The sanctity of divorce

Kristine Sydney
'At first blush, “sanctity” is an inspiring word but, when it comes to effecting change, it slows it to a glacial pace'

Every time I heard “sanctity” used  to describe sex, I wondered whether the anti-RH Bill supporters were having the same kind I was having.  While sex can elicit an “oh my God,” using “holy” in fighting the Reproductive Health bill was manipulative. Anti-RH Bill supporters argued that sex should only happen between married couples who want to populate the country. (READ: Will PH have a divorce law?)

They conveniently ignored that, as of June 2014, the Philippines has the highest teenage pregnancy rates among ASEAN nations or that baby-making is only one of a thousand reasons people have sex – garden-variety desire is profane but as valid. Those unaffected by the RH bill could afford to buy contraception. Most affected, as usual, are the poor. (READ: Divorce: Yes, we need to talk about it

 At first blush, “sanctity” is an inspiring word but when it comes to effecting change, it slows it to a glacial pace. Sanctity should be heard echoing in a church, not Congress. Despite all statistics that supported the necessity of sex education classes and contraceptives, conservatives and the Catholic Bishops Conference (CBC) fought it for 15 years. 

Now replace “RH bill” with “divorce” and it’s déjà vu, round 2: Divorce Law. The reasoning is the same, the vocabulary only slightly different, and that word “sanctity” rears its misused head.

As with the RH Bill, the reasons for legalizing divorce are diverse and urgent, and they’ve been discussed on many platforms. With the overwhelming number of couples separated by jobs abroad, the Philippines has had to redefine what marriage means.

Affairs and second families are such a prevalent part of our culture that we have voted public officials into the highest levels of government, without faulting them for their choices. (We do, however, write stories that shame female actresses who check into hotels with their boyfriends.)

As the nightly news and statistics show, spousal abuse exists, as do dishonest husbands and wives. In the Philippines where culture pressures people to marry, there are cases, unsurprisingly, of people who realize they’re neither happy nor healthy in their marriage.

Annulments are prohibitively expensive, making them inaccessible to the poor and unattractive to the middle class. Marriages in the Philippines succeed but they also fail, with our own politicians and celebrities proving the latter. However, a well-heeled couple can apply for an an annulment or legal separation, if they can prove bigamy and psychological incapacitation (i.e. crazy), among other reasons.

Again, as with the RH Bill, numbers prove that the divorce bill can improve Filipinos’ lives: It will make the process 30-40% less expensive than legal separation or annulment. More than 60% of those who apply for annulment are women. It will make divorce available to all Filipinos, not only Muslims.

Anti-divorce law advocates are quick to use children as the ultimate shield in their argument against divorce. While it is true that there are kids who wish their parents were together, others want the opposite.

One friend said: “I wish my parents got divorced earlier, before their fights got ugly and made our family feel so broken. I wish they had a more amicable divorce so I could have known them as happy people.” All studies show that children and adults, regardless of age, race, or income, are, on average, healthier and more well-adjusted when they’re raised with happy couples rather than unhappy ones.

While research shows that people who are happily married live longer, the same studies show a correlation between chronic illness and unhappy unions.

Yet, many Filipino citizens and a disappointing number of lawmakers continue to live in a Nicholas Sparks novel where married couples grow old together while the sun sets behind them. The protagonists’ fights are charming; money, a non-issue; and the children, shiny. The couples have sex in the middle of a rainstorm and their hair still looks incredible the morning after.

And if their marriages fail? You’re immature, according to the CBCP, which asserts: “A failed marriage is not an argument for divorce. It is rather proof of the necessity that only mature people enter into it.” It’s a condescending blanket statement about people who enter into the institution and decide they want out.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, head of the CBCP, describes divorce advocates and seekers as if they are delusional: “The supposed suffering that a spouse must bear owing to a failed marriage is more imagined than real, and comes only upon one who does not make use of the remedies already available under existing law.”

The remedies he’s referring to are working through it and, if that fails, applying for annulment or legal separation.

Why are policies about marriage and sex informed by the CBCP for whom they are only abstractions? While I understand that it’s their job to give spiritual counsel, their voices should not be as  influential as they are in shaping the law.

Those who fight divorce law like to fudge facts. An example is Bishop Teodoro C. Bacani Jr who said, “There is also damage to the children – studies have shown in general that they fare worst in life, in their studies and relationships.” They also cite histrionic Hollywood examples and filtered paperback fantasies to support their beliefs. 

The moment the D-word comes up, the phrase “sanctity of marriage” inevitably follows. Those with this limited view of marriage have an even more myopic view of divorce, with our own president and congressmen and women alluding to Hollywood celebrities (e.g. Britney Spears, Elizabeth Taylor) in their arguments.

Netizens are even grosser with their language, comparing advocating divorce to switching partners as if changing underwear. A Filipino friend, who is miserable in his marriage, says, “You don’t spit it out just because it scalds your tongue.” Suddenly, one’s partner is compared to crusty underpants and fiery food.

“Divorce cheapens marriage,” cry others. The financial metaphor is ironic, considering that the only people who can afford to end a marriage are the privileged or the lucky, who find themselves a pro bono lawyer.

My grandmother, who still mourns Sharon Cuneta and Gabby Concepcion’s break-up, told me when I was 20 years old to marry a Filipino because “a Filipino can’t leave you.” Having seen David Hasselhoff kiss different women on TV, she believes that divorce legalizes the marital version of musical chairs.

She is on the same page as Senator Tito Sotto and Senator Serge Osmena, whose views on divorce are so solipsistic and self-centered, they mention their wives in their arguments. Senator Bongbong Marcos said that he has no reason to support the bill because “I love my wife. I do not want to divorce her.” Their soundbites sound like Hallmark greeting cards gone awry. (READ: Most Senate bets vs divorce

Their comments illustrate their ignorance about American divorce laws, the proposed Filipino divorce bill, and the challenges of going through one. They also illustrate a lack of empathy, with the commentators unable (or unwilling) to imagine a marriage unlike theirs. I would not care about their Pollyanna statements, if not for the fact that they shape policy.

Divorce is rarely easy for anyone and everyone is changed by it. While there are some hasty divorces out there, they are an anomaly. Part of the anti-divorce law reverie includes imagining all divorced couples as selfish, amoral, and miserable. Doing so strengthens their case.

Happiness, they suggest, should be available only to those who stick with the institution of marriage, till death do them part, regardless of the situation. “You’ve made your [marital] bed,” they seem to say. “Now lie in it and call it ‘marriage,’ even if there’s no love, no safety or trust, and, in some cases, no partner.”

There are many stories about couples (my own friends and extended family’s included) who ended their first marriage and continued onto happier lives with well-adjusted children. Many friends and my husband are children from second marriages. But the CBCP and the anti-divorce law supporters like to discount these narratives. They make barring divorce sound like protection from broken families and what Mary Poppins calls “pie-crust promises, easily made, easily broken.”

Divorce does not push people into capricious marriages any more than wearing a seatbelt encourages speeding.

A Filipino Catholic married to an American, I am thrilled the divorce law is back on the Filipino discussion table. My supporting it says nothing about the status of my own relationship. To advocate for divorce law is to give other Filipinos opportunities to pursue their own freedom, their happiness.

I know from experience.

My husband had been married before, and that knowledge didn’t stop me from falling in mad, mad love with his kind eyes and his robust laughter. If not for divorce, we would have never met and he would not exist. We meant it with every cell in our bodies when we promised to be together till the end. I took his name. We have a joint bank account and the same health insurance plan and we’re planning for our future family. Every decision we make is setting us up for our permanent life together.

At our wedding, we were surrounded by loved ones who had been married for decades and then there were others whose faces lit up in the company of their second wives or husbands, their live-in partners, and their longtime girlfriends and boyfriends.  

My American friends’ and sisters’ wedding vows were also as heartfelt as any Filipino’s. My husband, who makes my heart flutter, is my best friend and partner rolled into one, and I plan on going to Tuesday-night movies with him for the rest of my days. I have an emergency contact. I get to make out with him!

Sometimes when I’m feeling malambing (affectionate), I’ll say, “Hey, love, thanks for marrying me.”

But what I really mean is this: thank you for choosing me.

And I choose him back, every day, because he is, as poet Robert Creeley writes, “my mind made particular, my heart in its place.” I choose him because I want to, not because the law and the Church force me to stay.  I do not think a marriage license or contract is sacred but free will and love are.

I am grateful for him and our life together and I am sure that we’ll be together for the long haul, even though divorce is legal here.

It is necessary. Divorce protects the safety and dignity of people who enter into marriage. If marriage is the home a couple builds together, divorce is not its front door but its fire escape. They might never use it, might never even think about it, but their house is safer and more secure knowing it is there. – 

Kristine Sydney is a private high school English teacher in the United States, where she has lived for 20 years. Born in the Philippines and raised in Saudi Arabia, she attended boarding school and college in the US, where she practiced her Tagalog by reading Liwayway. She writes about immigration, Air Supply adoration, and her intercultural relationship on her blog Follow her on Twitter @kosheradobo.

Read previous articles from this author
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I learned to be a woman when I was 5
Krisel’s speech must disturb the peace 
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Taking off my shoes: ‘How clean is the dirt in America?’ 
• Pacquiao ‘insult’ a cultural misunderstanding
• How asking ‘Are you Filipino?’ can save a life
• Our interracial and interfaith marriage: Yes, color matters

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