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An Insidious Family Legacy

There are only two countries in the world without a divorce law. The Philippines is one, and the other is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church – Vatican City. Religion is clearly a common denominator between these two independent states with Vatican City being habited by mostly priests and nuns, and the Philippines, a conservative country being predominantly Catholic. Protecting the “sanctity of marriage” is often the reason for staying out of the divorce business.

It is, therefore, not surprising that a last-minute snag prevented the House bill from being transmitted to the Upper Chamber. Even if for some miraculous intervention that the bill makes it to the Philippine Senate, it will die a natural death because the needed votes are not there. The Catholic Church and other Christian denominations oppose a permanent divorce “to protect the family” and politicians are often hindered by that dictum. Many senators would support legal annulment, an exercise that is only affordable to the wealthy.

Lost in the conversation is why liberal-minded legislators are pushing for its passage especially for women who are victims of domestic violence (physical, sexual, and mental abuse). Permanent divorce, they say, will provide a pathway for the victims to rebuild their lives. Perhaps, the advocates ought to go beyond the sphere of the victims of domestic abuse, to other members of the household that are equally victimized by the same instances of abuse. I’m talking about the generational impact of such traumatic experiences. It is very real, and nobody wants to talk about it, much less do something.

For instance, a family member was recently admitted for more than a week long hospital stay with a life-threatening medical condition. As in any hospital in the country, another family member is often expected to provide support during the patient’s stay because the facility’s healthcare staff are often lacking. During the hospital stay, some issues (financial, family and quality of support) cropped up needing intervention that involved not only the family members of the patient, but the patient’s siblings.

From the conversations it became apparent that multiple fault lines emerged pointing to prior exposures to domestic abuse with lingering trauma that crossed generations with a Millennial and Generation Z now doing the abuse to the elderly patient. This is really the part that legislators advocating for permanent divorce should expound on to educate not only the legislators but the whole citizenry that would often skirt such conversation on domestic abuse and attendant trauma because of cultural baggage (shame, religious beliefs, societal pressure).

Psychologists say that the vicious cycle of abuse could probably be traced back to earlier generations who were products of wars, conflicts, poverty, racism, or were victimized in an abusive environment. Unless the cycle of abuse is broken, kids grow up and raise their own family carrying with them the DNA of the insidious family legacy. The Catholic Church’s mantra of wanting to “protect” the sanctity of marriage and keep the family whole, is an illusion that is divorced from reality. By disallowing divorce restores the power to the abuser and shifts the blame to the abused.

For a Catholic marriage to be sanctified, the relationship should bring about holiness and happiness, and it should reflect a selfless and sacrificial love that Jesus has shown us. Marriage requires two individuals who took the marriage vow “to love and to cherish” and be committed to God. Where are all that in a relationship marred by violence and domestic abuse? Is it truly holy to stay in a marriage marked by broken promises of marriage because of the paper it is written on? I don’t think so.

Marriage is sacred but to allow the bond to be ensnared in the web of domestic abuse breaks the covenant and the abuser did that. Violence and domestic abuse are evil things that men do ‘til death do us part, unless stopped. Divorce is one way to do it legally. Others who are truly desperate and hopeless resort to extremes like murder to break loose from such an abusive relationship.

Men are often the abuser, but moms are equally capable especially if it is in the DNA. Philippine statistics show that domestic violence is experienced mostly by women and children. Similarly, sexual abuse involves women and girls. Often, these incidents are not reported because of cultural barriers like shame, fear, and a community with high tolerance to domestic abuse.

Keeping family members in such an abusive environment is aiding and abetting and destroying the family in the long run. Abused kids become the abusers themselves when their turn comes, perpetuating the same costly mistakes that their parents made. Abused kids suffer from mental depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pent up anger from all the years of abuse that can lead to blow ups and can even lead to substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) and long-term medical conditions.

The legislators should also explore other factors that impact poor families. Poverty, on its own, is already a risk factor for domestic violence. Studies have shown a consistent pattern linking economic hardship of intimate partner violence. It seems obvious that couples experiencing financial difficulties will experience more stress which may give rise to situational violence. We see this a lot in rural areas and depressed urban areas where unemployment runs high.

Legislators should also look at other risk factors that contribute to higher rates of domestic abuse like alcohol abuse, gambling particularly among those with less than a high school education and lacking independent economic resources in areas with greater economic insecurity. Machismo, the attitude that men are naturally strong [not under the saya (skirt)] and self-reliant, is a strong influence in Filipino culture.

Machismo, however, is not only the domain of men. A Filipino mother (and father) would shower the sons with more affection and preferential treatment over their daughters because they will marry someday and will no longer carry the family name. Worse, the girls will not be supported to go to college for this same reason.

One of the grounds of the bill for granting a permanent divorce is adultery. This is probably a stronger motivation for male legislators to be stymied and not do the right thing. Philippine laws on adultery are empowering men to freely engage in it because adultery can only be committed by a woman by legal definition. Machismo favors men being womanizers and getting into adulterous relationships. It is a common knowledge that men in power or wealth often keep mistresses. Divorce will expose them to ridicule and legal trouble.

Social support and interventions are sorely lacking. In the local government, the barangay captain gets the first stab at resolving instances of domestic abuse. The barangay captain who sits as chairman of the Lupon Tagapamayapa (barangay justice system) can issue a protection order for the perpetrator to cease but perhaps won’t because the perpetrator is an extended relative and would just talk the abused out of it. Divorce? Good luck!


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