When reading differing views in the current debate over no-fault divorce in Singapore, one side appears more compassionate than the other. The leading argument for no-fault divorce is that it reduces the acrimony in divorce proceedings, which in turn, helps children.
The emotional force is powerful. Divorce is a traumatizing experience – who wouldn’t want to help ease the pain?
Regardless takes a deeper look at some of the rhetoric, underlying assumptions and whether statistics back them up.
The “easier divorces may be good for loveless marriages” argument
Offered by a counsellor and a sociologist in CNA’s report, this line of reasoning suggests that making divorces easier is good, especially when it frees married people from a loveless and unsatisfying relationship. The proposition is that being in a loveless relationship is a form of imprisonment for the parties, which in turn, may affect the mental health of the whole family, caused by the anguish and suffering of the married couple.
Chief of the dissenters of no-fault divorce is that it erodes the sanctity of marriage. This includes the ideals of permanence and commitment. This is so the children can reap the benefits of a stable family unit, which then benefit society at large.
Should those who disagree with easier divorces be necessarily seen as being uncompassionate and unkind, in putting obstacles in the way of such liberation?
It may appear so, until one considers the statistics of divorce and its impact on children. Books examining the intergenerational effects of divorces overseas record how children of divorce are themselves more likely to divorce. Other studies show that divorce is co-related to delinquency and behavioural issues in children of divorce. Here in Singapore, a long-term research study by the government has confirmed what the literature reports. It shows that children faced a “divorce penalty,” being less likely to graduate from university, earning less, and were more likely to divorce than their counterparts from intact families.
This context lends strength to those who stand against easier divorces, which will most likely lead to an increase in divorces, as numbers overseas indicate. In China, where there was no-fault divorce on-demand for decades, the government reported a 70% decrease after they instituted a 30-day cooling-off period starting this year. The change in the law followed concerns from policy-makers over a trend of “impulsive divorces” and the demographic time bomb with falling fertility rates. Protecting marriage, they argued, would boost reproduction.
From the US, Friedberg’s 1998 study on whether unilateral divorce impacted divorce rates found that between 1968 and 1988, controlling for other variables, unilateral divorce accounted for 17% of the rise in divorces.
Why loveless marriages are “bad”
Another angle that should be scrutinised is the notion of “loveless marriages”. This comes down to the definition of love.
For some, love is primarily evidenced in the values of sacrifice, commitment, and responsibility – timeless values, which have seen many couples through long-lasting marriages, even when the novelty of romance and attractions fade. However, the rising trend is to mainly interpret love as a feeling, and holds relational resilience as a secondary or even tertiary value. Feelings are likely to change over time as the bright-eyed optimism of marriage fades into the mundane routines of housework, dealing with the snoring, picking up the kids… and socks. Sadly, once the initial feelings of excitement and promise fade, the marriage is deemed “loveless” – an unwelcome reality for a generation sold on the koyok of perpetual marital bliss.
There are now two competing models of marriage. The old norm was a “social ideal” model of marriage, in which intimacy was but one of many social goods, and permanence and security featured strongly. It came with the package of a decent job, a safe home, healthy kids and a promise to weather hard times together, for better or for worse. The old “social ideal” model is now giving way to the “soul-mate” model, where the needs of the individual – for intimacy, romance, and mental health, take primacy in a ‘successful’ marriage over the permanence of the marriage for the sake of the children, or the value of keeping one’s vows. Once the apparent value to self is gone, according to the “soul-mate” model, there is no marriage to speak of. Both models may have shared noble goals, like building a home and starting a family together, but where the former model has each spouse looking to the other’s interests, the latter prioritises one’s own interests above all else; not all roads lead to Rome.
Of course, these models are extremes, since the values in both models are important in any society. The question is which model should social policies tend towards?
The “reduced conflict is good for couples and children” argument
On its face, this is undisputed. Less conflict in an already-trying divorce process is good.
However, what’s intuitive doesn’t always work in policy. To unpack this argument, we first need to look at the process of divorce in Singapore. There are two stages. At the first stage, one party has to prove an “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” on one of five grounds. These include reasons such as adultery, or separation for three years. Once the fault has been proven, the process goes into the next stage of dealing with the details of post-divorce arrangements, including maintenance, children, and division of assets.
Here, the proposal for no-fault divorce deals solely with stage one of the process. With no-fault divorce, the judge no longer needs to see proof of fault. We find that it may be useful to think of how the change affects couples and families in low-conflict marriages which experience rough patches and are occasionally troubled, and those in high-conflict ones which seem fatally flawed because of persistent abuse of one’s spouse or their trust.
Just as it has played out elsewhere, it’s likely that easing divorce procedures will see more break-ups of low-conflict marriages, which may put children under greater stress than if such marriages continued. One study in the US concludes: “If divorce today were limited only to high conflict marriages, then divorce would generally be in children’s best interests. But the fact that one-half of all marriages today end in divorce suggests that this is not the case. Instead, with marital dissolution becoming increasingly socially acceptable, it is likely that people are leaving marriages at lower thresholds of unhappiness now than in the past. Unfortunately, these are the very divorces that are most likely to be stressful for children. Consequently, we conclude that the rise in marital disruption, although beneficial to some children, has, in balance, been detrimental to children. Furthermore, if the threshold of marital unhappiness required to trigger a divorce continues to decline, then outcomes for children of divorced parents may be more problematic in the future.”
When it comes to high-conflict marriages which end up in court, let’s face it. Reducing acrimony at the first stage of the divorce proceedings isn’t going to make a huge difference, because the intensity of disagreement at the second stage of divorce, over the children, property, and money will overshadow everything anyway. It is at best, optimistic, and at worst naive to believe that high-conflict marriages which pursue no-fault divorce will suddenly enjoy a peaceable asset allocation process.
Then comes another important question – is reducing acrimony the only social good? We find that it’s not a good thing in and of itself. To the extent it affords couples the avoidance of conflict management, it doesn’t reduce the acrimony. Rather, it ignores it completely. And for children who have to choose between fighting parents who live together or shuttling between non-communicative parents who have bitterness festering below the surface – they are truly caught between a rock and a hard place. And in this bind, no-fault divorce doesn’t really solve the problem it purports to. It merely extends the burden of a broken marriage from the adults, to the children.
Further, in low-conflict marriages, easy access to no-fault divorce may very well lead to the children being less able to manage conflict themselves, not having had an opportunity to observe effective conflict management in their own parents’ marriage. For this cohort, in the absence of mitigating circumstances, the children have a higher chance of becoming adults unable to meaningfully handle conflict in a relationship-preserving way. The old adage seems mildly appropriate here: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
If it Isn’t Broken, Don’t Fix It.
Proving fault in a marriage isn’t pleasant. Nobody enjoys the process of reopening old wounds or airing dirty laundry. But it is important.
The institution of marriage comes with roles and responsibilities as spouses and parents. By definition, marriage requires teamwork. It shouldn’t be made easy to break the most significant promise one makes in one’s whole life. On a more rhetorical note, if the binding nature of the most sacred and significant vows of marriage is invalidated by no-fault divorce, what does this spell for the broader culture of a nation?
On a practical level, even if there is no-fault divorce, the court will still take into account the different acts of the parties, when it decides on ancillary issues such as awarding maintenance or custody. Even if there is no proof of fault at the first, stage, the court will still assess each person’s contribution to the marriage at the second.
Further, with no-fault divorce, all marriages are at risk of divorce being triggered at any moment for any reason or none at all. This leaves children in perpetual insecurity and puts them more at risk than before.
No-fault divorce makes divorce easier, more commonplace and creates a culture where intolerance is entertained, rather than resilience encouraged – the impact of which will be felt beyond the institution of marriage. It is counter-culture to building resilient marriages and by extension, a resilient society.
The government thus has a mammoth task ahead of it. How will it handle the changing perceptions of marriage? How will it strengthen marriages while considering the interests of those seeking divorces?
As often is the case, the most effective solutions aren’t likely to come from the powers that be – after all, politics is downstream of culture. They will come from the community and industry.
We must imagine a Singapore that’s more communal. Where people and families are willing to intervene in another’s business and help each other out in times of acute stress. This may even come by providing shelter to those in need. We must imagine a village where there’s support for married couples, be it through friendship or counselling.
When it comes to the industry, family lawyers have a great work ahead of them as well, especially with the recent move towards “therapeutic justice”. This means pushing for less adversarial solutions and early therapeutic interventions, which may include counselling for the family. One expert said the move doesn’t change divorce laws or ancillary matters (referring to custody and asset division).
Considering this new emphasis in family law and how measures – such as an online portal or a panel of financial experts – have been enacted to promote the interests of those undergoing divorces, perhaps it would be prudent for the government to consider the mid-term outcomes of these incremental steps before changing divorce laws which will likely have a significant and irreversible impact on our children, and ultimately, society.