divorce in the Philippines

[REFLECTION] Why breaking up is so very hard to do

Melba Padilla Maggay

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[REFLECTION] Why breaking up is so very hard to do
‘Marriage has in it an element of mystery that is beyond the compelling pull of security or urgent sex or concern for face-saving in society’

The saying is hard, especially in these times when we all seem to lack the character to keep our promises: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder…” 

The intransigence of our Lord’s words about divorce is hard to hear when your husband beats you or you have a nagging wife who literally sends you up the rooftop. There are situations where, because of our “hardness of heart,” as Jesus said, Moses allowed divorce. People hit the ceiling and go out the door, never to come back.

I have friends around me who have done precisely just that – pack their bags, and not without wrenching grief and inconsolable sadness. Breaking up is so very hard to do, as the song says. It scars, scatters your life to pieces, robs you of hearth and home, and sends you away on a cold lonely night to tear your heart out and cry a river on a strange empty bed with no one on the pillow next to you. It is an experience no one plans to go through, certainly not on that clear day when you thought you could see forever holding that radiant woman or this resplendent man by your side till death do you part. 

But it does happen, and it happens to even the best people and some of the best Christians that I know. It is a mystery why some bad people with bad marriages go on and on, while some really good folk get done in by some subtle virus in the system that soon grows into a canker and poisons both of them. People who fail in their marriages are not necessarily failures in other ways.

Besides, there is so much going against marriage as an institution these days that it is a wonder most marriages still happen and survive. A sociologist says that in the old rural societies it was very economic for a farmer to have a wife and many children. We still see this in our barrios, where the wife and the children all work as free labor in the farm. 

In modern urban societies, a man who takes a wife takes on the worry of additional expenses, while a single woman with education and a good job has no economic reason to bind herself in marriage as was the case just a century ago. In those days a Victorian woman without means ends up like the French Lieutenant’s woman, or, if your family does have means, they would want to keep it or have some more money by marrying you off to an unwanted suitor. You have no choice but to take him on, or else, like Maria Clara, you flee and seek refuge in the nunnery.

As a woman in our time I am thankful there is not just the same push to take the plunge, except for when there is a rush of hormones and we all get hot and starstruck. But in societies where marriage is no longer mixed up with religion, there is no great reason to get married even for that. You just go and shack up, and anyway, studies show that intense romantic feeling cools down in the first two years of marriage. The instinct of our forefathers is right: you don’t get married just for “love,” but for security and family continuity and the stability of society. 

This unromantic view of marriage somehow takes the pressure off. There’s no need to feel great and good about your marriage to stay in it. I suppose this may be the reason why the wives of the previous generation managed to endure the querida system. After all, when all the straying is done and the heat of illicit affairs is gone, the husband goes home to his wife. The family is preserved and society is served, although not without great private pain. A study once showed that there was a high incidence of frigidity among Filipino wives who suffered in this way.

In our day, two great forces seem to have opened the floodgates. One is legal – the Family Code, which allows a strange thing called “civil annulment,” and now the proposed absolute divorce bill in Congress. The other force is social – the mass exodus of workers overseas which has led to one-parent or no-parent families.

Being a Catholic country, many do not want a divorce. But we can have a de facto one. We can declare the other party psychologically incapacitated, and get a ruling that the marriage was somehow fictional and never really real, allowing us to marry again. This legal sanction now allows so many who have separated and are in live-in arrangements to legitimize their partnerships, as with so many celebrities who have become “born again” and wish to correct the scandal of cohabiting. 

The downside is that our generation seems to have far less willingness to endure a marriage where things have gone awry than the previous one. Now that the door is opening, we just want out. The number of friends around me who have taken this option make me feel there is something to be said about a conservative legal climate. At least, there is more pressure to work things out. 

The phenomenon of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) has had the unintended consequence of marriages breaking apart. Long separations make couples strangers to one another, with not much to say to each other. The lonely nights make them seek the solace of someone else’s arms, and, in the case of many seamen, contract AIDS at some port, infecting their wives when they come home. Statistics show that AIDS incidence can be found much more among overseas workers than among prostitutes and other such sex traders. The fallout on the Filipino family has been horrendous. Children grow up aimless, and suffer the most when their parents’ marriages break down.

Simply from a sociological point of view, divorce is no good. The real threat to family these days is not changing concepts of marriage, as with the late Cardinal Jaime Sin’s fear that it would degenerate into a man and another man living together with a dog and calling it a family. We have not yet hit rock bottom so as to unthinkingly follow America’s dubious experiments in alternative lifestyles. The clear and present danger is the breakdown of so many marriages, and the dysfunction of children growing up in such families.

What are we saying here? That divorce cannot be countenanced at all cost? Not at all. Moses allowed divorce precisely because, this side of Eden, we all make mistakes and some of them could be very tragic. “Sapagkat kami ay tao lamang,” as the song of a movie would say. God knows our frame, we are told; he is not unacquainted with the grief that comes to us because we are people who fail in our relationships. The Gospel is all about restoring people and being able to start again. Divorce and the possibility of remarriage seems to me of a piece with the grace that seeks to cover all our sin so that we may find our way to life again.

At the same time, the force of Jesus’ sayings on the subject seems to be that this is not at all what God intended. Marriage has in it an element of mystery that is beyond the compelling pull of security or urgent sex or concern for face-saving in society. Marriage is really made in heaven, as they say. This is why some marriages feel like heaven and are able to survive the doldrums and the onslaught of middle age, that dangerous time when things have so settled that you want a change of career and even of husband or wife. Marriage, biblically speaking, is meant to be forever.

There are times, of course, when marriage just does not seem to be worth the price of hanging on. Especially in those cases where women suffer horrific violence from their husbands. And the children watching such domestic horrors would rather see their parents part ways.

In those times the only thing that will keep the marriage is, really and simply, the fact that promises were made by both parties. And those vows were made in the sight of God and all the people. 

Duty is never pleasant, and faithfulness is often a bore, but the world is a more secure place precisely because there are people who keep their word and stand by their promises no matter what. As the poet Robert Frost once put it, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep…” – Rappler.com

Melba Padilla Maggay is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

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