No to divorce means Yes to social chaos

Published: May 19, 2011 at 12:01pm

Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo - a real bozza tal-elf - wants teachers to tell us how children suffer when their parents divorce. You know, because they don't suffer when their parents separate.

This is my column in The Malta Independent today.

Those campaigning against divorce legislation were out on the hustings again yesterday, with more of the sort of irrational reasoning that makes the rest of us even more determined to vote YES.

Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo, who is not to be confused with Labour MP Adrian (who shares his sentiments) wants to drag teachers into the debate.

He wants them to tell us what they think about divorce and how it affects children. He is keen to get teachers involved because he assumes that they will agree with him. But if I were a teacher, the first thing I would say is that divorce won’t make a blind bit of difference to whether parents split up because they’re doing so in droves already.

And children suffer because their parents split up, not because they ‘divorce’.

Vassallo was never going to be the sharpest knife in the government’s drawer, but surely even he understands that the only way Maltese teachers can know how divorce affects Maltese children is through observation of the present-day effects of marital breakdown on children.

If Edwin Vassallo understands that what affects children is the parting of their parents and not that piece of paper called divorce, then why exactly is he so panicked at the thought that people might yet be able to divorce in Malta?

I, for one, believe that without divorce legislation, family situations will actually deteriorate further, become even more confused, confusing and unstable.

Divorce actually forces people to think harder about whether they want to leave their spouse or not, because it is final. Walking out with a suitcase to a rented flat and a separation agreement does not have that degree of finality about it, even though it is definitely final and almost no couples reconcile.

The act of walking out, of separating, creates a self-perpetuating situation where there can be no going back – more hurt is inflicted, people stir the pot, third parties become involved – but in Malta people walk out relatively easily precisely because there is no divorce.

I say relatively easily because these things never are.

I suspect that if there were divorce in Malta, at least a few people I can think of would have got their act together and screwed their head on tight and not ended up in the ultimately pointless mess they’re in, because divorce – that Big Thing – would have forced them to think harder.

But you know, the absence of divorce creates a false security, a security that isn’t there at all because once you leave, you leave, divorce or no divorce.

I laugh when I hear the No campaigners describe divorce as the easy option. It is not – nothing final ever is an easy option because the psychological hurdles are tremendous. The easy option – if it can be called that – is what we have today.

The inability to divorce and remarry is not going to reverse or stop the escalating rate of marital breakdown, formation of what are effectively extra-marital relationships, and the birth of children within those extra-marital unions. I think it will actually have the opposite effect.

People enter into cohabiting relationships more easily – for which read ‘men’, though this is a generalisation – if they know that the other cannot begin agitating for marriage because marriage is not legally possible.

We are indeed on the brink of a great leap into the darkness, but it is not the darkness which the anti-divorce legislation campaigners envisage will happen should parliament legislate for divorce. The Great Unknown is what will happen with a No victory. Malta is the only country in Europe where the decline and eventual dissipation of social strictures on cohabitation, marital breakdown and birth outside marriage has not been met with divorce legislation.

Some brick-wall thinkers in this country believe that divorce actually caused the tendency of people to live together without being married, leave their spouses, form new relationships and have children with somebody other than a spouse. But European divorce legislation of the 20th-century was not the cause of these social changes; it was the result of them.

That it is not divorce that changes society and ‘weakens morals’ (which is the way these campaigners see it) should be obvious from the Maltese experience, were the campaigners not so blinkered. We have no divorce legislation, and yet we have all of that and more.

Malta is currently in the unique position, globally, of being a laboratory experiment in what happens when the social norms and strictures on family, marriage and childbirth are abandoned in a situation where there is no legislation to deal with it.

An absence of divorce legislation – as with Italy and Ireland up to relatively recently, or divorce legislation which is restrictive and relatively inaccessible – as with Britain and North America up to the 1960s, works only when society is self-policing and uses shame, ostracism and social censure to keep spouses together, prevent lovers from sharing a roof, and stop babies being born and raised out of wedlock.

Britain and the United States have had divorce for all these centuries, but make no mistake about it, until the 1960s divorce was calamitous, divorced women were ostracised, divorced men regarded as dishonourable, and gentlemen allowed their adulterous wives to divorce them, rather than bringing action themselves, because women who were divorced by their husbands (rather than the other way round) were irremediably disgraced.

But when society loosened up, when people stopped policing each other and using shame and dishonour to keep everyone in check, divorce legislation eased up in response to the inevitable, allowing new forms of regulation to take place.

In Malta, there has been a total loosening of social strictures over the last 20 years, to the point where there are now none. The absence of divorce legislation has in effect created a total free-for-all in which things which would still not be considered socially acceptable in more sophisticated societies – flaunting the baby you’ve had with a married man, for instance – are run-of-the-mill here.

The legislative void has been space for the formation of any number of curious and more straightforward set-ups. We have skipped the century-long process of social and legal evolution that our European neighbours went through in the 20th century, and yet we have arrived at the point where we have all of the thinking and behaviour that they have, but none of the legislation to suit, and consequently, none of the manners, mores and etiquette which have developed elsewhere to accommodate and smooth the path of these changed social situations.

With the No vote victorious, this is going to be a high-risk leap in the dark. One thing is certain: that legislation will be required to cope with these social changes, and if it is not the universally tried-and-tested divorce, then it will have to be a raft of complicated and piecemeal legislation that doesn’t do the job and instead creates even more confusion.

38 Comments Comment

  1. Interested Bystander says:

    Soon to be ruled over by the ginger magician and the fragrant one.

    What larks, eh!

  2. Prosit, as usual an excellent article.

  3. red nose says:

    I wonder what children would say when they are told they have a new father or a new mother?

    • me says:

      I wonder what children would say when they are told that the new ‘father’ will not beat them or their mother black and blue as the previous one.

    • Jo says:

      red nose, don’t you know that a lot of our children are already facing this situation – with one great difference – they are facing a new daddy’s/ mummy’s ‘friend’?

      Broken families have been with us for ages and won’t come about because of divorce.

      I believe in a united family as the base of society. People are talking about the curse of divorce but we seldom hear of any concrete ideas on how to make all marriages 100% foolproof.

  4. Frank Schembri says:


  5. Tim Ripard says:

    ‘until the 1960s divorce was calamitous’ indeed, so calamitous that it caused the monarch of the greatest empire ever to abdicate (Edward VIII) in order to marry a divorcee. Charles, in contrast will (presumably) ascend to the throne without much fuss, values have changed so much since then.

  6. Scerri S says:

    PL dug itself into a hole by an at-all-costs opposition to VAT in the 1990s. PN is doing the same with divorce in the 2010s. Is it something to do with the Maltese psyche, I wonder, which makes some believe that what was by far, and for long enough, the best solution in practically the rest of the world (or the political continent which we belong to, in case of VAT), is not good enough for us?

    Or – worse still – that we do not need a solution because there is no problem? Is it a strange form of a countrywide Napoleon complex then? Or just delusions of grandeur? Like that terrible saying from that equally terrible Maltese production ~ “We are Maltese, we..”. Jaqq, xi dwejjaq.

  7. jean says:

    Daphne I’m not writing this piece to ask for my ounce of flesh but we common mortals have been feeling disillusioned with ‘this’ Nationalist Party ever since Lawrence Gonzi, Edgar Galea Curmi, Nardu Callus, Tonio Fenech and Paul Borg Oliver together with the head of the civil service (whose name escapes me) have come to the fore.

    You have always strongly defended their incompetence and you also had the cheek to call anybody who strongly criticised them as people having a self interest or dismissed their criticism as coming from some favour they wanted which wasn’t met.

    Recognising their incompetence now is no big deal. I mean, it is so gigantic that only an idiot, or an Angelic Caruana follower (just like our Finance Minister), would probably believe otherwise. We need a change, even if it has to mean a self flagellation exercise. How else would one describe seeing Toni, Anglu and Joseph waving from the balcony of Castille?

    Permit me to shove on to you a responsibility which although technically is not yours, you are merely and ultimately nothing but an entertainer, had you committed yourself to criticise rather than cheer lead this incompetent team, they could have possibly believed the people they are surrounded with a little bit less. Instead you wrote pages upon pages on Joseph’s thinning hair line, Anglu’s elephants, Lil Din’s horrid dress sense and Joseph’s eating fetish, with a mega storm brewing just a stone’s throw away.

    My… what a responsibility Lawrence Gonzi has to shoulder!

  8. I can’t see why people keep saying that separation and declarations of nullity are “OK” while divorce isn’t. None of them is a “fine state of affairs”.

    You can’t help people not living up to their side of a deal – which is essentially what happens when a marriage breaks down. But what can anyone do?

    These distinctions are misleading if you ask me. When we read about what “divorce does” to society, you can substitute divorce in the text with separation and annulment and the “statistic” probably still holds true with a few tweaks to standard deviations and whatnots.

    This – in my opinion – goes to show that the real evil is not divorce per se. It is the underlying “frame of mind” that makes people want to go for divorce/separation/anullment.

    Let’s face it. If I’m happily married I don’t try to find reasons why my marriage may be void. There will be a valid reason why the marriage was not valid – obviously – but if there were no problems no one would bother to bring it up.

  9. Harry Purdie says:

    The logic of your beautifully described argument is irrefutable. It is so unfortunate that the majority of the rock’s inhabitants are illogical, irrational and non-thinkers. Vassallo is a perfect example.

    • me says:

      Why should anyone be afraid of 21/12/2012 when the dawn of ‘Homo Imbecillis’ is well and truly upon us.

  10. K Formosa says:

    Remember Alfred Sant and all the gullible people falling on his way to re-invent VAT? Back then he created CET which proved to be total failure. Why re-invent the wheel? To prove to ourselves that we’re better than the rest of the world?

  11. Ronnie says:

    Edwin Vassallo (and Silvio Parnis) personify all that is wrong with Maltese democracy.

    How can someone so mediocre and insular make it to the cabinet? But then I also think that MPs are a reflection of society in general, so we get MPs like Edwin. In short we get what we vote for and what we deserve.

    • yor/malta says:

      No, we only get to vote for the candidates who are on the voting document, so it is a Hobson’s choice.

      Some time ago I read that that some state in America ( I think ) introduced an addition that allowed people to put their vote to NONE SUITABLE , if a percentage was reached then new candidates had to be put forward.

      • Ronnie says:

        Well if I’m not mistaken in one particular election (2002 I think), the electorate was given a choice between Silvio Parnis and Alfred Mifsud. Silvio Parnis was elected, Alfred Mifsud was not.

        If it were a choice of who of the two you would want to run your company, it would be a no brainer, so after all we do get the politicians we deserve.

      • H.P. Baxxter says:

        Thicko poser vs. duplicitous poser.

        Still Hobson’s choice, I’m afraid.

      • yor/malta says:

        Ronnie, look up and get an understanding of the word DESERVE. Look at it this way: if I do not vote then I deserve to be lumped with ‘what’ gets elected because I did not take a stand.
        Voting for the lesser of two evils does not mean I deserve to be governed by whoever wins. It just means I have to put up with them for a term.

  12. Ronnie says:

    I came across this:

    I can almost imagine Tonio Fenech performing the same stunt for the deficit. Bam Bam Bam goes the deficit!

  13. Steve says:

    ‘Divorce actually forces people to think harder about whether they want to leave their spouse or not, because it is final.’

    False. Divorce and especially the no fault variant, will not make people think twice before leaving when they hit the first stumbling block. Lack of divorce make people think a lot before going into marriage because they know that they have to work hard to make the marriage work.

    ‘The act of walking out, of separating, creates a self-perpetuating situation where there can be no going back.’

    False. There are couples who after having been separated for a number of years returned back together.

    ‘I laugh when I hear the No campaigners describe divorce as the easy option. It is not.’

    False. Divorce is the easy option as it reduces the willpower to actively work towards finding a solution. The no fault variant makes it even easier.

    ‘The inability to divorce and remarry is not going to reverse or stop the escalating rate of marital breakdown, formation of what are effectively extra-marital relationships, and the birth of children within those extra-marital unions.’

    The introduction of divorce will accelerate the rate of marital breakdowns not decelerate. This has been the experience in other countries.

    ‘Some brick-wall thinkers in this country believe that divorce actually caused the tendency of people to live together without being married.’

    True. Not, ‘some brick-wall thinkers in this country‘, but this has been the experience in other countries.

    ‘That it is not divorce that changes society and ‘weakens morals’’

    I think that everything that is in contact with the society will leave its effect and divorce legislation is no exception. The introduction of divorce will change the society and yes it will weaken morals further.

    I agree with you that ‘Malta is currently in the unique position’ and we should make the best use of our unique position by studying what has happened in other countries so as not to repeat their mistakes. There have to be better preparation for marriage, as young adults are looking more into the advertising glitters and false expectances associated with marriage, but not looking beyond that.

    All the people who are true with themselves know that ‘the universally tried-and-tested divorce’, brought a higher rate of marital breakdowns and cohabitation. The more divorce gets widespread, the more people feel that it is the only solution to marital problems without realizing that they are weaving themselves into bigger and more complex situations.

    Yes to divorce means yes to more marital breakdowns.

  14. Steve Forster says:

    As usual Daphne you manage to hit the nail on the head, all the rest need prescription glasses……

  15. ciccio2011 says:

    In our Parliament, empty vassalls make most noise.

  16. Bob says:

    I say: Yes to divorce means Yes to social chaos

  17. Maria R Borg says:

    I think you’ve made some valid points here. I find it sad that the break up of a marriage is considered a source of amusement in certain circles. Our morality is outrageously skewed; divorce is a no-no but adultery is acceptable.

  18. Sonia says:

    Errrrm … What about the teachers who get an annulment – despite having a chiild or two – to then marry a colleague?

    Or the teacher who had two children by two different men, neither of which was her husband?

    Or the teacher who got an annulment, shacked up with someone who was already in a relationship with someone else and then got married to him herself?

    Maybe Edwin Vassallo has this kind of teacher in mind?

  19. Joseph M. Cachia says:



    “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”

    Oscar Wilde

    I have to admit that I often have found the language of divorce “rights” off-putting. Yet the idea of divorce as a “right” is usually pitted against the idea of divorce as a “privilege.” Given that choice, I’ll circle “right” every time.

    Still, when people claim something as a “right,” they often sound shrill and demanding. Then someone comes along to remind us that people who have “rights” also have “responsibilities”, and the next thing you know, we’re off and running in the debate about divorce as a “right” vs. divorce as a matter of “individual responsibility.”

    This is based on the idea that there should be limits to the “you-made-your-bed-now-sleep-in-it” principle. Personal responsibility is important, but it should be moderate and not a cruel and unusual punishment.

    Anyone watching a ship from land is no judge of its seaworthiness, for the vital part is always underwater. It can’t be seen. We think we know people, and dismiss the scenes as aberrations, as the lightning strikes of madness, but surely we are wrong.

    I can understand this ‘Yes’ campaign – soliciting for the granting of a civil right. What I can’t understand is the hate ‘No’ campaign – isn’t it enough to vote No if so says your conscience, but to entice and encourage others to vote for not letting you enjoy your right is, in the least, hateful and malicious.

    The Malta Story

    This is Malta. Anything for a polemic; and if it’s between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, so much the better. We are quite expert at bi-focal views; look at our politics.

    But aren’t we clutching the wrong end of the stick in this whole ‘divorce’ debacle? Maybe a lot of people like to talk but very few like to think.

    Divorce is a civil right that is not yet fully recognised in Malta. However, the 1975 Marriage Act had introduced divorce in Malta through the back door by recognising divorce decrees granted in foreign jurisdictions.

    For marriages between Maltese and foreigners there is and was always the possibility for a divorce, as each State provides a possibility for jurisdiction for its citizens for a divorce. Such judgements have to be recognized in Malta automatically by the EU-Regulation 2201/2003, since Malta became a member of the EU.

    The divorce issue will not be concluded in a right and just way through a referendum. This is a civil right and should be adopted forthwith; no Parliament or public approval needed. Nothing could be more insensate and ludicrous than finding myself voting whether or not my neighbour would be able to strive in his or her pursuit of personal happiness, on the same line that one is free to choose his ingredients in his mission of seeking eternal happiness! Is it possible to imagine an attitude toward happiness and living further from our own?

    Wake up and forget that any legalistic and social factor is being seriously considered and applied in this matter of contention. It has turned out as a political battle between three contestants; the Nationalist Party, the Labour Party and the Church.

    Perhaps, that’s why none of our political parties never ever took the serious issue of contesting the unfairness of the coming referendum which immorally forces the determination of the majority and imposes its rules over the minority. Asking the people’s opinion on the rights of the minority is totally out of place, especially when the issue has no imposition on either party but is simply a right of one’s choosing in his or her pursuit of happiness?

    It must be common knowledge that the great majority of Maltese and Gozitans are against divorce. If any of you ever thought or imagined that the referendum will end in a ‘Yes’ majority, think again! Should one doubt that this conviction is not shared by most followers of Maltese politics, no lesser than by the Prime Minister himself, who has been striving incessantly to stimulate the voters’ negation of this right? “The fact that the whole world has divorce means nothing to me”. Thus spake he! Of course, he is the one and only! That’s democracy!

    If ever there was anything more irresponsible and indiscreet, it was the bringing of God and the Devil in this issue. How naïve can we be?! But perhaps this suited well the individual interests of a certain category of the local population.

    The Maltese church, or rather the Church in Malta, is manifesting grossly and strongly against the introduction of divorce in Malta. Recognizing the civil right of divorce, one is bound to ask how ethical or legal this is when we are cognizant of the fact that our taxpayers’ money is funding Church schools.

    Furthermore, since the Church has entered, in full force, the fray, why shouldn’t we raise the public awareness of defrocking the Church of all its political, financial and social privileges being constantly employed to target civil administration and imposing its diktats in public civil affairs? This is what lies at the root of it all and unless it is resolutely and incessantly tackled, its impositions would continue to be the tune of the day!

    For those who believe that Malta is not a religious State, please remember that there are Arabic states which leave the family law up to the law of the religion of the spouses. It is evident that Malta is not so different in as much as it empowers the Catholic Church to play around with marriage and annulment over the civil law.

    We gave it too much rope! Church marriages and annulments (Church divorces) in themselves should have no legal effect in Malta. Only a civil marriage or divorce should be legal.

    The ‘in favour’ and ‘against’ should strictly be confined to one’s conscience in refuting or adopting this civil right, following the introduction of the divorce law in Malta, and nothing more.

    “If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years.”

    Bertrand Russell

    Joseph M. Cachia May, 2011

    [email protected]

  20. John Schembri says:

    If it were for me I would disband the institution of marriage if we opt for divorce. Why take the trouble? We go back to basics.

    The difference between separation and divorce is that children will have a ‘new’ father or mother to live with, when their parents re-merry. Divorce legislation will give an official approval for this to happen over and over again.

    A work colleague is married to a widower who already had one child from his first (now deceased) wife. My friend had a lot of problems by this attention-seeking child who tried to depict the stepmother as cruel, like the ones described in fairy tales. Children find it hard to accept the decisions of their parents.

    [Daphne – You know what? That’s because she probably WAS cruel. Some men are blind to the wrong-doing of their women, even putting them before their children. They’d rather believe that their own child is an attention-seeking liar than comes to terms with the fact that their new wife or girlfriend is a total bitch.]

    To be fair another friend of mine, who separated after one month after being married , some time ago went to live with a separated woman with a child. The little boy bonded with his ‘new’ father and when the cohabiting couple quarreled and parted the little boy cried his heart out. That’s what my friend recounted with tears in his eyes.

    • John Schembri says:

      My friend is not a cruel woman, and I’m not blind. She and her husband talked to psychologists about the problem but they could not find a solution.

      She can’t discipline the child like normal responsible mothers do. These are real problems, Daphne, and even if my friend is a bitch (which she is not) they remain problems. It could easily be that the little girl wanted her father all for herself.

      [Daphne – No, John, children know when they are not loved, and they feel instinctively at risk when they are left in the care and control of individuals who do not love them. It is not the stepmother’s fault that she does not love the child. The child is not her own and she met her late. But the fact remains that the child feels imperilled and reacts according. The stepmother is not in a position to ‘discipline the child like normal responsible mothers do’ because she is not the child’s mother. There is no relationship of trust and love, but a relationship that is closer in nature to that between a teacher or babysitter and a child in her care. This is unfortunate but true, and the mistake your friend and his wife are making is to think that the wife can slot into the role of mother, probably because they see that role as purely functional (discipline, care, etc) rather than biological and emotional. In general, real mothers will even fight their husbands to further the best interests of their children, while stepmothers will fight the children to protect their relationship with their husband and their status in his life. I said: in general.]

      • John Schembri says:

        The wife is my work colleague not the husband.

        And your theory about stepmothers should also apply for the second wife or husband of a divorcee. In general.

        [Daphne – Of course it does. That’s what a stepmother is.]

    • M.S. says:

      That ‘attention-seeking’ child also has a dead mother.

  21. Kenneth Cassar says:

    [John Schembri – The difference between separation and divorce is that children will have a ‘new’ father or mother to live with, when their parents re-marry].

    Wrong. That’s not the difference between separation and divorce, but between re-marriage and cohabitation.

    • John Schembri says:

      Granted, but then why would one need divorce if he or she wan’t re-marry? Divorce gives one the licence to re-marry.

  22. Robert Galea says:

    Factors contributing to Divorce

    Quote: These socio-cultural trends later came to influence the passage of more liberal divorce laws. In turn,
    easier divorce laws, such as those promulgated in 1968 and 1985, are followed by an increase in divorce
    (see Table 2). Such laws signal the normalization of divorce: divorce lost its stigma and became
    more socially acceptable. These cultural and legal factors have made it easier for people to be less
    attached to marriage as an institution and consequently to turn to divorce as a solution.

    The type of divorce introduced will influence the incidence of divorce. Thus a no-fault divorce such as this one proposed in malta is one of the causes of divorce

    Source : Divorce facts causes and consequences

  23. Robert Galea says:

    And waht do you say about the Yes campaign telling us that does women who suffer violence need divorce. I would rather say that they need annulment because with an annulment that men who commits violence would not be allowed to committhat crime again.

    [Daphne – A man doesn’t need to marry a woman to beat her up.]

  24. H.P. Baxxter says:

    Recent studies have shown that this blog is contributing to marriage break-up. The findings, published in the New England Journal of Psychology, show that Maltese men are spending far too much time on Daphne’s blog, and their spouses are increasingly being pushed to seek alternative partners.

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