Malta Takes the Wrong Turn over Divorce

Posted on June 10, 2011

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‘We live in an age of growing self-indulgence, of hardening materialism and of falling moral standards… When we see around us the havoc which has been wrought, above all among the children, by the breakup of homes, we can have no doubt that divorce and separation are responsible for some of the darkest evils in our society today… A child learns by example… We surely cannot expect our children to do what we are too lazy and too indifferent to do ourselves.’ (HM Queen Elizabeth II, then Princess Elizabeth, 31 October 1949)

'The Divorce of the Empress Josephine' by Henri-Frederic Schopin

After a bitterly fought referendum campaign, the Maltese electorate have voted to introduce legislation to permit divorce for the first time. Many will regard this as a long overdue triumph of common-sense, but in light of recent discussion over grave social problems caused by widespread family breakdown in the UK, it is worth taking an opportunity to re-consider the divorce question.

Many still see lifelong fidelity in marriage as something to be admired, and wedding anniversaries are treated as celebratory occasions. No-one derides a couple who have been married for fifty years as passé for not having moved with the times and obtained a divorce! But we have developed a schizophrenic outlook whereby heroic fidelity to marriage vows is vigorously acknowledged as good, while the obvious conclusion that the antithesis of this good – namely, dropping out when the going gets tough – must therefore be evil, is just as earnestly denied. It is, after all, only when the going gets tough that fidelity really means anything at all. There is nothing heroic about a husband standing by his wife when she has the beauty of a supermodel and the ability to fry bacon to just the right degree of crispiness. But when the children have grown up and left home, he may be bored by her conversation and feel that she now looks more like Stirling Moss than Kate Moss. Then, surely, is his opportunity to prove he meant what he said in the famous words: ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part’.

Does this, then, mean that marital fidelity is simply an exercise in stoicism, a case for enjoying a few blissful years and thereafter bracing oneself for decades of misery in the hope that, if ever required to undergo painful surgery without anaesthetic, one will have developed the personal qualities to cope? Of course not. Marriage is worth sacrifice precisely because it is a good which contributes to human happiness and fulfilment. Surely no-one is naïve enough to believe that couples who have been married for fifty years have remained so merely because the romance never dampened and because their feelings for each other are as intense as when they first met. There can be no doubt, however, that – despite problems to be overcome, and the ups and downs of feeling and emotion – such people are very often happier than those who have given up on marriage. The latter frequently discover that the happiness and liberation they sought through divorce is but a will-o’-the-wisp which soon vanishes, leaving the tragic divorcee alone in the dark.

‘But’, someone may say, ‘What about my friend Bob whose wife ran off with her personal trainer? Does he not deserve a second chance for happiness?’. Such declarations cannot be lightly dismissed since discussion of divorce often revolves around such ‘hard cases’. There is a problem of language here in that happiness – in common parlance – is often defined today, in a grossly reductive manner, as mere subjective satisfaction. The ancients had a richer concept of ‘human flourishing’. In the face of so impoverished a notion of happiness, it is hard to argue against any behaviour whatsoever because there will always be people who derive pleasure from doing things that are wrong. The pertinent question is not about whether some might be more pleased about their situation after divorce than before, but about whether divorce contributes to human flourishing and dignity and about whether it may in fact degrade men and women.

Marriage is, crucially, not simply a friendship plus sex, but a familial relationship, indeed the very foundation of the family and by extension of society. Each new marriage plants a seed which should grow into a beautiful tree with a surrounding ecosystem: extended familial and social networks comprising successive generations of children, grandchildren, distant relatives, and family friends, all built upon a single union of man and woman. Society is a garden full of such trees, and its prosperity depends on healthy marriages. Each divorce, meanwhile, uproots a tree, causing fatal damage to the surrounding ecosystem: suffocating other young saplings and polluting the ground with rotting wood.

If marriage is the cornerstone of the family, it must of its nature be permanent and abiding. We all know that family relationships, unlike even the closest of friendships, can never be severed. The mother of a wayward son – for example – never stops being his mother, no matter what evil he may have done. Similarly, if marriage is to be truly marriage, and not just close friendship with a sexual component, spouses must never cut themselves off from one another, no matter what the other may have done.

Some may claim that such a love is heroic and, indeed, too demanding, but it would be unworthy of the dignity of men and women to ask anything less of them.

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(photo of wedding rings: © Jeff Belmonte)

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