COVID-19 SPECIAL: Heartbreak

Circuit breaker love and heartbreak: Divorces, fights, heightened tensions

Being in confined close quarters has led some couples to form tighter bonds, while others are forced to deal with unresolved disputes and domestic violence

Lawyers interviewed have seen more divorce inquiries during the circuit breaker period.
Lawyers interviewed have seen more divorce inquiries during the circuit breaker period. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

It was the best of times for tight-knit families, but the worst for those with fragmenting relationships living under the same roof.

Strict stay-home rules, elevated stress levels and the financial fall-out from Covid-19 turned many homes with duelling spouses into a war zone. Heated arguments would erupt at every mealtime, or each time combatants stepped into the living room.

The 10 lawyers and counsellors interviewed by The Sunday Times say they know of many instances of domestic disputes escalating during the circuit breaker period, with proximity heightening tensions at home.

This is especially so for divorcing couples who have moved on, but have to continue living with their soon-to-be former spouses, or for divorced couples locking horns over access to their children.


One recent case encountered by family law firm Yeo & Associates involved a couple who have two children and are in the initial stages of divorce. The man kept a Cambodian mistress, whom he had flown over to Singapore before borders closed, using his home address to apply for her visit pass.

The wife, the firm's client, had fled to her parents' home overseas in a fit of anger over the affair and returned to Singapore to find the mistress living in her home.

Ms Beatrice Yeo, 40, managing director of Yeo & Associates, says: "My client called the police, but was told they could not do anything since the husband had used the home address to apply for the mistress' visit pass."

Being sequestered with her adulterous husband and his mistress was too much for her. Things got out of hand, and on one occasion during the circuit breaker, an altercation broke out, with both husband and mistress allegedly attacking the wife.

In another case attended to by Ms Gloria James, head lawyer at Gloria James-Civetta & Co, a couple was already in divorce talks before the outbreak. But the stress of hunkering down with each other during the prolonged circuit breaker led to an alleged physical scuffle. The wife decided to move out, but could not find alternative accommodation due to strict Covid-19 measures.

For some, working from home together proved to be the deal-breaker.

Mr Ivan Cheong, 38, a partner at Eversheds Harry Elias, encountered a case where a couple had to attend Zoom meetings throughout the day. Their timings clashed. They started arguing over who should look after their infant during the calls, resulting in a physical altercation.

His advice, which they did not heed, was: "While it is unpleasant to be cooped up at home with a spouse whom you dislike or find annoying, aggravating the situation will not help and will only serve to make you unhappier. If there are children involved, seeing open conflict and strife between their parents is stressful and detrimental to their welfare."


Lawyers interviewed have also seen more divorce inquiries during the circuit breaker period.

A. W. Law, which handles several divorce cases a month, has seen inquiries increase by 20 per cent during the circuit breaker.

Ms Jessica Chow, a specialist divorce lawyer from PKWA Law Practice, says some decide to call it quits after their spouse finds fault with them so incessantly that they are unable to focus on their work, uses abusive language on them in front of the entire family, or confronts the person they are suspected of having an affair with.

"In China, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of divorces filed after the lockdown there was lifted," she notes. "We can only hope that couples take this time during the circuit breaker to cherish each other and be considerate and kind."


Family violence is also up, according to a recent police statement.

From April 7 to May 6, there were 476 police reports filed for offences commonly associated with family violence, an increase of 22 per cent compared with the monthly average of 389 such cases before the circuit breaker period.

The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has seen a record spike in domestic violence-related calls to its helpline during the outbreak.

Ms Shailey Hingorani, 34, head of research and advocacy at Aware, explains that with so many areas of possible stress during the pandemic - from working from home and managing home-based learning to worrying about personal health and safety - individuals may be triggered to lash out at those around them. These factors can result in a build-up of tension at home, which may manifest in abusive and violent behaviour, she adds.


But even though many need help regulating their emotions and mending fences at home in this time, few seek it.

Family and marriage therapist Sam Roberts, 49, from Olive Branch Counselling Services, recalls a recent case where a man lost his job but hid the news from his parents. His wife was not able to relate to the stress he felt. Whenever she wanted to be intimate with him, he pushed her away, sparking quarrels.

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Many domestic disagreements that are surfacing now stem from unresolved issues of the past, such as discord over in-laws, dissimilar parenting styles and finances, says Mr Roberts.

"During normal times, the couple could use work, travelling and socialising to avoid dealing with these issues. However, during the circuit breaker, it is hard to avoid unresolved issues because everyone is in the same confined space all the time."

In recent months, SACAC Counselling has seen more clients presenting issues such as insufficient sleep for more than two weeks, high levels of anxiety and a decrease in appetite.

In some cases, the contributing factor has been relational conflicts, arguments with the spouse, or threats made by the spouse to leave the home and marriage.

For other couples, their relationship had been frayed by overexposure to each other, assorted day-to-day quibbles and small disagreements arising from a life lived together within tight confines.

Mrs Jean Chen, a psychotherapist at Relationship Matters, which provides counselling services, has seen cases of couples who could not agree amicably on how and how often to buy groceries - one party wanted to buy them at the supermarket, while the other wanted groceries delivered for safety reasons.

Another couple argued over online purchases - one party spent more to destress, while the other was worried about the negative economic outlook and job losses.

Mrs Chen suggests trying to hear out what is going on with the other party and trying to empathise before voicing one's concerns.

Online counselling can also be helpful for couples in distress, she adds, with the circuit breaker affording more time and space for couples to work on their issues.


Indeed, the enforced time together has helped some couples work things out in this troubled period.

Mr Abdul Wahab, 44, managing director of A. W. Law, recounts that in the middle of last month, a client who had filed for divorce called to inform him that she wished to withdraw the application.

"The circuit breaker period afforded the client the time and space to reflect on what she wants, and the couple have since decided to reconcile," he says.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 07, 2020, with the headline Circuit breaker love and heartbreak: Divorces, fights, heightened tensions. Subscribe