Inside the billion-dollar divorces of lockdown

Nicole Mowbray
·12-min read
Kim Kardashian and Kanye west at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in 2020 - PA
Kim Kardashian and Kanye west at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in 2020 - PA

Like many married women, 42-year-old Katherine Jackson*, an architect from Winchester, believed the reason her marriage of 15 years had been struggling was a lack of ‘spending time together’.

“I was very, very wrong,” says the mother of two, who has become one of the legion of spouses filing for so-called covid divorces. “During the first lockdown of 2020 - when we were free of the hassle of the daily commute, free of many of the external time pressures to which I had attributed many of our marital problems… I realised, it wasn’t a lack of time which was the problem. We’ve just both changed. Time spent together when there were few distractions only amplified that.”

As the Jacksons can attest, the pressure the pandemic has placed on relationships cannot be underestimated. Just take a look at Kim Kardashian who, according to TMZ reports on Friday 19 February, has filed for divorce from her husband of seven years Kanye West, ‘for the sake of her kids and her sanity’ after a very ‘rough December’, a source told American gossip institution Page Six.

‘She has been living separately from Kanye. Over the holidays, it was hard for her to stay positive. She has been trying her best, though, for the kids… She just feels she has done everything in her power to make her marriage work. Even though she has been thinking about divorce for months, she hasn't filed because she feels terrible for the kids.’ This particular divorce is said to be worth $2.1 billion.

The couple has yet to comment on these reports and, while we cannot speculate on whether lockdown is a facet of the reported issues between Kardashian and West, they would not be alone if it were.

A UK-wide Relate poll of 2,000 people at the start of lockdown in March 2020 found 23% said it was placing pressure on their relationship. Of those questioned across the UK, 42% said they were finding their partner ‘irritating’ and 36% of couples reported arguing more frequently.

Law firm Stewarts logged a 122% increase in enquiries about divorces between July and October 2020, compared with the same period last year. Citizens’ Advice reported a 25-per-cent rise in searches on its site about ending a relationship. In the US, a major legal contract-creation site recently announced a 34-per-cent rise in sales of its basic divorce agreement, with newlyweds who’d got married in the previous five months making up 20% of sales. Similar patterns have been reported everywhere from Sweden to China.

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West at the Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2019 menswear show - Wireimage
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West at the Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2019 menswear show - Wireimage

Barbara Reeves, Head of Family Law at Mishcon de Reya, says it isn't yet clear whether the pandemic and resulting nationwide lockdown will cause a significant overall rise in the number of divorces. “Certainly, we have had an increase in the number of enquiries we've received, I would estimate by about 25%, but it may be too simplistic to say that these have been ‘caused’ by lockdown.”

Reeves says that the intensity of the pandemic has created a perfect storm for domestic disharmony. “This has impacted on different families in different ways. Whilst working from home, home schooling, furlough and potential job losses will have increased stress on many relationships, for others, the additional time together has strengthened their bond. Where there was already strain on the relationship, the lack of usual outlets of being able to go out to work, to see friends or pursue other activities outside the home is likely to have increased it.”

When her airline captain husband was furloughed back in April 2020, Lauren Randall’s* relationship went abruptly downhill. “We’ve separated, but we’re not set on divorce just yet,” the 46-year-old from Surbiton says. “It’s been extremely tough. Our relationship was built on us each having a large degree of independence. My husband was away for several days at a time when flying long-haul and while our friends would often wonder how we made a success of that lifestyle, for us the set-up worked. My husband placed a lot of value and pride in his career and to lose that, virtually overnight, changed him intensely. He became very angry, very critical of everything I did, critical of the children, furious at anything to do with the pandemic... We were all treading on eggshells around him.”

In September, when it was time for their three children to go back to school after the summer break, Randall and her husband agreed he should move out to alleviate some of the ‘pressure cooker’ environment the pair felt they were creating. “He’s rented a nice flat nearby on the river, he’s taken up cycling… It’s helped. We know this may end up in divorce but both hope our relationship may improve when things go back to “normal”, whenever that may be.”

Toby Atkinson, Divorce and Family Partner at Stewarts says interest in separation spiked during the summer months, as the number of people seeking divorces between July and August tripled compared with the same period last year. “Spending prolonged periods at home typically leads to spikes in new divorce cases in ‘normal’ life – our peak times being after Christmas and the school summer holidays – and it’s therefore no surprise that we have seen a significant rise in the number of new enquiries. It’s fair to say this has been a year to test even the strongest of marriages.”

One key difference the firm reports however, is in the gender split of those seeking divorce. 76 percent of Stewart’s new cases between June and October were initiated by women, compared with 60% last year.

Sara Davison, aka The Divorce Coach, hosts the Heartbreak to Happiness podcast and runs a practice dedicated to helping people decide whether to stay in a relationship or leave, and if it’s the latter, how to do so as amicably as possible. With an 80 percent female client base, she is recommended by Tatler magazine’s High Net Worth Divorce Guide for helping people navigate the emotional rollercoaster of separation or divorce while also dealing with the practical challenges involved; managing stress or anxieties about becoming a single parent for example, or helping plan finances. “Often, clients come to see me before they tell their partner they’re thinking of leaving,” she says. ‘“ help them decide.”

Davison says that any extra time spent together accentuates cracks in a relationship and that she is seeing a rise in clients “who are either thinking of divorcing or separating or actively doing so,” she explains, “and that’s because of Covid. This pandemic has made us all more sensitive and less tolerant. Things get to you when you are living on top of each other. Any issues become magnified: I have a client who has just realised she can’t take the way her husband smells, for example, and is filing for divorce. Anything you could normally overlook, you can’t now.”

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's wedding, seven years ago - Instagram/KimKardashian
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's wedding, seven years ago - Instagram/KimKardashian

She shares the story of a woman she is coaching at the moment. “Her marriage would have definitely stood the test of time were it not for the pandemic,” Davison says. “She and her husband were happily married, they have children, but their relationship was based on independence, freedom and the time spent together was around holidays and fun activities. Now, they have been forced together through all the humdrum daily tasks and they can’t take it.”

Davison also believes that a lack of things to look forward to is creating a ‘concertina’ effect for other problems in relationships. “This time offers none of the usual certainties. Financial problems are putting pressure on relationships as are worries about getting sick or vulnerable family members falling ill. What’s not talked about much is the growth in mental health issues contributing to splits. Extra levels of stress or anxiety put a lot of strain on couples.”

Law firm Wright Hassall also reports a 31% increase in divorce enquiries since the pandemic started, with 30% of those it surveyed believing an increased use of social media to maintain contact and develop relationships has been a contributing factor and 24% admitting to checking a partner’s phone or social-media accounts at least once during the pandemic. The firm believes this potential ‘rise in online affairs’ could be due to ‘the mundanity of lockdown life and the strain it can place on relationships’.

Dal Heran, family lawyer at the firm says “Our research suggests [the increase] could be partially driven by people being tempted by the development of online relationships and flirtations.”

Meanwhile Davison says she has some male clients who worked in the City, whose wives knew they were having affairs but didn't want to get a divorce. “If you’ve driven around and noticed lots of people in laybys on their phone, that’s what my clients tell me they do to carry on conducting their affairs. These people have a place in the capital and used to spend one or two nights a week seeing someone else, but now have no reason or excuse to escape.” Davison adds that with families stuck in a connected home, with several devices linked together, infidelities will inevitably be uncovered.

In the case of Kardiashian and West, the TMZ report suggests that the pair are parting ways on good terms. “Our sources say it's as amicable as a divorce can be,” reads the article. “Kim is asking for joint legal and physical custody of the couple's four kids. Sources with direct knowledge tell TMZ Kanye is fine with the joint custody arrangement, and we're told both Kim and Ye are committed to co-parenting together. There's a prenup and we're told neither party is contesting it. In fact, our sources say they are already far along in reaching a property settlement agreement.”

Mary-Kate Olsen and Olivier Sarkozy's divorce was granted in January 2021 - Rex
Mary-Kate Olsen and Olivier Sarkozy's divorce was granted in January 2021 - Rex

But while Davison believes it’s possible to split amicably, she finds a lot of her clients become ‘stuck’. “Many people become unsure as to how to move forward,” she explains. “They are so devastated by the break up and don’t understand what to do next for the best. I have just started seeing a client who left their partner 16 years ago. The partner now has a long term relationship and 12-year-old kids with someone else, but my client is still stuck in the flat she originally lived in and hasn’t moved on. That’s why she has come to me.”

Robert Oakley* a 38-year-old creative director at an advertising agency in London is in the process of splitting with his husband of four years due to the pandemic. For them, a change in financial status has complicated their split. “My husband works in theatre which, like advertising, has been badly affected by the pandemic,” Oakley tells me. “We were both self-employed and our earnings have taken a massive hit. It’s meant we have to sell our holiday home in France and a property we had rented out in London. And it’s caused huge arguments. There have been rows about whether to stay living in the capital... Our carefree lifestyle has vanished, we’ve seen sides to each other we didn’t want to see, and that can’t be ignored. Conversely though, we can’t really afford to split up and live apart.”

Barbara Reeves at Mishcon de Reya says finances are a key concern for her clients when it comes to separating. “Most couples in unhappy relationships are alive to the difficulties that the global economy is creating,” she says. “The future of jobs and businesses remains uncertain. The property market has slowed down and faces uncertainty. Some parties are looking to capitalise on that, but many prefer to delay taking steps to bring the relationship to an end until the financial picture is clearer.” However, Davison has a salutary warning for any couples considering chucking in the towel. “Even the best couples are under pressure right now. Take your time to think. It feels like it, but the pandemic won’t be around forever. Don’t do damage now that you’ll come to regret in six months when life is - hopefully - easier.”

Sara Davison’s guide to love through lockdowns

  1. Know that this is a rough time - wait to assess any relationship problems until a few months have passed when things will be more stable.

  2. Space is important. Each partner should do things on their own, even for 30 minutes. Being with each other 100 per cent of the time is too much.

  3. Maintain friendships. Don't substitute your friends with your partner. Don’t dump everything on one person. Very few people can be a great father, a great lover, a great cook, a great colleague and a great friend...

  4. If you’re working from home, agree how to arrange this.

  5. Identify your triggers for arguments and try to work out a way to avoid them.

  6. Be kind to each other and try to still have fun and bring variety to your day, even if that’s by something simple like playing a game of cards.

Sara Davison’s guide to amicable divorce

  1. Divorce is an extremely traumatic process. Even if you’re amicable, things will get heated.

  2. Set the ground rules upfront and agree how you are going to cope with the process – kindness and respect are key. You will need to preserve some form of relationship if children are involved.

  3. Create a break-up support team. If you need legal advice, have someone on hand. Ditto a financial advisor, an exercise buddy (socially distanced). Ask for help when you need it. People like me specialise in emotional support, but you can also go to your GP if you need help.

  4. Enlist the help of friends and family, but take care not to listen to anyone who is emotionally involved and will convince you that cutting the arms of his suits are a good idea.

  5. Break-ups are easier if you’re both happy to move on. Note things to look forward to on the other side - write a break-up bucket list: perhaps he never liked dogs and you’d love to get one, or make plans to visit a country he had no interest in seeing.

  6. Don’t denigrate your partner to other people. It will probably get back to them at some point.

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