finding their solution in the courtroom.
Predictably perhaps Colombo seems to be the divorce hub, with results of a recent survey conducted by the Public Education Media Unit of the University of Colombo revealing that 57% of the marriages in the Colombo District are a failure. A figure that far exceeds the conservative 8% in the Districts of Gampaha, Ratnapura and Galle, even though this rate too is rising steadily.
The laws governing divorce in Sri Lanka are incredibly antiquated and apply different terms for those married under Kandyan Law. Under the General Marriages Ordinance, the grounds for divorce for a male and a female are the same - adultery after marriage, malicious desertion, incurable impotency at the time of marriage, legal separation for a period not less than two years, and actual separation for a period of 7 years or more.
The grounds for divorce under Kandyan Law are adultery by wife after marriage, adultery by husband coupled with incest or gross cruelty, complete and continued desertion for a continuous period of 2 years by the husband or by the wife, and inability to live happily together (of which actual separation from bed and board must have taken place for a period of one year). It is significant that the adultery of the husband without the offence of incest or gross cruelty is not grounds for divorce for a Kandyan wife – a noteworthy discrimination. However, divorce on mutual consent of both parties is also allowed under Kandyan Law.
The Muslim Law of Sri Lanka also allows the parties to obtain divorce on mutual consent. The grounds for divorce are governed by the Marriage and Divorce (Muslim) Act. Divorce is within the jurisdiction of the quazi courts.
Rumour has it that the Law Reforms Commission is looking at bringing in changes that will allow for a 'no fault divorce” wherein couples can divorce for reasons such as incompatibility. But there’s no sign of this becoming a reality any time soon.
Marriage isn't a love affair. It isn't even a honeymoon. It's a job. A long hard job, at which both partners have to work, harder than they've worked at anything in their lives before… Divorce isn't a cure, it's a surgical operation, even if there are no children to consider - Rosamunde Pilcher, “Wild Mountain Thyme”
A debate among friends (all in their 30s and married) about the reasons behind the sharp rise in divorce rates, saw focus turned on two factors. The first - “women don’t need men anymore, they can take care of themselves” seems a strong contender, and let’s face it - female empowerment has given women that which they lacked fifty years ago – the ability to leave their husbands and set up independent lives. Whereas in the past a divorce may have resulted in a women being left 'on the street’, the modern woman has an income, savings, a car to drive away in, and possibly her own house to drive away to. Natasha Dissanayake, Lecturer of Medical Psychology, concedes that female empowerment, particularly in the form of career and income, may indeed be a factor and offers an additional insight"Even though it shouldn't be the case, sometimes certain men tend to have a tendency of feeling insecure when the wife tends to be more financially stable than them. This could trigger feelings of jealousy and resentment over time which could in turn give rise to frequent heated arguments and eventually lead to divorce. On the wife's part, being an independent working woman could cause her to neglect her responsibilities as a wife and mother. This too could lead to disagreements and divorce."
Attorney at Law, Faisza Musthapha Markar adds “Gone are the days that a woman considers her primary role to be a home-maker and mother. Today’s women, who are financially independent of their husbands, are intolerant of shortcomings and are ready to separate from them when the need arises. It is noteworthy that in the early days, the woman looked up to the husband to provide for the family, whereas the modern woman, who is financially stable, seeks only love, affection and a commitment towards the marriage from her partner”.
Theory number two comes under the simple banner of 'cant be bothered' ie: modern couples just aren’t willing to put in the effort to work on their marriages, and view divorce as an easy way out. Faisza agrees, saying “Many people these days enter into a marriage without a feeling of serious commitment, they assume that if things don’t work out the way they want, they can end the marriage. People tend to seek 'instant gratification’, and focus on individual pleasure, whereas marriage has its ups and downs and has to be worked at in order to have a successful married life”.
“I believe that this is very true” offers Natasha. “All it needs is a little time and effort! If the couple takes some time away from their busy schedules and invests some time on trying to work on their relationship, it is definitely possible to fix these issues and restore the relationship. However, it is extremely disheartening to see that most couples nowadays decide to take the easy way out without fighting for the person they love”.
Natasha also explained a couple of other key factors she feels drive modern couples from the bedroom to the courtroom. “I believe that poor time management and lack of communication are two of the biggest factors that can result in divorce. In today's society people tend to place more importance on work and career development as opposed to family and relationships. As a result of this I feel that couples nowadays don't get to spend enough quality time together…As couples spend less time together… intimacy gradually starts to decrease, and as time goes by they lose the closeness and trust they once shared. They would then try to seek fulfillment from other sources thus resulting in causing a further drift between the couple.
Lack of communication is also a crucial factor. This is because couples generally tend to have high expectations of their partners and yet fail to communicate these thoughts to their significant other. As a result of this, when one partner sometimes fails to live up to the expectations of the other, the partner who had high expectations tends to feel let down and disappointed… this form of hurt and resentment tends to build up over time and eventually reaches a point where it may be too late to salvage the relationship”
However, since a ho-hum attitude and apathy aren’t grounds for divorce in Sri Lanka, under what terms are most modern divorces being filed? Faisza enlightens us “Most applications for divorce are filed in Colombo under the grounds of adultery and malicious and constructive desertion. In other towns/ provinces most applications for divorce are filed under malicious and constructive desertion”. To put it in laypersons terms? “In Colombo, it is mostly due to infidelity but in rural areas mostly due to the husbands consuming alcohol and beating up their wives”.
So Colombo is a hotbed (excuse the pun) of infidelity? While Faisza points out that the stigma attached to adultery may be what holds people in other towns back from divorcing under those terms (thus giving us the false impression that the rate of adultery is higher in Colombo) it is in fact a fairly logical conclusion to come to, after all couples in Colombo have more freedom, more distractions, more opportunity. More women in Colombo work; and where better to meet someone new than the office? And it sounds right doesn’t it? Don’t all of us know of at least one case of marital infidelity? In fact we can probably think of five without breaking a sweat.
So what are couples really expected to do? In the face of infidelity and domestic violence do we really expect couples to stay together, or is divorce the only choice open to them? “It depends on the situation” says Natasha “Sometimes infidelity could occur due to poor judgment and certain other factors. If one partner is unfaithful and he/she clearly regrets the situation and provides clear evidence that he/she deeply regrets their actions and will never let it happen again, if the relationship is strong and the level of trust between the couple is strong, I believe that the relationship can be salvaged. However, if it keeps happening repeatedly, it would be a clear sign that divorce may be a likely alternative”.
The question is even harder to answer when it comes to domestic violence “It is difficult to give a definite answer as to what the best option should be in this case” Natasha admits, adding “On a personal note I do strongly believe that a relationship with violence should not be supported and a woman should never have to endure such trauma”.
I had a really good childhood up until I was nine, then a classic case of divorce really affected me – Kurt Cobain
When my husband told me about his friend my first question was “They don’t have kids right?” And they don’t. Which made the whole thing less horrible. After all, kids raise the stakes a lot higher don’t they? A fact borne out by Faiza’s confirmation that divorce is indeed more common among couples who do not have children.
Ajitha*, 36, and a mother of two talks about how her personal views have changed “I was always very pro divorce, because I thought, and still think, it’s far better for two people who are miserable together – to part ways. And when I got married I had very clear ideas about what sort of things would make me want to divorce my husband. Then we had kids and all the lines blurred, what I would be willing to live with and endure has changed a lot, all because I can’t bear the idea of putting my kids through the trauma of a divorce”.
Children certainly change the rules of the game considerably. But what if divorce must happen? Can it be done in a way that is less harmful to the children involved? Natasha offers these guidelines:
- Never argue in front of the children.
- Never ask them to choose one parent over the other or try to turn them against one parent.
- Carefully explain the situation to the children and assure them that the separation is NOT their fault.
- Come to an understanding that focuses on the best interests of the children.
Natasha does assert however that children of divorce almost always suffer negative effects “Children who have divorced parents tend to grow up to develop numerous psychological problems. They also tend to report having more troubled relationships and claim to have more trust-related issues”. So should couples with children try to stay together for their sake? “If the issues in the relationship can be addressed through marriage counseling or any other form of support, it is always better to try to make the relationship work at least until the kids are older and can understand the situation better. However, in the case of abusive relationships, divorce may sometimes be the best alternative for both the victim as well as the children” she says.
“Divorce isn't such a tragedy. A tragedy's staying in an unhappy marriage, teaching your children the wrong things about love. Nobody ever died of divorce.” – Jennifer Weiner, Fly Away Home
So what does the recent rise in local divorce rates really indicate? Mostly it seems to speak of the freedom people have to change their lives, to recognize that a mistake has been made and that it doesn’t have to be one that is lifelong. Yes, carelessness may have something to do with it but so does empowerment, and where one can be condemned, the other must be applauded. Women’s empowerment causing divorce? Hooray! So more women aren’t living with husbands who abuse and cheat on them? Nice one! And shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that social stigma is no longer holding people back? That people are getting a second chance at a happy life? Isn’t this a sign of a positive evolution in our society?
As for those who “can’t be bothered”, those who have just drifted apart – well, we can only speculate. Is it that they can’t be bothered to tolerate their partners less desirable qualities? Or don’t care to invest the time and energy to work on compromises? Maybe they didn’t love each other enough in the first place. Not that love offers any guarantees, in fact, the survey conducted by the University of Colombo revealed that out of those divorced, 58% had 'married for love’.
Are we marrying too young and then growing apart? Discovering we don’t like who the other person really is? Or are we marrying later and then finding we are too set in our ways to make the adaptations marriage demands? The average age of divorce seems to indicate the former.
Or maybe, like so many experiences in modern life it’s important to simply say 'been there, done that’.
Ultimately let’s just be fair – divorce has long been recognized as one of the most stressful things a person can go through “Getting divorced can lead to several mental and physical health problems” explains Paula Hall, relationship psychotherapist at charity Relate "Stress, anxiety, depression and panic attacks are not uncommon when people get divorced”. So it’s not EASY for anyone. Maybe we should accept that there are things that we can never know about what goes on in the intimacy of a marriage. 35 year old Rehan* discovered this for himself recently “When close friends announced they were splitting up last year we were totally shocked. Frankly we thought they were the perfect couple – my wife and I even had discussed the fact that we wished our marriage and relationship was more like theirs! I guess it just goes to show – what you see doesn’t always represent what’s really going on in a relationship. It also opened my eyes. My marriage is the one that’s stable and happy. I won’t be making anymore comparisons! ”
Let’s get real. Instead of being horrified at the rising divorce rates maybe we should be doing more to prepare the next generation for making better choices when it comes to marriage. Let’s stop representing marriage as the be all and end all, some 'most desirable’ state. Let’s be truthful and admit that marriage is HARD and takes constant work, attention and maintenance. Let’s give our children the tools to handle marriage before they get married. Let’s delete the 'happily ever after” in the stories, and substitute it with “and they worked hard, everyday, to make sure that they were both happy and fulfilled”. Let’s stop worrying about what the neighbours think and allow our children to live with their partners before marrying (now there’s a topic for a whole OTHER article!). And most of all, let those of us who are married and managing, thank our lucky stars we aren’t among the daily 400, and make sure we make every effort to keep it that way.
*Names have been changed