I read with interest the other day the news that the government in the Philippines is moving closer to legalising divorce, after its lower house of Congress passed a bill that would allow it. There is still a long way to go though, as the bill must pass through the Senate, and even then it could be vetoed by the President (this is just the latest in a number of attempts to pass a divorce bill in the Philippines). Still, it is an interesting development, and if the bill does become law it will leave Vatican City as the only state in the world that does not allow divorce.
All of this got me thinking: what would the world look like without divorce? It is obviously a very basic (and entirely hypothetical) question, but I believe it is useful to go back to basics once in a while. After all, helping people get divorced is what divorce lawyers do, and in the forest of law, rules, documents and court hearings it is very easy to lose sight of exactly what we are trying to achieve, and why.
To answer the question, I think we have to look at the arguments put forward by those who oppose the legalisation of divorce in the Philippines. The news story that I read mentioned two.
The first argument was that legalising divorce would undermine the sanctity of marriage. Now, ‘sanctity’ has two definitions: the quality of being holy, and ‘ultimate importance and inviolability’. I’m not qualified to discuss the former (although obviously it is of no importance to those of no faith), but as far as the latter is concerned, the argument seems to simply be: “divorce shouldn’t be allowed because marriage is important, and should therefore never be ended” (except by annulment, which is allowed in the Philippines).
Well, I’m sure most people would agree that marriage is important, but does divorce actually reduce its importance? I’m not certain that it does. Surely, most couples entering into marriage take their vows seriously, irrespective of whether or not the possibility exists for the marriage to be terminated before one of them dies? And after they take those vows they remain committed to them, unless the marriage breaks down.
And that is the point. Even with the best intentions, marriages do break down. There is nothing that the law can do about that. The fact that there is no divorce law in a country does not prevent marriages from breaking down in that country.
And when they do break down, what should we do? Nothing? Do we really want to force people to remain in unhappy marriages? Is that a good thing? I’m sure most people would recognise that it is not. No one benefits from the prolongation of an unhappy marriage.
And that brings me to the other argument put forward against the legalisation of divorce in the Philippines: that divorce would cause problems for the children of divorced couples. Unfortunately, this argument misses the point on causation. It is not the divorce that causes problems for the children, but the breakdown of their parents’ relationship. Divorce (and the ancillary rules relating to arrangements for any children) is simply a way to make the best out of a bad thing.
The alternative, of course, would be to force the children to spend the rest of their childhood trapped in an unhappy family, most likely still in the same household, with warring parents. That is obviously far more damaging than their parents splitting up. In fact, the truth of the matter is the opposite of that argued: divorce is actually beneficial to children.
And there is another point in favour of divorce (for some, at least), which goes back really to the first argument. If divorce is outlawed then inevitably couples would have to think far more carefully before entering into marriage, in the knowledge that it is the only ‘chance’ they get. The likely effect of this, without the encouragement of religion to marry, would be a substantial decrease in the number of couples getting married, and a corresponding increase in the number simply cohabiting. Now, personally I don’t think that more people cohabiting is necessarily a bad thing, but obviously the proponents of marriage would think otherwise, so that the lack of a divorce law might actually work against their beliefs.
In short, a world without divorce would be very different from the world enjoyed by most of its population. It would be significantly unhappier, both for those in broken marriages and, more importantly, for the children of those marriages.
To finish on a lighter note (and to cover a point that may have occurred to some of those readers less well disposed to the legal profession), no divorce would of course mean no divorce lawyers! Your view on whether this is a good thing may depend upon your experience of divorce lawyers – if you have, or have had, a good one, then you may think them an excellent thing!
Image by Rusty Ray via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence