Malta wedding AFP
A wedding in Malta. Photo by AFP
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Valletta, MALTA - In Malta, just like everywhere else in the world, not all marriages work out as planned. Sometimes spouses grow apart. Sometimes it turns out they were never suited for each other to begin with. Sometimes one of them falls in love with someone else. As with many couples the world over, some try to work it out for the kids, some try to work it out for their parents, and some try to work it out for themselves. And yet, in the end, a certain - and growing - number of couples eventually decide to call it quits.

But in Malta, such couples encounter a unique problem: Here, divorce is illegal. At a time when, in many countries, almost half of the marriages end in divorce, this strictly Catholic island remains one of only two nations - the other being the Philippines - where it is simply not allowed. Billboards scattered around the country proclaiming "Divorce: God doesn't want it" drive home the point clearly.

When the prohibition on divorce was written into the Maltese constitution in the 1960s, with the encouragement of the Vatican, it was common elsewhere in the Catholic Mediterranean - including Italy, Portugal, Spain and Ireland. But those countries have all since legalized divorce, leaving traditional, family-centered Malta - with its small population of about 415,000 (of which 98 percent is Roman Catholic ) - an anomaly.

"We are still bound to the principle that marriage is for life, and we should be proud of this," explains senior statesman Eddie Fenech Adami, who has served as both prime minister and president of Malta. Other countries, he charges, are "confused" and are "living in great contradiction." Perhaps. But what else is an unhappy couple to do?

"There are ways around the problem," says Mark, a local banker, who is on his second marriage. For one, he explains, foreign divorces are recognized in Malta; so if one has the means, this is an option. And it's the one Mark took. He met his first wife, an Australian, when he was attending university in England. Because the two wed in Australia, he was also able to obtain a divorce there, a process which required several month-long trips Down Under to establish his residency.

"But for the large majority of the population, traveling abroad and obtaining the necessary prerequisites for such a foreign divorce is difficult, if not impossible," he says. "I was lucky, so to speak, but it's not a solution."

In 2009, according to the country's National Statistics Office, only 31 divorces granted by foreign countries were recognized in Malta.

The Catholic annulment route

Another option is to apply for a Catholic annulment of marriage, but this is no simple process either. Approval can take a particularly long time in Malta (typically eight to 10 years ) if permission is given at all, and also requires proof the marriage was never valid to begin with - either because it was never consummated, or because "important information" (think impotence, infertility or insanity ) was unknown at the time of marriage.

In 2009, only 167 such annulments were granted.

So what about the hundreds and even thousands of others on this island who want out of bad marriages? While there are no statistics on the matter in Malta, unofficial estimates show the country is not far behind others in the European Union, where an average of about 40 percent of marriages do not last.

"We were traditionally trained from childhood that marriage is a lifelong bond and that therefore one must choose one's spouse carefully, as this is the person one is to spend the rest of one's life with," says Pierre Mallia, a professor of bioethics here.

"But," he admits, "modern society has indeed taken its toll and people look at secularized societies. Many more people opt out of marriage very early now."

For the vast majority of those couples in Malta looking to separate, for whom neither an annulment nor a foreign divorce is an option, the solution is to avoid the extra headache, heartache and expense and simply split up unofficially. In other words, people move on with their lives, leave the home, co-habitate with new partners, have new families - all while still married to their original partner.

"Knowing you are officially 'stuck' in a marriage perhaps made me personally be more careful," says Joanne, an architect who married in her mid-30s, long after all of her friends. "But I see that the system does not work. My friends don't work harder on their marriages or anything like that. Being in a relationship in Malta is no less complicated than it is anywhere else, obviously. It's like saying: 'Don't build a hospital because then more people will get sick.' It does not make sense."

More than a technical nuisance

Sometimes separating couples will obtain an official "separation agreement," which requires them to go through a state-sponsored mediation process and then work with lawyers to set up guidelines for a financial arrangement. Last year, 519 couples in Malta officially separated, and there are reportedly over a thousand backlogged cases of others wanting to receive this status.

The whole situation, point out those who advocate divorce, is more than a technical nuisance - it creates various legal and financial problems related to children, property and the former partner's rights. And beyond that, the inability of anyone to remarry leads to further complications concerning the the insecure status of those in second partnerships.

"I met a man when I was 22 and we married," relays Maria, now 42. "A miserable year later, we separated and I was alone for five years until I met Fernando, who himself was separated from his wife and had one child."

After living together for 11 years, during which time they had three children, Fernando then left Maria, who does not work and has no source of income, for another woman.

"Now I have no status or money or means of getting anything from Fernando because I was never his wife," she continues. "In fact, because he had a separation agreement with his wife, he is obligated to financially support her and his first child, but has no responsibility toward us."

With a younger generation that is less religious, the fact that the marriages of everyone from senior members of parliament to top judges are breaking up, and a reported one in every four children today being born out of wedlock has led to a growing bipartisan cry to change the laws pertaining to divorce.

According to Michael Frendo, the speaker of the parliament, the frustration surrounding the Catholic stand on divorce in Malta is unique. There is no such cry, for example, against the ban on abortion or the prohibition of gay marriage that is in place. And, while the country still seems split on the question, there now seems, for the first time, to be a slight shift in balance.

In July, Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando presented the first private member's bill to introduce divorce. Many here expect this will lead to a referendum on the question and a vote in parliament next year. If there is a referendum, it will be the first one held in Malta since the country's 2003 vote on whether to join the EU - an indication of the importance of the debate.

"Allowing divorce in Malta will neither make worse or solve the problem of a breakdown of marriage and family," says journalist Kurt Sansone, who has covered the issue for the local Times newspaper. "That breakdown is traumatic and painful any way you look at it, but more and more people are ready to admit that we need a divorce law."