SINGAPORE: There may be more benefits to allowing no-fault divorces despite some concerns that it could encourage couples to split up instead of working to save their marriage, said sociologists and counsellors.
A no-fault divorce option does not require couples to prove a fault-based fact such as adultery, or show that they have separated for at least three years.
It is among the proposals laid out by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) as it seeks views from the public on measures to better support divorcing couples and their children.
Another suggestion is to allow couples to jointly file for divorce, rather than placing them at odds as a plaintiff and defendant.
READ: MSF seeks views on support for divorcing couples and their children, including no-fault divorce
It is a “common and valid concern” that no-fault divorce may reduce the barriers to a split to a point where marriage is devalued, or that divorce would be "carelessly exercised", but this is not necessarily the case, said Mr John Shepherd Lim, chief well-being officer of the Singapore Counselling Centre.
He pointed out that there are safeguards in place. For instance, the Government intends to keep the requirement for couples to be married for at least three years before they can file for divorce.
“It is important to consider that this reduced barrier to divorce is not necessarily undesirable, especially in cases where the couple really struggles to live peacefully together after years of trying to work things out," said Mr Lim.
“Being trapped in a loveless, unsatisfying relationship can take a serious toll not just on the individual’s mental health, but also on their spouse’s and children’s mental health and well-being,” he said, adding that less confrontation and blame would help children adjust to the divorce better.
In addition, having marital counselling for couples ensures that those filing for no-fault divorce have thought through their decision and are given the support they need to improve their marriage during the three-month wait period, said Mr Lim.
Forcing couples to linger in unhappy marriages could be “more damaging”, said sociologist Paulin Straughan from the Singapore Management University.
Bickering couples would give marriage a bad name and cause their children to suffer, she said. And with longer lifespans, it is unrealistic to expect people to stick with a specific partner for 50 years or more, especially if they made those commitments at a young age, she added.
“The fact that those in unhappy unions want to be given the chance to start again, and to have a second chance at marriage is testament to the valorisation of what marriage means to them,” said Professor Straughan.
She suggested stepping up marriage preparation programmes and to avoid rushing young couples into marriage.
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser noted that no-fault divorce could be undesirable if it means that couples are less likely to commit time to work through their problems.
But if they have done their best and staying together means more pain and harm to everyone involved, including their children, then a no-fault divorce would help them “cut losses”, he said.
IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FAMILY UNIT
An amicable divorce could benefit the family unit as it would give parents a “more positive outlook” on co-parenting and relationships going forward, said Dr Tracie Lazaroo, a clinical psychologist from Inner Light Psychological Services and LP Clinic.
Current divorce laws can create some semblance of “tunnel vision”, she said, as parties will be more reactionary and “easily caught up in the fault-finding process”.
“This makes it more challenging for couples to acknowledge the true extent of the collateral damage and make appropriate decisions in the moment.”
Continued tension from a long-drawn divorce process can also cause psychological issues relating to anger management and anxiety, said Dr Lazaroo.
She added that if the fault-finding behaviour becomes “habitual” and follows the couple even after they have finalised their divorce, this could have a greater impact on their children.
Despite the benefits of no-fault divorce, Assoc Prof Tan noted that this option has implications for the family unit.
“It could also mean greater uncertainty and instability, if the family is no longer understood as having permanence resulting from members learning to build strong bonds with one another and develop resilience as a family unit,” he said.
As such, no-fault divorce would be “undesirable” if the option is “abused”, he said.
Ultimately, when marriage deteriorates to the point where reconciliation is unlikely, both parties will be in “much pain and poor spirit”, said Professor Straughan.
“So anything to help them get through this difficult period will certainly make it easier for them to recover their faith in marriage and have the courage to try again,” she said.