Home Opinion Op-Ed Columns On divorce in PH: I do; do I?

On divorce in PH: I do; do I?


THINGS are rarely ever about what they purport to be; they are usually about their opposite.

Last Tuesday, the Senate, in rather historic deliberations, lent its ear to three bills on absolute divorce: Senate Bill (SB) 67, on recognizing the foreign decree of termination of marriage; SBs 288 and 356, on instituting absolute divorce and dissolution of marriage; and SB 504, on recognizing the civil effects of the Church annulment decree. All three vary in nuance, with 288 and 356 introducing physical violence, abusive conduct, drug and alcohol addiction, gambling, homosexuality, bigamy, and infidelity as grounds, but they all converge in their desire to, in the words of Sen. Risa Hontiveros, provide another lease to “Filipinos who want second chances in love, to rebuild their families and start all over again.”

As it stands, the Philippines is the only United Nations member state, other than the Vatican, where divorce remains forbidden. We are staunchly Catholic that way.

Annulment exists here as the only legal avenue for the dissolution of marriage, as it does in the Vatican, by decree of His Holiness. It requires, however, rather draconian grounds of proven psychological incapacity and inability to bear children. And even then, it is trying. Indeed, we are still a few stone-throws away from the no-fault divorce of “irreconcilable differences,” whose first legal iteration can be found in Frederick the Great’s 1757 Prussian edicts.

Critics, of course, cavil about the caustic impact of such moves on the moral character of the nation, supposedly corroding the sanctity of marriage and imparting the message to the citizenry, and especially to our youth, that commitments can easily be undone and fled from. This is the bromide Benjamin Barber thesis of traditionalism and theocratic law losing sway on the altar of crude modernity.

But, let us focus less on what a divorce decree does — namely, permit the dissolution of an ailing marriage — and rather on what it causes to be done.

To lawyers and economists alike, divorce spells money. For the former, legal and consultation fees alone make the divorce industry a lucrative one. In the United States, for instance, the annual divorce industry is worth a whopping $50 billion, compared to the mere $2-billion bridal industry. It is a profitable racket. For the latter, as these figures suggest, this means more money pumped through the economy every year. This also means the break-up of estates, less savings for divorcing couples who must split their assets, and more spending for the Keynesian economy. Two separate households, competing, often materially, for custody of children spend more than one single household whose objective is to save. In pesos and centavos, divorces are a win for the economy — albeit a rather callous and crude one.

The economy aside, though, what the introduction of divorce does is make marriage more accessible by, to use the language of economists, lowering its barriers of entry. Whereas before, entering into marriage meant forgoing the possibility of an alternative future — in other words, an exorbitant opportunity cost — with the possibility of divorce, the opportunity cost becomes a lot cheaper. In other words, one is not necessarily beholden into eternity unto one’s partner should things not work out. For the timid, unwilling to marry “just yet” for fear of becoming tied to someone who may transmogrify, this is incentive to marry: “forever” is no longer compounded into the cost of marriage. In the language of economics, marriage becomes “cheaper” and “more affordable.”

No longer fearful of being stuck with a partner for whom affection may wane, citizens would be more willing to enter into marriage. In other words, a divorce law, I surmise, will spark a rise in the number of marriages. This is positive externality. Let me tell you why.

Habits are formed in the home. Marriage is not just about love or religion; it is a socialization process. Learning to live with someone’s idiosyncrasies, one’s difficult turns of mood, and building a life with someone are one of the most adult exigencies of life. A man or woman who has never been married is plagued by an adolescence cured only by the responsibilities of marriage. Living together — in “sin” for the Catholic lobby against divorce, I might add — does not suffice in teaching a man or a woman the responsibilities of adulthood called for by marriage; it is simply playing house. It is for this that divorce could be salutary for the habits of a nation for it encourages entering into marriage, thereby elevating the maturity level of, and further socializing, citizens into adulthood.

The Philippines is odd in that households tend towards numbers. It is not strange to find extended families and friends living under the same roof. It is expensive to live alone. This keeps citizens in a suspended state of infantilization for it demands less of citizens to balance budgets and rely on one’s self to survive. Once married, though, the expectation is that the couple would break away, bukod, and begin a life of wedded bliss. This teaches the married couple skills of adulthood. With an incentive to enter into marriage, this would galvanize more couples to break away into their own households, boosting the economy by diminishing the number of freeloader citizens, reliant on the kindness of their parents or relatives.

Moreover, with the possibility of divorce, there is more of an incentive for each partner to build a career on which they could fall back should the marriage not work out. Whereas before, husbands or wives could sit idle, ever reliant on the income of the hardworking or landed spouse, with the knowledge that the latter would forever be obliged to pay for the former’s upkeep, with divorce, splitting of assets can now be dependent upon a prenuptial agreement, or contribution to wealth. In other words, neither party can indolently sit on their laurels; they must necessarily make something of themselves.

Most importantly, because men are first shaped in the household by their parents, allowing for the possibility of divorce in fact provides better models of domestic life. So many children in the Philippines, because of the impossibility of divorce, grow up in estranged households — often with full knowledge that their parents no longer get along and sometimes even stray. Marital happiness is not always expected. This impacts their views and expectations when they pursue romantic relationships in their own lives. Rather than distort expectations of unhappiness in marriages that no longer work, the possibility of divorce teaches children that there is the possibility of good marriages out there; dysfunction is not a given.

Lastly, there is nothing more central to the smooth functioning of society than Man’s perception of his own liberty — so much so that happiness is now an economic indicator on which to measure countries. Whether or not he is free is a story for a different day, but whether or not he feels himself to be free will determine how stable the political processes of society will be. Without divorce, marriages are less off for they lead to what Tocqueville called “truant freedom” — a futile exercise of obstinacy for the simple expression of agency and of freedom. In other words, Man will stray if only to prove to himself that he is still free. With the possibility of divorce—exercised or not—this becomes less needed. He feels himself to be free.

The fact is that allowing divorce is less about ending marriages themselves than encouraging citizens to aspire towards better models of marriage and happiness, and incentivizing Filipinos to enter into the very contract of matrimony. Nothing teaches adulthood quite like marriage; it is the ultimate social contract one enters out of one’s own volition. If we scare citizens off from marriage by expecting them to be forever committed to mistakes they make, we will never raise a mature populace.

For those who argue that annulment can achieve the same ends, annulment, alas, sends the wrong message. Where a divorce respects the sanctity of the union as though it happened but did not work out, an annulment asserts that the marriage never happened. A divorce chronicles a life lived together; an annulment negates it. A divorce, in fact, honors a marriage with ceremony to dissolve it. An annulment, alas, erases a marriage. This waxes poetic here, but it makes a difference — just ask any married folk.

As for the “ease” of crumbling marriages induced by legislation, this is never what deters the possibility of divorce. Nor is it what ushers in looser morals. In Islamic jurisprudence, divorce is the easiest: a Muslim party need only utter “I divorce you” three times consecutively in Arabic (talaq, talaq, talaq) for the marriage to be repudiated. And Islamic societies are the ultimate in theocracy and in conservatism. And yet their societies or their morals have not crumbled as a result.

Anyone who has been married and divorced will tell you that the possibility to divorce was not the largest impediment to ending the marriage; extricating one’s life from another’s is. Divorce papers require only a signature or papers to be served. A law facilitating divorce does not necessarily facilitate its occurrence. In fact, according to a US study, “in the years since no-fault divorce became well-nigh universal [in the United States], the national divorce rate has fallen, from about 23 divorces per 1,000 married couples in 1979 to under 17 per 1,000 in 2005.” Nay, possibility may open an alternative avenue but does not assure that cars will drive there.

A divorce law, alas, is not about effecting divorces, it is about spurring marriages—and good ones, at that. The very social contract of law is not about what it forbids or permits; it is about the relationship it creates between man and his fellow man.

Permitting divorce provides a new lease on life; it does not mean everyone will take it. More importantly, permitting divorce encourages a kind of maturity for citizens to step up to the plate of marriage and bat a swing at adulthood.

Critics may claim that the possibility of divorce will result in man further disconnected from the social networks of family, without a language for loyalty. But, alas, a man who has been divorced is a man who has tried many times to make something work. It is not lack of loyalty he has, but rather a sobered view of life. After having been socialized into marriage, he is, finally, an adult. And it always behooves better for us to have more adults in the room.

Nay, divorce is not about undoing marriages and “I Dos;” it is about encouraging more marriages to be done.

The author is an economist who holds master’s degrees in government and international history from the London School of Economics, and a bachelor’s degree in international politics from Georgetown University. She has trained at Harvard University on International Education and Admissions.

Follow her on Twitter (@kq_avisrara).

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