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With the complexities of each divorce case and the trauma it can cause children, why wasn't the bill to allow married couples to divorce by mutual agreement passed earlier?

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This week, a long-awaited bill that allows married couples to divorce by mutual agreement was passed in Parliament. The bill allows couples to take joint responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage and is a major step forward in helping individuals to dissolve their marriage should they need to.

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To put it simply, couples can now part ways without having to pin blame on their spouse or go through a three- to four-year separation process to prove to the courts that their marriage has broken down irretrievably. 

This law is 40 years in the making considering that divorce by mutual consent was first proposed as an amendment to the Women’s Charter in 1979. 

However, it was removed before it could be passed mainly because Singapore did not want to make it easy to terminate marriages.

Of course, as most people would know, divorce is never an easy option. Regardless of what laws we have, it is rarely taken lightly so this is why blameless divorces are so significant. And it is also why I believe it should have been a no-brainer to pass the bill much earlier on. 

After all, it is my view that making divorces blameless will significantly reduce pain on the couple, reduce prolonged trauma on any children the couple might have and that it will allow Singapore to progress with the rest of the world with regard to how we look at the traditional family unit. 

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Divorces are rarely taken lightly so why should it be assumed that this will change now?

Here’s the thing. No one enters a marriage to get divorced.

Rather, divorce is usually the last resort for many couples who have already exhausted every resource or for those who are trapped in unfavourable domestic situations. 

Before this bill was passed, the only legal ground for divorce was the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. This needed to be proven in the following different ways. 

For one, you could state fault-based facts such as adultery, desertion and unreasonable behaviour. If you didn’t want to place blame on your partner, you could prove that both of you have been separated for three to four years provided both parties have consented to the divorce. 

However, we do know that the reasons for divorce can be very diverse and not all couples may fit into these boxes. 

For example, there are couples who would prefer to part ways amicably for the sake of their children and family. They may not want to assign any blame to each other. 

“For some, being able to list out the cause of the breakdown of the marriage and apportioning blame is a necessary step for their emotional and mental healing. However, having to list a factor that apportions blame such as adultery and unreasonable behaviour can also end up leaving bitterness with defendants in divorces especially after they have agreed on all matters,” explains Sudhershen Hariram, a lawyer at Tan Rajah & Cheah who has been practising family law and dealing with divorce cases for about seven years. 

Then, there are individuals who are in relationships where there is emotional, physical, psychological or financial abuse. These individuals may struggle to obtain a divorce if their partner refuses to agree or if they are forced to fulfil the separation period as a result of an uncooperative partner.  

They may then have to endure an additional three to four years of abuse before they are allowed to obtain a blameless divorce which can now be, possibly, avoided with the new law.

According to the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), in 2020, a whopping 13 per cent or 905 of their helpline calls pertained to marital issues and divorce.

On January 21, 2021, the Singapore Police Force also, for the first time in history, reported that they received 5,135 reports for family violence-related offences in 2020. Of course, this does not include the many who may have had more psychological or ‘invisible’ abuse inflicted on them. 

“Individuals in these kinds of toxic situations often struggle to find concrete evidence to prove the emotional torment experienced in the marriage due to manipulation and defensiveness,” says Bhavani Deva, a Clinical Psychologist at Psychology Blossom.

As a result, a blameless divorce may prove to be a saving grace for some victims who need to get out of their situations quickly. 

Noting the abundance of research into why it might be difficult or even dangerous for individuals to get a divorce, it should not have taken our legal system this long to recognise the need to have the option of a blameless divorce.

It's a known fact that children suffer more in an unstable home

When asked what percentage of her clients come to her with trauma that stems from parents who had unsavoury marriages, Bhavani replied that the number was approximately 75 per cent.

It is easy to understand that children who have to deal with parents who are arguing consistently or who experience violence at home are more likely to experience trauma as a result of the instability and abuse. 

That said, it is true that divorce also tends to have a significant negative impact on children. 

In December 2020, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) released the results of a study that examined the marital and economic records of more than 100,000 Singaporeans.

The study found that by 35 years of age, adult children whose parents divorced before they turned 21, earned less than their peers whose parents stayed together.

It also showed that children of divorce were more likely to get divorced themselves. However, the study was widely criticised for not being comprehensive enough.

Responding to this via a Facebook post on December 11, 2020, Aware wrote: “Children of divorced parents should be compared to children of parents who faced similar issues as their divorced counterparts but chose to remain together. In other words, children of divorced parents should be compared to children of unhappy but intact families, if we want to isolate the effects of divorce on children.”

However, based on the experts we spoke to, the emotional costs of dealing with parents with rocky marriages can prove to be far worse. 

“Based on experience with my clients, divorce is a better option than subjecting a child to continuous distress, instability, and a lack of peace in their own home. Divorce doesn’t need to be feared. Rather, it can help reduce the number of individuals (including children) who develop poor mental health including anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, and trauma as a result,” Bhavani explains.

True enough, while divorce can negatively affect children, it can often be a better option for their mental health long-term provided that parents are supportive and consistent throughout the process and beyond. 

In a piece by Very Well Family on the psychological impacts of divorce on children, they write, “Research has found that kids struggle the most during the first year or two after the divorce. Kids are likely to experience distress, anger, anxiety, and disbelief. But many kids seem to bounce back. They get used to changes in their daily routines and they grow comfortable with their living arrangements.”

Knowing that couples may get divorced for many reasons and that the outcome of staying together or separating both have negative effects on children, it would have made much more sense for our legal system to introduce the option for a divorce by mutual agreement earlier. This would have given couples time to move into a healthy co-parenting system and allow children to settle into a safer routine sooner. 

The idea of a traditional family unit has been constantly evolving anyway

One of the main arguments for not making the divorce process easier is the importance of preserving the family unit.

However, society is constantly evolving and the traditionally viewed family unit of two parents and their children is no longer the only viable option out there. This is something our legal systems have to recognise. 

Rather, what should be prioritised is the happiness and health of every family no matter what it looks like. Rising divorce rates should not be the core focus here. 

“While we agree that the institution of marriage should be respected, we strongly believe that those unsuited as spouses should be able to amend their situations as painlessly as possible. While nobody enters a divorce enthusiastically, it does represent the light at the end of a tunnel for many, and can indeed be the healthiest option for any adults or children trapped in an unhappy home situation,” says Shailey Hingorani, head of research and advocacy at Aware.

“Divorce rates might increase slightly in the immediate aftermath of this change, but will likely stabilise in the long term, as has happened in other countries that made similar changes,” Shailey continued.

True enough, when Scotland introduced no-fault divorce in 2006, it saw a spike in divorces. According to BBC, this went from 10,875 divorces in 2005 to 13,012 in 2006. However, the number started to fall after that and in 2017, there were only 6,766 divorces. That said, BBC notes that the number of marriages has also gone down over the years. 

The stabilisation of divorce rates though makes sense because, in countries around the world and in Singapore, there are still many other requirements couples need to meet to be able to dissolve their marriages. 

According to Shailey, even with the new law, couples in Singapore still need to agree that their marriage has broken down irretrievably and explain the reasons for this conclusion. They also need to wait for three years of marriage before they can file for divorce.

Regardless, as we move forward as a society, the stigma against divorces should likewise continue to evolve and peter out. 

“There should be an acknowledgement that it is a complex and difficult situation that people find themselves in and divorce may be a necessary step that some have to take for their family lives to work. I hope it encourages people to focus more on how to move forward and make workable arrangements for their families rather than incurring time and cost on proving who caused the breakdown of the marriage which could have long-lasting effects on children,” says Sudhershen.

At the end of the day, while it may have taken a long time to reach where we are today, it is definitely commendable that we have come to a point as a society where we can understand that accessible and easier divorce proceedings are necessary. 

As we continue to move forward, I hope that we will start to see even more changes made in divorce proceedings—for example, a more seamless and less expensive process. Till then, we will continue to count our wins as we advocate for a more fair, versatile and inclusive society. 

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