THE BLOG

No Way Out In Malta

01/03/2011 12:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Valletta, Malta

In Malta, just like everywhere else in the world, not all marriages work out as planned.

Sometimes the couple grows apart. Sometimes it turns out they were never suited to begin with. Sometimes one of the two falls in love with someone else.

Just like other couples elsewhere in the world, 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, at the end, a certain - and growing -- number eventually decide to call it quits.

But then comes a problem which is different here than anywhere else in the world: In Malta, divorce is illegal.

Yes, at a time when, in many countries, almost half of marriages end in divorce, this strictly Catholic island remains one of only two countries - the other being the Philippines--where it is simply not allowed. Billboards scattered around the country with the words: "Divorce: God doesn't want it," bring 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 the Catholic Mediterranean, such as in Italy, Portugal, Spain and Ireland. But, those countries have all since legalized it, leaving traditional, family-centered Malta, with its small population of about 415,000- of which is 98 percent 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 is an unhappy couple to do?

"There are ways around the problem," says Mark, a banker, who is on his second marriage.
For one, he explains, foreign divorces are recognized in Malta - so, if one has the means and ways, this is an option. And it's the one Mark took. He met his first wife, an Australian, when he was at university in England, and the two wed Down Under. As such, he was also able to obtain a divorce in Australia, a process which required several month-long trips to that country to establish 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 National Statistics Office, only 31 divorces granted by foreign countries were recognized in Malta.

Another option is to apply for a Catholic annulment of marriage--but this is no simple process either. It can take a particularly long time in Malta--typically eight to ten years--to be approved, if permission is given at all, and requires proof the marriage was never valid to begin with, either because it was never consummated, or because there was "important information" (think impotence, infertility or insanity) that was unknown at the time. In 2009, only 167 annulments were granted.

So what about the hundreds and even thousands of others who want out of bad marriages? While there are no statistics on the matter in Malta, unofficial estimates are that the country is not far behind others in the EU, where an average of about 40 percent of marriages break up.

"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 had its toll and people look at secularized societies. Many more people opt out of marriage very early now."

For the vast majority of those separating Maltese couples, for whom neither an annulment or a foreign divorce is an option, the solution is to avoid the extra headache, heartache and expense and simply separate unofficially. Meaning, people move on with their lives: Leaving the family home, co-habitating with new partners, having new families, and yet all the while still married to their original partner.

"Knowing you are officially 'stuck' in marriage might have made me personally be more careful," says Joanne, an architect who only married in her mid 30s, long after all 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."

Sometimes, separating couples will get an official "separation agreement," which requires going through a state sponsored mediation process and then working with lawyers to set up guidelines for a financial arrangement. Last year, 519 couples officially separated, and there are reportedly over a thousand backlogged cases of others wanting to get this status.
The whole situation, point out pro-divorce advocates, is more than a technical nuisance -- it creates various legal and financial problems having to do with children, property and rights of the former partner. The inability of anyone to re-marry, meanwhile, leads to even more complications having to do with the insecure status of those in second partnerships.

"I met a man when I was 22 and we married. 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," relays 42 year old Maria. After eleven years of living together, and three children, Fernando 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 any of this from Fernando because I was never his wife. 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 towards us."

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

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

In July, Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando presented the first private member's bill to introduce divorce, and many here now 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 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 writes about 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."