I Got Divorced on a Conference Call Because of Coronavirus
I imagine that for some people, getting divorced over the phone might seem like a best-case scenario. You don’t have to take a day off work to go to court, don’t have to see your ex. It’s convenient, and takes a total of about 10 minutes.
But I’m mourning the divorce I thought I would have. I moved out of what the state of Massachusetts would call my “marital home” on September 1, 2019, before the world turned upside-down. My ex-husband and I are on great terms: We are getting divorced because I'm gay, not because we hate each other, and we have gone through this entire process together.
Last fall, we met with a mediator — not a lawyer — to draw up our divorce and custody agreement. We drove to the mediator’s office together. We held hands as she asked us questions about our finances, about living arrangements, about health insurance. We cried as we told her how we planned to divide up our assets. We told each other we loved each other after it was over. It was bittersweet. When it came time for him to buy our house from me, we did the same, and walked out of the Registry of Deeds holding hands.
I thought the final step would be done together, too. That we could go in front of a judge, hold hands, and walk out of the courtroom together — divorced, but together as co-parents embarking on this next phase of our lives.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit. At first, we were worried the hearing would be continued indefinitely and we would be stuck in this divorced-but-not-really limbo. Which, all things considered, would have been fine. There are much more important things right now than my divorce hearing, which is not life-or-death. Waiting might have been an annoyance, but an understandable and manageable one.
But then, days after being told our hearing would be delayed another month (for the second time) we were told we could request a video or teleconference because our divorce was non-contested. The hearing would still happen — it would just be over the phone.
And so, I got divorced on a three-way phone call in our respective quarantine locations. It felt cold and impersonal. I couldn’t see him or hug him. I didn’t realize how much it had meant to be able to walk the final steps of our divorce together until that option was taken from me.
When it was unclear how long-term this pandemic would be, family courts continued hearings for all non-emergency matters, which included divorce hearings. The websites had announcements about courts reopening in a few weeks or a month, dates which kept getting pushed back until it became necessary to find other solutions.
While courts were closed, custody agreements were nearly impossible for judges to enforce, causing what one parent told the New York Post was an “anarchy” around shared custody for some divorced couples. As the weeks have gone on, more and more municipalities are offering the option of phone or video hearings, including for federal criminal trials. Michigan has an entire page on their website dedicated to using Zoom for virtual hearings and a call to expand remote proceedings (though in South Florida, one lawyer had to be instructed by a judge to wear a shirt during Zoom hearings). In Southern New York, judges may continue to hold hearings at their discretion, but they are “strongly encouraged” to do so by phone or video conference, according to a court order. People are getting married on Zoom, and Philadelphia and the state of New York, are allowing people to apply for virtual marriage licenses.
Our hearing was an hour later than scheduled, because even while doing hearings over the phone, the court can’t seem to run on time. The judge asked us to raise our right hand and swear to tell the truth, which I did in my empty living room, with no witnesses to confirm whether I’d done it or not.
“On or about July 2019, was there an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” my husband’s voice said.
“Does it continue to this day?” she asked.
“Is there any chance of reconciliation?”
I could hear the sadness in his voice through the phone, and it was at that point that I was unable to contain my own. The tears came down. I cried for the end of my marriage, for the impersonal way it was happening, for the history we had together that we were closing the book on. Before we hung up, the judge told us the divorce would be final in 120 days; there was nothing else for either of us to do on our end. All that was left was a waiting game.
After it was over, we called each other on the phone. I’d gotten dressed up for the occasion, as if I were really going to court: my favorite cheetah-covered emerald green jumpsuit, big gold hoops, long gold pendant necklace. I sent him a photo of my outfit. He’d pulled out one of his coveted Cuban cigars, saved only for special occasions. He sent me a photo of him smoking it.
We talked for almost an hour, about everything and nothing. Throughout the divorce process and the pandemic, our conversations had become rote. We talked logistics, whether about finances or hearings or kid stuff. We talked schedules, about pickups and drop offs and paperwork. We had been seeing each other several times per week when we exchanged the kids.
But the two of us hadn’t really connected. We’d talked without talking. And so, after our divorce hearing, that’s what we did. He told me about work, about his new relationship, about how he was doing. I told him about how stressed I was about money, about my new partner, about how I was feeling. And at the end of the call, we said, “I love you” before we hung up the phone.
VIDEO: Love in the Time of Coronavirus — Single in Quarantine
Our physical distance hadn’t actually stopped us from doing the last step of our divorce process together, even if it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. We did it together, from our separate homes. Our mutual presence was indicated by the sound of our voices, through which our emotions registered. And at the end of it all, we didn’t sit down for a cup of coffee or hold hands, but we found a way to connect nonetheless.
I recognize that my divorce is not representative of everyone’s. Not everyone has an amicable separation. Some people are leaving abusive situations, others are fleeing hostile ones — or unable to do either. But not all divorces are contentious. Not all divorces happen because people stop loving each other. Sometimes, a divorce happens because two people love each other. Mine is an example of that. We never needed a courtroom for that to be true.
The next morning, my husband came by to drop off the kids. He brought me a card. “We did it!” the inside read. “Love, your EX-husband.”
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