by the pandemic have been "off the charts," so much so that they had to hire extra attorneys.

But court delays, financial hardships and logistical problems mean fewer couples are heading into divorce court, she said.

Courts have been "very good" about responding to families in abusive situations, but non-emergency hearings like deciding who pays the bills are being delayed for weeks or months, she said.

Simple logistics also plays a role, she said. It's more difficult to move and find a place to live, stay with family members who may be compromised healthwise, and run a household alone.

Right now, for example, when most kids are being schooled at home, a second pair of hands can be a lifeline.

"It's Hunger Games out there for nannies right now," Davis said, "and our schools are saying they don't know when they're going to let our kids back in. So if you're trying to run logistics for your household and you're about to split up the house, you're losing half of your help."

Davis and Ashley both predict an increase in filings when times return to normal, and Louis will likely be among them.

The pandemic, he said, revealed long-time problems that he can't ignore by traveling for work all the time now that he's stuck at home on furlough.

"We're at an impasse," he said. "And I won't go back to the status quo."

Part of the phenomenon, Davis said, is that couples are being more thoughtful about the decision to divorce. It's a shift in perspective, in a culture that views divorce as a relatively quick solution to marital problems.

"When your personal health is at risk, and you've got social injustice and racism and protests," Davis said, "the fact that your husband leaves towels on the floor, and has never really loved you in the way that you want to be loved, gets put on the back burner."

And for those who started the pandemic in a healthy marriage, tensions can turn into relationship-builders, said Austin marriage and family therapist Leigh Ashley.

"This kind of thing can expose a weakness, but then those folks that have the skills and the outlook and the camaraderie built, this can just be one of those seasons that actually gives them new and deeper history together," Ashley said.

For Austin public-relations executive Jason Stanford, the pandemic gave them new communications skills and a fresh appreciation for their partnership—strengthening an already solid 10-year marriage.

"Having a person who has promised to look out for you through thick and thin comes in pretty damned handy in a pandemic, come to find out," he said.

(Emma Freer)

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