STUDY: The myth of Philippine marriage and divorce

Claire Dangalan delves deep into the issues surrounding Philippine marriage laws

No one who voluntarily enters into marriage agrees to the union with the thought of separation or divorce in mind.

No, never. Quite the opposite, in fact.

To those who marry freely, out of their own accord, marriage holds a promise of lifelong bliss.

In effect, marriage means one has a companion for life – to share all that is pleasant and unpleasant, to be a constant lover, friend, guide and protector – someone who not only professes to love you but also respects you and trusts you to do the same; someone who will stand by you in happiness, and through the most trying times; someone you can learn something from, and someone who can learn from you as well. Someone who makes life more than tolerable; someone who manages to make things seem easy even when life is at its hardest; someone who will understand you even when you cannot understand yourself.

Benjamin Franklin said this about marriage: “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half-shut afterwards.”

But no matter how wide open our eyes may seem at the start, some of us realize a little too late that the wide open eyes were staring blindly into a space where infinite changes could take place in a span of a year or two, or even after decades of togetherness.

Change, they say, is the only constant in this world.

In a marriage, change can actually challenge and strengthen the relationship, but it can also spell doom. Well, it all depends on the change(s) of course.

Selina’s case

Let’s call her Selina, age 45, working as an administrative officer in the UAE. She got married quite young, and ended up informally separating from her husband in 1996 after only five years of living together.

In retrospect, she describes him, thus, “He was irresponsible and incapable of being a father to our daughter… not having a regular job. Plus, he had illicit relationships with different women. The whole time we were together was spent on me trying to save our marriage. Then I finally mustered the courage to ask him to leave us (we lived at my parents’ house). A few weeks later, he tried to win us back, but my decision was final. That same year (1996), my father and my siblings brought me to the UAE for me to get away from it all, and to lose myself in work.”

Selina only saw her estranged husband again when he requested that they meet and talk about his responsibilities towards their daughter. She agreed to meet him but only at the Barangay Office (a local government unit), where he promised to provide their child a monthly allowance although Selina did not demand anything from him, content with her new life alone, “From the day he walked out of our house, life became quiet, happy and satisfying regardless of what arrangement, discussion or agreement we had inside the Barangay Hall.”

True to form, her estranged husband was unable to fulfill the obligations he sought to put upon himself as father to their daughter. Selina was not disappointed since she stopped expecting anything from him a long time ago. She also found out he got one of the women he was involved with pregnant while the woman’s husband was overseas. But Selina never bothered to cause a stir, “During our marriage until we got separated, I always managed to stay civil. That instance I came to know that he had impregnated one lady, I still did not make any scene like rushing to attack the woman, nor did I take any action against her because I knew that, in the end, it would not have made sense for me to feed my anger and resentment by getting revenge.”

As for their daughter, Selina says it was really challenging explaining to their then-5-year-old daughter that her father had to go, “The year he left was also the same year when I went to work abroad. I didn’t see her growing, but my frequent communication with her made us feel close to each other. Whatever physical contact we lacked was (hopefully) compensated by the loving and nurturing home my parents provided for her. Though, of course, adults can be mean and she had been subject to teasing… she also wondered why her father never attended PTA meetings the way her classmates’ dads did. But I am very blessed to have a daughter who is intelligent and understanding. As a parent, one simply has to be patient and honest in explaining why both parents aren’t there. Children are smarter than we think – continuing to live with her father with the state our marriage was in would have damaged her more emotionally, and would have given her a false idea of what a marriage should be.”

“From the day he walked out of our house, life became quiet, happy and satisfying regardless of what arrangement, discussion or agreement we had inside the Barangay Hall.”

Fast forward, 21 years later, Selina is still legally married to her estranged husband. She says that she hopes to someday formally gain her freedom so she will be free to marry when Mr. Right comes.

“I come from a God-fearing and value-oriented family. But I speak even for those who come from what we consider as ‘unsuccessful’ or broken families. None of us ever dreams of having a broken family. All of us hope and dream of having a happy, content, satisfied and perfect family. But if there is a serious lack of respect and genuine affection in a marriage causing one or both parties to hurt, or worse, to cause a loss of life, it is advisable to just end it by filing for annulment or divorce,” says Selina.

The only thing holding her back are the expenses associated with getting an annulment, “As an overseas Filipino worker (OFW), it is not easy for me to file for an annulment case. Even with my more than 20 years abroad and being separated, what I am earning is just enough to support my family and my needs. So spending more than PHP 100K to 200K (USD 2,000 to 4,000) is no small amount for me to pay for my ‘freedom’.”

Ben’s case

At age 47, Ben is already a highly successful engineer with his own business. His estranged wife is a civil servant working for the municipal government of a town in Luzon. They were married when he got her pregnant “by accident.” He was 22 and she was 26, they were in love anyway so they went ahead and got married.

The beginning was a truly challenging time for them since he had to spend for reviewing for the licensure examinations and she had to keep working while pregnant. They initially lived with her parents until he got his license and got employed at a local construction company.

They moved out of her parents’ house when their eldest was three years old. They lived in an apartment in the same barangay so her parents could still take care of their grandchild while Ben and his wife worked.

After eight years of marriage, they finally purchased their own house in the city, and had two more kids in quick succession. They could already afford a maid and a “yaya” (nanny), and they had a family car. They were already living the middle class suburban dream. Ben was already 30 by then, and his wife, 34.

“Something happened to me. I reached a point in my life when I realized I was living someone else’s dream. Call it selfish or immature, but that time of my life was when I finally realized what I really wanted. I wanted to start my own business but my wife discouraged me saying there were too many risks involved. I consulted friends in the business who supported me, so I went ahead with my plan anyway. It was tough in the beginning, I must admit… and I thought my wife was right. I started coming home late because I had to work extra to fill in labor gaps as a startup. My wife became irritable and impatient, and said I was unable to fulfill my duties as a father and husband. It was true, but her saying it made me angry and frustrated,” recalls Ben.

This started the downward spiral in their marriage. “This went on for a year or so… I was happiest only when I was among friends though I never shared my personal troubles with any of them. But then, we had a college reunion, and we got together with our old schoolmates. At our reunion, I was reunited with an old school crush of mine who was a really witty and fun person. She didn’t change much, she was a single mom and I highly respected that, and we got to talking. She was aware I was married and she was always quick to point that out whenever I became a bit flirtatious. I didn’t do anything then, in fact, I became extra attentive to my wife afterwards,” says Ben.

But he already felt conflicted. His wife stayed the same, and remained a responsible homemaker while working as a civil servant. But Ben was no longer the same. His business finally took off after three years of ups and downs, but he didn’t feel fulfilled. He reached out to his old college crush. She was free, and he was not.

Wanting to set things right, Ben decided to make a clean break and talked to his wife. She didn’t take his declaration sitting down, and promised to make his life a living hell if he ever left her for another.

“She also threatened to go and tell my parents about my confession. She knew my mom and I were very close, and our family is rather old-fashioned, but I already told my parents. My parents were also angry and disappointed at first, especially my father, but having seen similar problems in his own side of the family, he relented. However, my parents advised me to at least try to work things out before taking drastic action, and I agreed,” says Ben.

Wanting to set things right, Ben decided to make a clean break and talked to his wife. She didn’t take his declaration sitting down, and promised to make his life a living hell if he ever left her for another.

He was prepared for his wife’s angry tirade, but he remained silent. “About two weeks later, she calmly sat me down and said we should go visit a marriage counselor, to which I agreed. We went and followed a program recommended for us… we even consulted our parish priest, but nothing worked. We would be fine for a few days, then it was either sullen silence or WW3 for both of us. She kept asking me for my college crush’s identity, she called my friends and checked my phones. But there was nothing she could do… I hadn’t done anything to feel guilty about, and I was sure of my feelings. When I saw my wife, it was like seeing an old friend that I had gotten estranged from through the years though we never spent more than a week apart throughout our marriage. In short, there was nothing left in me for my wife to grab hold onto. Not even her threats could derail my plans. After more than a year of trying to work our marriage out, I left. Now it has been almost twelve years, I only go to see my kids. I provide for them, sometimes they spend time with me, but my wife refuses to cooperate. She told me I will be free only when one of us dies. I have been living with my college crush for almost ten years, and we have one child together plus one of her own. We are like one happy family. My kids and ours are well-adjusted, and we’ve gone on family holidays together a couple of times. Sometimes I think that the only time I will be totally free is if my wife falls in love with someone who will love her the way she deserves to be loved. I also find myself wishing divorce would be available in our country so we can end our marriage on paper as well. Filing for annulment with her not being cooperative will surely be a long, tedious and expensive affair, and I have no wish to go through all that. And yes, I do love my ‘fiancée’ very much… she agreed to marry me two years ago, but I cannot even put a ring on her finger officially because of the mess we are still embroiled in.”

Elie’s case

What defines a marriage, is it really just a piece of paper that binds one to another? Does time matter, even if it is just a few months?

Elie’s case is unique in that she and her MIA husband, if one can still call him a husband, were married only for a few months when he decided to just get up, go out and leave her behind back in 2003, purportedly to go to the province. Afterwards, there was no talk, no explanation; for no apparent reason, he never came back nor attempted to speak to her again to give an explanation and details of his whereabouts.

Now, Elie, already 36, has since moved on with her long-time partner. She also heard from friends that her estranged husband is already with someone as well. Elie filed for annulment in February this year. Given a choice, Elie says she would rather file for divorce or a cheaper alternative like it if only it were available in the country since she knows how high the fees could get depending on how long the process takes.

The biggest disadvantage she has experienced in being in her type of situation is the “unfinished business,” that is, her early marriage, “I have been independent ever since, so it didn’t really affect me financially. But socially and emotionally, it was always hard to connect with other people knowing that I have an unresolved past.”

When asked about the possible root of her marriage ending abruptly, Elie says, “We were young when we got married, though it was not probably the biggest reason why the marriage failed… but we were not sure about our decision to get married right from the start.”

Joma’s parents’ case

A chef in a successful Japanese restaurant with four older siblings, Jose Marie grew up in a comfortable middle class home in a city in Southern Luzon. Their parents were college sweethearts who ended up marrying each other when they were both 25 years of age.

Both university professors, Joma’s parents engaged in lively intellectual debates in and out of school, and got along very well at home. Their children grew up in an ideal family setting where everything was provided for while teaching the kids independence as they were tasked to do household chores on schedule while growing up.

It was only during their parents’ 28th wedding anniversary when Joma, in particular, noticed that something was wrong. Both of their parents had already retired from the university scene by then though their father still gave occasional lectures while their mom continued to work as a private consultant for various research projects and business ventures.

By that time, two of Joma’s siblings were already married and staying in the US. Their parents had been to the US a couple of times by then, and were already in their early 50s.

It was nothing specific, but Joma noticed that something was off in the way they spoke to each other, “The warmth and spontaneity characteristic of the way they addressed one another was suddenly gone… and I told my older brothers and sisters about this when I had a chance to do so. They told me I was probably imagining things.”

His suspicions were confirmed, however, when their mom decided to travel to the US alone and stay there for an “indefinite period of time.” Joma, no longer able to contain himself, decided to talk to his father about it, “I asked him if something was wrong, if he and mom were going through a rough patch. He tried to evade answering my question at first, but seeing me, already an adult, confronting my suspicions head on, our dad finally told me the truth. He told me that he was embarrassed to say the things he was about to say, but that we would probably find out eventually. He told me that twenty years into their marriage, they stopped sleeping in bed together. No reason, they just stopped. They would sleep in the same bedroom, but he would lie in the couch (they had one in their bedroom), and she would sleep in bed. She didn’t ask him why and he didn’t ask her why she wasn’t curious. They left things as they were. Three years after that, our father started dating a colleague who was still single. Our mom found out but she didn’t react the way he thought she would. She calmly told him she already started corresponding with a childhood sweetheart in the US who was divorced and who had been trying to reach her years ago. So they carried on like this, agreeing that they would not let us know until it was absolutely necessary to do so. My asking him was that moment.”

Joma was twenty years of age when he found out, that was seven years ago. Their parents filed for annulment within the same year Joma and his brothers and sisters found out about their parents’ situation. Their father and his lady friend got married in 2014, a year after their mom married her childhood sweetheart in the US.

“My girlfriend now is my first girlfriend, and we have only been together for a few months. Marriage is something I don’t think about as yet, and it’s the same with her. I will probably start considering marriage in my early to mid-30s. She knows this, and she agrees. Sometimes we think we’re already mature, and we make decisions. Then something turns up and we realize, no, I wasn’t mature that time at all. I am only getting to know myself now… and getting to know oneself can take a lifetime especially if we don’t stay true to ourselves.”

“Father told us he did that out of respect and consideration for the woman who spent a good number of years as his devoted wife and mother to us, their kids; that is, to marry a year after mother got married,” says Joma.

When asked about why he felt the case of his parents should be mentioned in this article about the absence of divorce in the Philippines, Joma says, “I guess it’s because their life is a lesson for us all. I know people’s situations vary, but we can always learn from the experience of others. Had we known our parents were already unhappy together in that time leading up to their 40s, we would have just told them to split up. It was a good thing they fell in love with good people who had the maturity and patience to wait things out. Can you imagine if one of them died before ever getting to marry the person they loved in the end? It would have been tragic.”

Jomari’s attitude towards marriage is quite telling, “My girlfriend now is my first girlfriend, and we have only been together for a few months. Marriage is something I don’t think about as yet, and it’s the same with her. I will probably start considering marriage in my early to mid-30s. She knows this, and she agrees. Sometimes we think we’re already mature, and we make decisions. Then something turns up and we realize, no, I wasn’t mature that time at all. I am only getting to know myself now… and getting to know oneself can take a lifetime especially if we don’t stay true to ourselves.”

Anne’s case

A former college student of mine, Anne volunteered to participate in this project because she feels passionately about the need for divorce in the Philippines, or, at least, for a cheaper and more reasonable alternative to annulment.

I remember her ex-husband vaguely, though; they used to drop by our place once in a while when I was still teaching in Baguio City. They were college sweethearts, both smart, young and idealistic – at least, from my point of view.

Formerly a risk operations analyst at JP Morgan Chase & Co., Anne, 34, became estranged from her husband in 2008 when he became involved with another woman.

“Early on, our separation affected my daughter emotionally because she was already aware that she had a dad unlike our son who was only eight months old that time. When my daughter was three, she often looked for her father and became sad and seemed out of focus whenever she missed him. An adjustment we made was to not let her see or hear anything about her dad for some time. Our strategy worked somewhat so there were mostly good days when she no longer felt let-down. As for my son, at only a few months old, technically, he had not yet bonded with his dad the way his sister did. Still, the effect on him has been the opposite since whenever his father wants to talk to him, he seems not to care or disinterested, and he is not affectionate towards his father. I also noticed that he became aloof towards people in general and has a different approach to men which is, perhaps, attributable to the ‘quality’ of his relationship with his father. His knowing our family history may have led him to develop some sort of resentment towards other men. He is, however, very affectionate towards women like female relatives, e.g. aunts, and other females,” says Anne when asked to recount how their estrangement affected their two kids.

Like most women in similar situations, Anne did not demand any spousal or child support even when she is well aware of her rights as the legal wife. Instead, her estranged husband gives what he wishes to allocate for the kids leaving Anne to wonder what his financial capacity is as a provider. She has decided to just keep their relations civil for the sake of their children while at the same time building a new family with her partner with whom she also has kids.

Again, like individuals still trapped in the legal status of being married to an already estranged spouse, Anne says, “The bearing of the status ‘married’ with his family name is one of the most difficult things I have had to deal with especially regarding legal documents. Now that I have kids with my new partner, it’s a real hassle when it comes to filing paperwork, and I always end up with a lot of interviews / questions of the who and the when of my then-husband.”

Like most women in similar situations, Anne did not demand any spousal or child support even when she is well aware of her rights as the legal wife. Instead, her estranged husband gives what he wishes to allocate for the kids leaving Anne to wonder what his financial capacity is as a provider. She has decided to just keep their relations civil for the sake of their children while at the same time building a new family with her partner with whom she also has kids.

Difficulties aside, Anne has met her “husband’s” new partner just as he has met hers, “I have met his partner when they visited the country and took the kids on vacation. He has met my partner as well and met our kids, and even held them. I can actually see that he’s longing to have another child on his own with his new partner but I don’t know what’s holding him back. I’m just happy for him, that he has found someone who can stand his craziness and tantrums. We actually don’t care about who our partners are and we don’t discuss them much. But there are circumstances when we have to talk about them. But I don’t feel anything strange that would change what I’m feeling towards our current relationship as estranged husband and wife.”

Anne says the idea of them ever reconciling as husband and wife is now just an illusion since they have both changed immensely from the people they were before, “This is not a fantasy world or the typical love story which always has a happy ending… where two different worlds meet, and the couple beats the odds to be together… I was done with that a long time ago, and am now living in the real world. I have learned that leaving a relationship is tough and does not only happen because the couple are unable to deal with their situation. I think that all means to resolve conflicts inside the family must be exhausted until such a time comes when one has to accept that whatever one has done or is trying will never work… that’s the time to call the relationship off.”

Cause-oriented groups who support the introduction of divorce as an option for unsuccessful marriages say, as Anne also believes, that having divorce as a legal option will not cause people to view marriage in a less serious fashion, “I’m pretty sure that divorce will not be implemented without any guidelines that will serve as a strict basis on who qualifies to get it. Everything has its basis for termination, and those are not just petty ones as they would require the court’s involvement and will involve legal chaos which are not situations anyone in their right mind would want to go through just for the convenience of getting out of it (marriage).”

“If we had not separated, we must still be living a good and financially stable life… but living in a wonderful nightmare, nevertheless, where we are waiting to be awakened by someone else.”

Although she is still experiencing legal impediments and inconveniences in terms of being the other half of a dead relationship, Anne has no regrets, “Currently, I’m proud to say that it was also a good thing for us to have parted ways, not only for my own benefit but also for my kids. Having known my partner right now, we have been awakened from the illusion society has set upon us – the illusion of how families should work, how feudal traditional married life is, and how the dictates of society kill children’s power to reason, to contribute to change because of the things that are expected of them to do or be as children. If we had not separated, we must still be living a good and financially stable life… but living in a wonderful nightmare, nevertheless, where we are waiting to be awakened by someone else.”

Cecille’s case

Let’s establish this straightaway: Cecille is legally divorced… in Japan.

Currently establishing herself as a local artist and women’s rights advocate, Cecille worked as a singer / entertainer in Japan and eventually married a Japanese guy with whom she has two children.

What seemed to be a normal marriage turned into a nightmare when her husband began to physically abuse her, beating her senseless at times with a baseball bat. Convinced that he meant to kill her and that the abuse will go on, Cecille got state protection for herself and their children three months into the abuse, and finally got a divorce. The conundrum, in her case, is the lack of local judicial recognition and acceptance of her divorce in Japan.

Having left Japan and learning to be independent while raising their two kids only made Cecille stronger, “Financially, my ex-husband didn’t support us since our divorce in Japan, so I have learned to handle everything. Emotionally – I want to move on, and remarry but I cannot because I need to go through a process which again requires money, an expense I cannot afford since lawyer fees are high.”

And although Cecille’s case does not involve the need to have Philippine divorce per se, she says she feels trapped just like other women who continue to languish in the consequences of an abusive relationship, “I think the church and society should be open-minded and think about the consequences of forcing people to stay together in a fruitless relationship. Not all relationships last, for whatever reason, and not all marriages are bound with love. I want to help push for the implementation of a divorce law in the Philippines which is so necessary NOW! There are many women and children trapped in violent domestic relationships sometimes leading to death, or a lifetime of maladjustment and unhappiness. Women have the right to remarry, and their children with their new partner have the right to be declared ‘legitimate’.”

Once upon a time, there was Philippine divorce…

Mary Jude Cantorias, a prominent Filipino lawyer, in her “’I Dos and Don’ts’: Re-visiting the Proposal to Legalize Divorce in the Philippines” says, “Historical records show that long before the advent of Spanish colonial rule beginning in the early 16th century, absolute divorce had been widely practiced among Philippine ancestral tribes — the Tagbanwas of Palawan, the Gadang of Nueva Vizcaya, the Sagada and Igorot of the Cordilleras, the Manobo, Bila-an and Moslems of Visayas and Mindanao islands, to name a few. The 1977 Presidential Decree otherwise known as the Code of Muslim Personal Laws in the Philippines permits divorce in marriages where both spouses are Muslims or where only the male is Muslim but the marriage was solemnized in accordance with Muslim Law. Some indigenous people also practice divorce. Prior to the enactment of the New Civil Code of 1950, divorce was allowed in the Philippines during the Pre-Spanish, American and Japanese periods. Divorce was later prohibited both in the 1950 New Civil Code and in the 1988 Family Code, but attempts were subsequently made to legalize it. To this date, they remain to be attempts.”

The Philippines, considered the bastion of Christianity in Asia, is the only state in the world, other than the Vatican (a city state), which continues to resist all attempts at legalizing divorce – the keyword here being “legalizing” as Filipinos, male or female, moving on from their unsuccessful marriages, sometimes end up cohabiting and establishing a family with their new partners without the benefit of a proper divorce and a subsequent formal marriage.

This lack of formality, of course, has real-world consequences, i.e. a common law partner or live-in partner cannot inherit anything from their deceased partner even if their relationship lasted longer or was far happier than their legally solemnized previous unions; they cannot sign legal documents for or in behalf of their partner, even in life and death situations; their biological children with their partner will always be considered illegitimate, etc.

And while there is the so-called “separation between Church and State” expressly mentioned in the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines, i.e. “The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable. (Article II, Section 6), and, No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the veritable influence of Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic church, continues to be felt in how government officials and politicians conduct themselves, how Filipinos react to ethical dilemmas (e.g. death penalty, euthanasia, etc.), and how people choose to support (or not) certain causes and groups.

Some lawmakers, politicians, celebrities and government officials prefer to stay in the good graces of the Christian church they have closely allied themselves with as such connections come in handy when they decide to run for office, whether for a seat in their local barangay, or at the senate. Some politicians cite Christianity as a justification for whatever, while the same politicians sometimes make fun of the church and its officials when what they say goes against what he / she is a supporter of. Indeed, politics is all about blowing hot and cold, and the same can be said of other aspects of Filipino culture.

The Philippines: a study in contrasts

The proposed Philippine divorce law has been revisited a number of times, in fact, for over three decades now. The last three divorce bills brought forward in Congress namely House Bill Nos. 1799 (2010), 4408 (2014) and 2380 (2016) were all authored by Gabriela Women’s Party Representatives Luzviminda C. Ilagan and Emmi A. De Jesus.

In June 2016, Rep. Edcel C. Lagman of Albay introduced House Bill No. 116 on absolute divorce. Aside from including the grounds for legal separation, and annulment of marriage embodied in the Family Code of the Philippines as grounds for absolute divorce, House Bill No. 116 includes the following additional grounds for absolute divorce:

  • when either of the spouses secures (a) a valid foreign divorce;
  • canonical divorce;
  • gender reassignment surgery; and
  • when irreconcilable differences or conflicts exist between the married couple, which are beyond redemption despite earnest and repeated efforts at reconciliation

Church officials, as expected, continue to take a stand against the said bills citing the Biblical verse “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). Anti-divorce bill proponents also argue that making divorce easily available to Filipinos will lead to the breakdown of the family as an institution since couples will not try harder to make their marriage work, and marriage will be taken less seriously.

Such remarks appear to discount the fact that there remains a social stigma attached to being part of a “failed marriage,” to cohabiting (“living in sin”), and to illegitimate children (“bastards”), or to coming from a “broken home.”

And while anti-divorce supporters are quite vocal about their disapproval of divorce as a legal option for Filipinos in a “clinically dead” legal union, Philippine society, in general, has been quite mum about the querida system which survives to this day. In simple terms, and not to be confused with a girlfriend per se, the “querida” is the married man’s mistress or a “kept woman” whom he supports financially, and may even establish a second home with.

Politicians, celebrities and individuals who can afford to have a mistress have all “availed” of this practice, preferring to keep their marriage legally intact while keeping a women (or women) on the side, and sometimes even fathering children outside of marriage. The reasons behind this practice vary, i.e. for some, it helps keep their public reputation as a family man “intact,” it is socially convenient and somewhat acceptable (like an open secret), and it helps them avoid the messiness of going through a public “divorce” (and the financial consequences that follow).

For government officials engaged in extramarital affairs, there is always the fear that disclosure of their paramour’s identity and confirmation of the affair itself will lead to a loss of their public office or seat in the government, and to huge financial consequences depending on how difficult the aggrieved spouse intends to make the process of legal separation or annulment for the offending party.

One such example is the case of House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez who has publicly admitted to having a girlfriend, and to having fathered several children from various women out of wedlock after being put on the spot by Davao del Norte Rep. Antonio Floirendo Jr. whom Alvarez had filed a graft complaint against.

Alvarez can consider himself fortunate since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, already in a more-than-two-decades-long relationship with domestic partner Cielito Avanceña, rallied to his defense saying “all officials would stand to lose their posts if fidelity were a gauge for public service.” In this case, such an admission certainly makes a mockery of marriage where fidelity, loyalty, respect and trust are expected from both partners.

Republic Act No. 9262 or the “Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004” refers to violence against women (and their children) as “any act or a series of acts committed by any person against a woman who is his wife, former wife, or against a woman with whom the person has or had a sexual or dating relationship, or with whom he has a common child, or against her child whether legitimate or illegitimate, within or without the family abode, which result in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, psychological harm or suffering, or economic abuse.”

Supporters of the divorce bill, on the other hand, have presented the need to give women (and their children) trapped in abusive relationships relief from their deplorable situation by giving them the freedom to extricate themselves from the clutches of a marriage that can only be described as a “shell” – where only the paper or document she signed during the marriage ceremony is what binds her to the abuser.

Republic Act No. 9262 or the “Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004” refers to violence against women (and their children) as “any act or a series of acts committed by any person against a woman who is his wife, former wife, or against a woman with whom the person has or had a sexual or dating relationship, or with whom he has a common child, or against her child whether legitimate or illegitimate, within or without the family abode, which result in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, psychological harm or suffering, or economic abuse.”

In the article “Divorce a ‘quick fix’” by Tomas U. Santos published in The Varsitarian (2015), Archbishop Socrates Villegas, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), was quoted as saying, “The pending divorce bill (House Bill No. 4408) is a ‘quick fix’ to couples’ incompatibilities that would provide an option for married couples to take the easy way out and separate because of ‘whimsical’ grounds.” Villegas also said that Republic Act No. 9262 already in place makes the divorce law unnecessary in cases of abused wives and their children. The archbishop seemed to have forgotten that RA 9262 does not provide for any divorce option or an option to legally end the marriage of battered wives to their abuser.

“The Philippine National Statistics Office (NSO), through the 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), found that one in seven married women experienced physical violence from their husbands. They also experienced other forms of abuse including sexual, emotional, and economic violence,” states Jeffrey Hays on the Facts and Details website. Such unions certainly do not fit the biblical basis of marriage, nor do they embody what marriage is supposed to be – that is, if we insist on using religion and morality as bases to withhold divorce as an option for couples in irreparably damaged unions.

Staying married “for the kids”

Mel Schwartz, L.C.S.W. MPhil., psychotherapist, marriage counselor and author, in his article “For the Sake of the Children – Divorce isn’t failure; living in unhappiness is failure” in Psychology Today (2015), says that “Divorce, in and of itself, need not be harmful to children. It is the adversarial and contentious process of divorce, if continued, that may wreak damage. Yet research indicates that most children adapt to their new circumstances within a few years. Having two parents successfully move forward with their lives teaches an invaluable lesson: that we deserve to be happy and to feel loved. Conversely, remaining in relationships that perpetuate anger, devaluation, and lack of positive interactions leaves an indelible scar on children.”

So contrary to what is assumed about children in failed marriages, studies have shown that the emotional and psychological scars on children who witness signs of marital conflict in physically intact marriages are greater, and that couples staying together “for the sake of the kids” have got it all wrong.

“Divorce, in and of itself, need not be harmful to children. It is the adversarial and contentious process of divorce, if continued, that may wreak damage. Yet research indicates that most children adapt to their new circumstances within a few years. Having two parents successfully move forward with their lives teaches an invaluable lesson: that we deserve to be happy and to feel loved. Conversely, remaining in relationships that perpetuate anger, devaluation, and lack of positive interactions leaves an indelible scar on children.”

Some women also prefer to “forgive” their philandering spouse, or turn a blind eye to keep the family intact, or simply because they lack the financial independence and social support to start over on their own. Others, too, remain in deeply troubled relationships because of more personal motivations such as the fear of letting go, loneliness and starting over. They would rather put up with distrust and infidelity in their marriage, something already familiar, than cross the threshold into the unknown of “flying solo”.

In the “Pope suggests ‘better to be atheist than hypocritical Catholic’” Reuters report last February 2017, the report stated that “Pope Francis delivered another criticism of some members of his own Church on Thursday, suggesting it is better to be an atheist than one of ‘many’ Catholics who he said lead a hypocritical double life. In improvised comments in the sermon of his private morning mass in his residence, he said: ‘It is a scandal to say one thing and do another. That is a double life.’”

Again, the separation of Church and State is something we accept in theory, but real life in the Philippines suggests otherwise. Therefore, we ask the church and its leaders: what can they say about loveless marriages, abusive marriages, and similar situations where the legally married couple stay married to “save face,” “for the children’s sake” or for financial reasons – are they still being true to the vows they made in front of the altar?

Lawyers speak…

Like all contentious issues, there are two sides to the proverbial coin; in this case, the “coin” being divorce.

We consulted Philippine lawyers Atty. Regina Galang-Guarin, and Atty. Leo Lawana regarding some key questions on Philippine divorce, or its lack thereof.

Attorney Galang-Guarin is a prominent Pampanga-based family lawyer who has handled a number of separation and annulment cases. She was also a professor at Holy Angel University in the College of Criminal Justice Education and Forensics.

Attorney Lawana has been in the law practice since 2004. His specializations are in the fields of labor, criminal, family and civil law. He has handled annulment cases based on psychological incapacity, and bigamous marriages. He was also an instructor on criminal and civil law subjects at the Saint Louis University Political Science Department from 2004 to 2009.

From a legal standpoint, what are the pros and cons of legalizing divorce in the country?

Atty. Galang-Guarin: Based on United States experience of divorce, considering that it the most known type of divorce in the Philippines, there is less need for court intervention in divorces. In a no-fault divorce, the parties basically “agree” to go their separate ways. Because of this, there are less costs, less time will be consumed and even lesser interruption in the normal lives of the couple involved. There can also be a disadvantage in the sense that parties can go into marriage “on a trial basis”, under a mindset that anyway, they can always divorce later on.

Atty Lawana: If divorce were a legally available option, it would be easier for parties in failed marriages to dissolve the “bond” that imprisons them, and the process would be less costly than annulment. However, some parties who are legally married can easily seek redress even for flimsy and imagined reasons.

In order for the divorce law to be sound and reflective of Filipino cultural sensibilities, what factors need to be taken into consideration?

Atty Lawana: For divorce to be sound and reflective of Filipino cultural sensibilities, the court process should really reveal the cause of the separation, or who among the parties is really responsible for such divorce. This is because marriages in the Philippines do not only concern the couple but also their families, and even the whole clan. If the real reason will be presented and the real “culprit” will be revealed, the innocent spouse will no longer have the burden of explaining and proving to the relatives of the other spouse that it was not his or her fault, and misconceptions about who caused the divorce will be avoided thereby preserving civil relationships among relatives of both parties.

For divorce to be sound and reflective of Filipino cultural sensibilities, the court process should really reveal the cause of the separation, or who among the parties is really responsible for such divorce.

Divorce cases should be filed only by the innocent spouse detailing all the acts of the other spouse thereby making the respondent as the “offending” party, unlike in the case of annulment where the psychologically incapacitated party can make use of it as a ground for filing the petition for annulment. Thus, he or she can prove his or her own stupidity in court with a litany of inappropriate acts with the help of the psychologist, who, ironically, is also granted by the Honorable Court.

Looking at annulment as the only alternative for legally ending a marriage, do you think we really need to consider adding divorce into the picture?

Atty. Galang-Guarin: The laws, as they are right now, are actually sufficient for the purposes of the needs of our citizenry. The problem comes in because separated individuals do not do anything about their “status” of having been separated until the last minute – that is, when they find a new partner that they want to get into another marriage with. And then they are in a hurry to obtain that “decree of nullity” or “decree of annulment” from the Court. However, the Courts do not move fast; then the parties get frustrated.

Other people argue that seeking court decrees regarding marriages are costly, unlike divorce, where parties just basically agree to go about their separate ways and marry anew. The fact that obtaining nullity or annulment in court is actually a non-sequitur as an argument for divorce. If filing a case in court is costly, having divorce laws is hardly the answer. How about filing laws to lower docket fees or to lower (reconsider) the requirements and make them reasonable for individuals to qualify for PAO (Public Attorneys’ Office) services and lawyers handling annulment or nullity cases?

In parting, my opinion on whether we need a divorce law, I would say, not really.

Atty. Lawana: The country is ready to embrace divorce, and make holding on to unhappy and hopeless unions a thing of the past. The country is predominantly Catholic but even the church recognizes the freedom of spouses holding on to “marriage only on paper” to seek redress in the church. Actually, the process of seeking church annulment is easier than what is provided for by the courts, albeit church annulment is not yet recognized by the state, which is one-sided because the state can annul marriages performed by the church. So, to really enforce the separation of the church and state, there should be a protocol whereby church annulments are legally recognized.

The congress should adopt measures to recognize church annulment. As it is, the church that officiated the failed marriage can grant an annulment, thereby giving the church a chance to “rectify their own mistakes” so to speak. Besides, the act of the state dissolving the marriage officiated by the church may also be viewed as a violation of the separation of the church and state.

While it may be the duty of the government to preserve marriages and protect families, it should also provide for the easier recognition and acceptance of divorces or annulments entered into by Filipinos abroad; otherwise, an innocent spouse left in the Philippines may be in a dilemma whereby he or she remains “married” to a person who has since moved on, and is no longer married to him or her.

Moving on… where to, now?

As reported by Nikko Dizon in his July 2016 article “‘Merciful liberation’: solon files divorce bill” in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Representative Lagman’s divorce bill, which is considered essentially pro-woman, will ideally have a beneficial economic effect especially since a lot of informally ended marriages find women fending for themselves and their children, with the offending spouse getting away virtually scot-free.

It states, “In divorce proceedings, the wife as the innocent spouse, needs a court-decreed alimony and support for the child or children under her custody. Absolute divorce is not only a women’s issue. It is a poor women’s issue. Poor women cannot afford the current exorbitant expense for legal separation or annulment of marriage.”

However, being in a country where the clergy, at one time, even considered excommunicating a former head of state if he “insisted on the government’s distributing artificial contraceptives,” it seems that no amount of rationalization will sufficiently move the issue forward for as long as politicians, lawmakers and government officials continue to be beholden to the church.

If our statesmen (and women) speak, argue and act far removed from the issue at hand, and continue to consider only archaic perspectives which have no place in the real world today, annulment will stay as it is (problematic), and divorce, the alternative, will remain a pipedream for otherwise nightmarish marriages, or unions one can only describe as “catatonic.”

Like Mel’s case. Mel is already in her mid-40s, currently living her life as a single mother to her adopted son in a peaceful suburb south of Manila. She used to be married.

“In divorce proceedings, the wife as the innocent spouse, needs a court-decreed alimony and support for the child or children under her custody. Absolute divorce is not only a women’s issue. It is a poor women’s issue. Poor women cannot afford the current exorbitant expense for legal separation or annulment of marriage.”

He was her boyfriend for two years before they decided to get married when she was already 29 years of age. Only a year into their marriage, she discovered that her husband was bisexual. The evidence was irrefutable, though he denied it when she confronted him. Since he was working overseas, they were technically separated that same year (2000).

Even his family pretended to not know about his sexual orientation, and they tried to dissuade Mel from trying to legally free herself of their marriage. In 2007, after putting together the sum required to get her annulment processed, she filed a case using “abandonment” as the basis for her lawsuit.

After spending about a hundred thousand pesos (USD 2,000) paying for all legal fees as well as for money allocated to “help speed up” the process, the annulment was granted in 2012 – without the knowledge of her ex-husband. Needless to say, some deception was employed. But Mel rationalizes her decision based on her own ex-husband’s deception. The last time she checked, he was still romantically involved with another guy in the country where he continues to work.

She did love him, and she was hurt when she found out the truth. She forgave him, gave him time to change if he could. He couldn’t, and he hasn’t.

Though once bitten and twice shy, Mel still hopes to find love again someday, or for love to find her. Hopefully, when the time comes, it would be the kind of marriage she has always hoped for – of the true and lasting kind.

Again, we say, people who marry freely do so without any thought of separation at all in the beginning. They get married hoping for that “happy ever after” everyone so desperately dreams of having.

For those who continue to hold on to their moral arguments regarding whether or not we need divorce, let me leave you with Gin de Mesa Laranas’ parting shot in “Will the Philippines Finally Legalize Divorce?” published in The New York Times last July 2016: “When will the Catholic Church realize that sins greater than the ones it condemns are committed every day because unhappy Filipinos don’t have the right to divorce?”

Important Note: Where requested, certain names and distinguishing characteristics have been changed in some of the cases to protect the privacy of the person(s) concerned.

 

About the writer

Claire Dangalan is a Filipina freelance writer (a.k.a. Lovely Claire Cachuela) previously based in Dubai, and Ananke’s features editor. She is a consummate lover of the arts, especially literature. She taught Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, Humanities and Literature back in the Philippines. Her interests, aside from writing, include the environment, health and fitness, culinary arts, social issues, studies on world view, and “unprofessional photography.”

To connect or read more from Claire:

Blog: Faeriequeenbuknoy

Blog: Enthymememy

Facebook: Reduce your CO2 footprint

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