updated 16 Jan 2012, 00:11
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Sun, Jan 08, 2012
The Star/Asia News Network
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Not so happily ever after

AFTER just 14 months of marriage, pop starlet Katy Perry and comedian Russell Brand announced their divorce, due to "irreconcilable differences".

But this is not as shocking as the break-up of reality star Kim Kardashian and basketball player Kris Humphries, who decided to call it quits 72 days after their big day, or nineties pop star Sinead O'Connor after 18 days, also due to irreconcilable differences.

Now, if they were Malaysians, they would not have been able to break up so easily, says Family Law practitioner Andy Low Hann Yong, especially not with "irreconcilable differences" as reason.

This is due to the restriction on civil marriages where married couples can file for divorce only after two years.

"I have clients who want a divorce after one to three months of marriage because they really cannot get along or live together for a minute longer but they are forced to bear with it due to the law," says Low.

In fact, he adds, those seeking divorce within two years of marriage make up roughly about 10% of his divorcing clientele.

"It is causing a lot of problems and heartache for these couples."

Under the law, couples are required to attend a marriage tribunal for six months to work out their marital issues, as well as cool down, before they divorce.

However, for some, working it out is the last thing they want to do.

"I am not encouraging divorce, but many clients in this predicament say that they are suffering and just want out," shares Low.

K. Devi is one who had to suffer in a bad marriage for more than a year.

"My husband walked out on me a few months into my marriage but as we went to the same church and moved in the same social circle, he was still very much in my life. Then he started seeing a friend of mine," she says.

Broken-hearted, Devi simply wanted to move on with her life but the law held her back.

"We both wanted out but were stuck," she says.

Low strongly believes that the law needs to be reviewed, especially with the seemingly growing number of "early" break-ups of marriages.

"I don't think the law has and will reduce divorce, so if both parties consent, you need to just grant them a divorce," he says, noting that there is no such restriction for Muslim marriages.

The National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) also sees a rising trend in early divorces. Although it has no complete data, LPPKN believes that figures indicate that more marriages are breaking up after three to five years.

"Marriages now do not seem to withstand the (traditional) seven years of sanctity. A high number of divorces is happening in the fifth year of marriage and now seems to be going down to three as more Malaysians are marrying later," notes Datuk Dr Aminah Abdul Rahman, the director-general of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry agency.

Irreconcilable differences is oft cited by the couples as a major cause of their break-up.

Other causes range from changing culture to unrealistic expectation of marriage and lack of conflict-resolving skills among young married couples.

Modern pressures

Prof Dr Sarinah Low Abdullah, chartered psychologist with the Health Research Development Unit at the Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya, thinks that the period before the "itch" strikes a marriage is becoming shorter as people are no longer willing to work towards their marriage.

When reality and their expectation of "happy-ever-after" do not match for the newly married couples, they will start thinking: "What am I doing?"

"This is compounded by the thought that they are still young enough to try again and get another person, so they might as well give up," says Dr Sarinah.

She strongly believes that two to three years is too soon to give up on any relationship. Nonetheless, she believes that the marriage institution is still revered by young Malaysians, but many are getting married without fully understanding the meaning of marriage and commitment.

Worse, many are taking their vows for the wrong reasons.

"People get married due to pressure to settle down, for religious reasons, for social status, double income," she says.

Many also do it because it is another "examination" that they need to get an "A" in.

"We live in a very competitive society and our concept of success is very materialistic what car is she/he driving, which designer bag did she buy, how posh is their bungalow and who are they married to," says Dr Sarinah.

Hence, couples tend to get so carried away chasing for these material things that they neglect their marriage. And now that a double income is a necessity for a comfortable life, or simply to cope with family expenses, work is definitely a factor in the failure of modern marriages, she stresses.

"Many people are too tired and agitated from work to invest time in their marriage. What they don't realise is that a relationship does not rely on sunshine or water nothing is free and cannot be taken for granted."

An editor at a publishing company who only wants to be known as Brenda* has another take on the phenomenon.

"We are the instant generation'," says Brenda, whose marriage broke down after a year.

"If our TV is spoilt, we don't repair it any more, we get a new one. Nobody wants to work at anything any more," she adds.

Brenda, however, tried to work out her relationship problems but she could not save her marriage as her ex was not willing to. When they reached the two-year timeframe, they both filed for a quick divorce.

Easier option

There are more people who are considering divorce and separation at an early stage of their marriage because it is now an option for this current generation, says marriage and family therapist Charis Wong of Kin & Kids, a marriage, family and child therapy centre in Ampang.

In our parents' time, that was not an option, she adds.

"Once they got married, they stayed married for the rest of their lives, and if they were unhappy in their marriage, they remained unhappily married. Even if your partner cheated on you, divorce was not an option."

Couples who face a lot of problems in the early years of marriage largely tend to fall into two patterns, Wong highlights.

One pattern consists of those who have a short courtship.

"This includes arranged marriages or those who rushed into marriage, so they did not have time to work out or discover possible problems," she says.

The second pattern comprises those who have been in a relationship for a long time and already have problems but they went ahead with marriage anyway.

"When I asked some of my clients, they said that they were aware of their problem before they got married but they did not think that it would grow so big. There are many reasons why they went ahead with their marriage even though they were not happy, such as parental and societal pressure," she adds.

A strong believer in premarital education, Wong reminds that the first three years are a period of adjustment for newlyweds, even if they cohabited before marriage.

"Practically, you need to learn how to be housemates. Even if you were living together before that, there is still a lot of readjustment to do," she says, highlighting that a lot of research done on cohabiting couples who get married show that they are at a higher risk of divorce.

It is even more challenging when they have a child, she adds, as young couples need to balance between parental and spousal responsibilities.

As a marriage-friendly therapist, says Wong, she will try to help her clients save their marriage if that is what they want.

"But if there are factors that will be contra-indicative of a successful marriage, then it is my professional duty to tell them. Say that there is ongoing abuse, for instance. I don't see how they can be happy in their marriage if it continues."

Other factors include third party involvement, alcohol addiction or drug abuse, and untreated and serious mental problems.

"It is my professional duty to warn them that until and unless they get this treated, I won't be able to help their marriage but if both parties want to work on their marriage, I'll be there to help."

It is a difficult option, Wong opines.

"If a couple is unhappy and they are still together, I don't think that it is good but divorce is not necessarily the best solution, either, especially if children are involved. They will be affected," she says, advising couples to work on their marriage even from the beginning.

"Don't wait until it is the last option before divorce."

Reproductive health consultant Dr Siti Norazah Zulkifli feels that early divorce is happening more because the modern world places more emphasis on individualism and personal satisfaction, including happiness.

"There is nothing wrong with that life is short; why shouldn't we be happy? With the later age at first marriage, hence, maturity, in all economically advancing societies like Malaysia, and the freedom of choice such as choice of life partner, one assumes happiness to be in the decision-making process to marry."

However, she cautions, if depending on your partner to make you happy is a major reason to get married, then dissatisfaction can set in when the romantic bloom fades.

"The marital environment is different from the single courtship environment when both were possibly more eager to please, to impress. The boy/girl who made you so happy before marriage and in the early years of marriage, may not sustain this happiness-giving performance'.

"Let's face it when you live with someone and get to know them intimately, personal traits (the real person!) that you don't like so much may emerge he's messy, she's bad at keeping house, he puts his mother above you, she puts her career first. And if the couple cannot communicate effectively and negotiate acceptable compromises, divorce may be a recourse."

With romance dying earlier in today's world, having to stick it out for 24 months is a life sentence for some.

"Legally, if you want to get a divorce before two years, there are some loopholes, but you would need to prove that there is exceptional hardship suffered by one partner," says Low.

"Unfortunately, irreconcilable differences' (which include extra-marital affairs) do not qualify as hardship. Only physical abuse is taken into account."

Another legal remedy is annulment of the marriage, which is becoming increasingly popular.

"A refusal of consummation is one of the reasons for annulment and, as it is generally uncontested, it will be accepted," he says.

Many however, simply opt for separation until the legal time for divorce.

The LPPKN, meanwhile, is looking at strengthening the mediation process for non-Muslim couples intending to divorce, as well as marriage counselling for all.

"We need more trained counsellors in Malaysia. We also need to change people's mindset towards marriage counselling.

"At the same time, we accept that some marriages cannot be saved. Even if you manage to save the marriage, the couple may not be happy," says Dr Aminah.

The most worrying aspect of the early divorce trend, she stresses, is that it seems to be happening most for those aged 30 to 49.

(Ironically, married couples in their early 20s or those who tied the knot in their teens seem to be happily married.)

"This trend is worrying as most at that age have young children and are in mid-careers, so getting a divorce splitting their income into two is destabilising for the family," she says, urging for more research into the issue, especially since the average marrying age of Malaysians is expected to increase to 33 years by 2015.

In the meantime, however, the support system for these single families especially the gaps in the system urgently needs to be addressed, stresses Dr Aminah.

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