COVID-19 has 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, according to Statistics Canada data.
“In the midst of a disaster, people tend to put important decisions on hold because they have other things to worry about,” said Matthew Johnson, associate professor of family science at the University of Alberta.
“When [the pandemic] started first, 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 weddings, another major life decision. Provincial data shows that there were 14,274 marriages in Alberta in 2020, down nearly 3,850 from 2019.
Johnson expects the number of divorces to rise as the world returns to normal.
Being in such close proximity for so long likely highlighted aspects of the couples’ relationships that they may have been unaware of before the pandemic, he said.
“Some of these couples who cross over to the other side of COVID are going to face reality and say, ‘Yeah, it’s time to stop here.'”
Lidia Handous, a family law attorney with Chadi & Company in Edmonton, sees this happening in her practice now.
In 2020, she was still taking as many divorce calls as usual, she recalls, but fewer clients couldn’t — or didn’t choose — to continue the process.
“The pandemic itself had left many people in dire financial straits, so they had to think twice about whether they had the resources and the financial capacity to move forward,” Handous said.
Divorce proceedings can be expensive, especially if there’s child or spousal support or disputes over major assets like a home, she said.
Some couples found themselves halfway through divorce proceedings, then decided to try to make it work — and so far, she added.
But with Alberta opening in 2022, Handous is seeing a return of clients who have put proceedings on hold, sometimes because a drop in revenue has left them unable to afford a down payment.
“We’re seeing it picking up. People are back to work. People can afford to move their business forward again,” Handous said. “On that side, it has improved a bit insofar as people are not blocked.”
Longer-Lasting Marriages: Data
Alberta saw a record divorce rate — 7.1% — in 2020, the data shows.
This is still above the national average. But the province’s divorce rate has declined, with some fluctuation, since Statistics Canada began recording the measure in 1991.
And marriages that end in divorce last 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 married at 24 and divorced at 34.
In 2020, however, the average marriage lasted 14.6 years. The average Albertan got married at around 30 and divorced at 44.
“There’s a whole bunch of societal factors that contributed to that,” Johnson said.
Forty years ago, marriage was considered the only acceptable way to have a committed relationship in which you could raise children, but that is no longer the case, he said.
People are also waiting longer to get married now for reasons ranging from finishing school to securing a career, Johnson said.
Historically, people with higher education and higher socioeconomic status have had longer marriages and that trend is more represented now, he said.
Alternatively, people who are reluctant to marry — those who may have already done so due to “fewer societal options” — are simply abstaining, he said.