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4 April 2022

One of the most hallowed of human institutions that have come under attack in our postmodern culture is marriage. Revisionists of different stripes have tried to reconstruct the traditional understanding and practice of marriage in many different and distorting ways.

Liberal ideologues have long questioned the necessity of marriage, which they judge as an arrangement that seriously hampers individual freedom. Alternatives such as co-habitation are said to trump marriage simply because they allow for greater exercise of personal autonomy.

There have also been many attempts to redefine marriage as it is traditionally understood as the union between a one man and one woman. Same-sex marriage, which is now legal in some countries, is one spectacular way in which marriage has been radically redefined. Following in its trail are new proposals of what constitutes a family.

Another way in which the marriage institution has been attacked is the relaxation of divorce laws. The pervasiveness of divorce in Western societies has been widely documented. For example, in the United States, 50 percent of all marriages will end in either divorce or separation.

The Singapore stats are not exactly very encouraging. According to one report, 7,623 out of 25,434 marriages in Singapore (i.e., 29.97 percent) have ended in divorce in 2020.

This already high incidence of divorce in our city-state will surely be exacerbated when the government introduces a new law which allows couples to file for divorce without attributing fault.

In May 2021, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) conducted a public survey on its proposals to amend current divorce laws in Singapore. The most significant proposal has to do with the introduction of what it calls the ‘amicable divorce’ option which allows couples to get a divorce without according blame.

According to MSF, the purpose of the amicable divorce option is to make the divorce process less acrimonious. In order to prevent this new law from making it easier for couples to walk away from their marriages, MSF will put in place certain safeguards. This is how the Ministry puts it:

However, as it is not the intention to make divorce “easy” or to undermine marriage, more marital counselling services should be provided to those who wish to save their marriage. Also, current safeguards should remain which includes the 3-year minimum marriage period before divorce can be filed, and the 3-month period before divorce is finalised.

No-fault divorce laws are not new. This landmark legislation was first introduced in America in 1969 because legislators had for a long time been dissatisfied with the defects of existing divorce laws then.

But no-fault divorce does not provide the expected solution to the problem. Instead, it caused the divorce rate in America to soar in the 1970s, and caused other serious social woes. Professor of Law at the University of Richmond Law School, Peter Nash Swisher, observes that:

In addition to a soaring divorce rate in the 1970s when no-fault divorce was first introduced in most states, a disturbing number of courts have failed to provide adequate financial protection to many women and children of divorce. Additionally, many children of divorce have suffered long-lasting psychological and economic damage resulting from divorce.

‘Indeed’, adds Swisher, ‘some commentators have concluded that the no-fault divorce revolution in America “has failed”’. It has failed not only because it did not deliver on its promises. It has failed also because it has produced more harms to all parties involved (especially the children) and to society as a whole.

No-fault divorce is totally alien to the Bible.

In the Bible, marriage is held in high regard because it was instituted by God himself (Genesis 1:27; 2:18, 22, 23). Marriage is the permanent union between one man and one woman in a covenant relationship by which they become ‘one flesh’. After citing Genesis 2, Jesus, in responding to the Pharisees on the question of marriage and divorce, said: ‘Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate’ (Matthew 19:6).

Because marriage is a sacred covenantal bond between a man and a woman, its dissolution must be taken very seriously. The Bible presents divorce as the absolute last resort when all attempts to save the marriage and restore the relationship between the husband and his wife have failed.

Christians should be careful not to buy into the prevailing idea that marriage is for happiness and that therefore, absence of happiness itself constitutes a legitimate reason for divorce. As Gary Thomas puts it, ‘What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?’

Scriptures provide only one basis for divorce, namely, marital infidelity. Matthew 5:32 records these words of Jesus: ‘But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality (Greek: porneias) causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.’

Many Christian commentators are therefore opposed to no-fault divorce legislations, especially in the way they are enacted in western societies. For example, Thomas Pascoe, of the Coalition for Marriage, has argued that no-fault divorce trivialises marriage by reducing it to nothing more than a ‘tenancy contract.’

No-fault divorce, he says, ‘undermines marriage by allowing anyone to walk away from their commitments, fully supported by the state, at any time without having a good reason.’ No-fault divorce, he continues, puts:

the most vulnerable at risk by removing the protections in the current system for those who become disabled or suffer a financial setback and whose spouses currently cannot divorce them on this basis. It also ignores common sense … Marriage between a man and a woman is part of our history and embedded in our social fabric. Real marriage is not a social invention and cannot be changed by legislation.

Regarding how no-fault divorce can negatively impact the welfare of children, Tim Dieppe, Head of Public Policy at Christian Concern comments that:

These proposals would mean that one partner can impose divorce on the other and any children, forcing them to move house and break up the family. This amounts to ‘unilateral divorce’ where one partner is imposing divorce on the other. Studies have shown that children do better with married parents, even if those parents are in conflict. No-one seems to care about the effects on children and vulnerable women of making one-sided unilateral divorce legal.

Given that one in three marriages in Singapore already ends in divorce, no-fault divorce would further erode the foundation of the institution of marriage. It can subtly change society’s view of marriage, gradually even bringing about its abolition.

If marriage can be so easily dissolved, and the parties involved are not obliged to even give any reason for ending it, why should anyone take marriage as an institution seriously? Why not replace it with a different arrangement, such as cohabitation?

In addition, there is a certain connection between no-fault divorce and same-sex marriage that is discernible in western societies that countries such as Singapore must be alert to and wary of. This is how theologian Albert Mohler has perceptively described this trajectory:

If you trace the trajectory of the sexual revolution, rampant, no-fault divorce preceded same sex-marriage. When divorce reigned as the new normal for marriages, it redefined the institution as a covenant amounting to a public commitment for a lifetime. Once the society remade marriage into a morally irrelevant, non-binding commitment, it was just a short jump to same-sex marriage. If a culture can dismiss the covenant of marriage, it can dismiss other binding, biblical and indeed, glorious commitment, which made marriage a beautiful, God-glorifying reality.

On August 4, 2021, Channel News Asia reported that MSF has launched a new cross-sector group whose aim is to create and implement solutions to help strengthen marriage. ‘The Alliance for Action (AfA) to Strengthen Marriage and Family Relationships’, the report says, ‘was set up as families continue to remain the fundamental building block in Singapore society.’

MSF’s proposal to introduce the amicable divorce option to current divorce laws seems to be in conflict with its very laudable endeavour to strength marriage and families in Singapore. For, as Thomas Pascoe has eloquently put it, ‘You cannot strengthen an institution by stripping it of its legal protections and asking progressively less of its participants.’

The amicable divorce laws would weaken the marriage commitment and demand less resilience from married couples when problems start to mount in their marriages. Instead of working together to find solutions, some couples may choose the ‘easier’ option by simply ending the marriage and starting afresh. The amicable divorce laws prove too tempting an option for couples because it reduces the conflict and acrimony in the divorce procedure, making it less fraught for them to part ways.

The introduction of no-fault divorce laws in whatever form is therefore emphatically not a step in the right direction for a society like Singapore that still values the institution of marriage and the family.

Social policies and even the law should not be directed at making it easier for married couples to quit their marriages. Rather they should be aimed at helping married couples to build stronger marriages and to become more resilient in the face of problems and challenges.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.