Monday, August 23, 2010

Let no man put asunder

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed but nowadays when married people introduce themselves they seem obliged to describe the state of their marriage. I am sure you have been in some social function where someone inevitably introduces himself or herself as someone who is “happily married.” Some do it in jest, others in mock seriousness as if they need to convince others. Thereupon others feel compelled to also echo the same description of their marital union.

I still have to come across someone who actually admitted that he or she is unhappily married, although some brave souls would admit—most often, embarrassingly—that they are separated from their spouses. So those who are in blissful unions need to publicly affirm it while those who are not have to squirm in their seats and keep their peace.

This may not be a validation of the rising number of failed marriages in this country —although there are quite a number of empirical sources that say so—but it certainly indicates social recognition of the problem. Not all marriages are made in heaven, thank you very much. We all know it. The Church knows it. The government recognizes it. The problem is that we can’t seem to agree on what to do about it.

So once again, we’re in the middle of a debate. It’s a debate that we keep having every few years or so. The really sad thing is that it is a debate that seems pointless anyway because the people who must listen and need to be enlightened have already closed their minds a long time ago so no brilliant argument can sway them to change their positions. We like to trundle out this bit about how we are the showcase of democracy in this part of the world but the reality is that just like in the case of the reproductive health bill, the majority opinion is not material in the discussion either. It doesn’t matter if 80 percent of the Filipino population approves of a measure, it is not a guarantee that it will get passed in Congress and becomes a law.

So let me just cut to the chase and say I am not optimistic about the chances of House Bill No. 1799, entitled “An Act Introducing Divorce in the Philippines” filed by Representatives Luzviminda Ilagan and Emerencia de Jesus recently. Ilagan and de Jesus are representatives of Gabriela, party-list advancing women’s rights in the country. The last time a divorce bill was filed in Congress was in 2005 when Liza Masa and Ilagan filed House Bill 3461. But similar attempts have been made at the Senate (Senator Rodolfo Biazon filed Senate Bill 782 in 2001) and also in Congress by Representative Bellaflor Angara Castillo (2001) and Manuel Ortega (1999).

Is it finally time? Will the measure finally pass Congress and become a law? Hope springs eternal and I continue to keep my fingers crossed, but like I said, I am not very optimistic.

The proposed bill makes a case for divorce building on statistics, cultural facts, legal precedents, etc. It argues that divorce is in fact available to Filipino Muslims and that absolute divorce was once part of the pre-Spanish culture of our tribal ancestors. There is also legal separation and annulment of marriage, which are really just costly and complicated variants of divorce. All these rational arguments, however, will not fly. Here is why.

The divorce bill was the topic at a morning show last week. When it was introduced as the topic, Bernadette Sembrano—who happens to be one of the relatively more sensible broadcast journalists we have around, at least until last week—immediately retorted she was not in favor of it. Her reason: Because she does not want to separate from her husband, presumably because she is happily married. Sembrano’s pronouncement defied any semblance of logic. Why would she think that having a divorce law in place would jeopardize the blissful state of her marriage?

Sembrano’s acrobatic logical deduction is unfortunately representative of the general opinion of those who are against legalizing divorce in the country who think that having a divorce law would encourage more couples to separate just because it is there and they are allowed to do it.

Such a paradigm is insulting, of course. Unfortunately, respect for the Filipino’s capability to think intelligently, or to make the right choices, is not exactly a characteristic of the moralists in this country. The way they see it, Filipinos cannot be trusted with making decisions that affect their lives—be it in the matter of what movies they can watch, how many children they can afford to have, what to do with their bodies, and whether they should remain in a relationship or not.

When I spoke about my support for the proposed divorce bill at a public forum recently, someone sided up to me afterwards and asked me point blank: How long have you been separated from your wife? I almost choked on the sandwich I was eating. Why is it that people automatically conclude that anyone who supports the divorce bill is doing so for vested self-interest? There is nothing wrong with supporting advocacies that affects one’s one life, of course.

But it’s really frustrating when people cannot see through the blinders they have put on themselves—they think that if something does not affect them personally, there is no reason to support it. For the record, I have never been married and it’s not because I am holding out for the time a divorce law is firmly in place either. I just don’t think of myself as the marrying kind—I’d probably make the worst husband in the world because of my passion for various advocacies and some factors that would probably qualify under the heading “psychological incapacity” (not physiological, definitely). Wouldn’t it be nice if other men similarly inclined did not inflict themselves on women?

So I am not surprised that many of those who are happily married are not supporting the divorce bill. I wouldn’t be surprised in fact if they actually harbor thoughts that those who are in marital limbo deserve their fate because they didn’t work as hard at their marriage. Well, tough luck indeed but I wish people would be more magnanimous and acknowledge that there are other factors that make a marriage work. Or not.

At any rate, I still don’t get the causal relationships that people read between a proposed law and certain outcomes. Why would providing contraception encourage people to have more sex? Isn’t the desire to have sex a function of biology and psychology rather than external factors? Conversely, why would a divorce bill encourage people to separate? I still have to meet a man and a woman who got married because they intended to separate after. When people decide to get married, they go through so much trouble it is inconceivable to think that they are not serious about making their marriage work! As a friend of mine told me—in jest although I suspect there was a lot of truth in it—she wouldn’t have wiggled herself into a ridiculous outfit of swaddling yards of white lace if she weren’t so serious about it.

People only have the best intentions for getting married. It’s extremely cruel and unreasonable to make them suffer all their life for the fact that even the best intentions are often simply not enough.

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