The Marriage Trap

This week a woman was refused a divorce because the judge ruled that the allegations against her husband were “of the kind to be expected in marriage”.

In the UK the only grounds for a divorce is the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage. This can be established by blaming your spouse of unreasonable behaviour (or accepting blame yourself), by living apart for two years and agreeing to end the marriage, or by living apart for five years and divorcing with our without spousal agreement.

In the case mentioned above, the woman, Tini Owens, petitioned for a divorce on the grounds that she is “desperately unhappy” in her marriage, and that her husband, Hugh Owens, has treated her like a child and has been mistrustful and insensitive. Hugh Owens disputes this and says they still have a few years to enjoy together, a statement which surely backs up the allegation that he is insensitive and treats his wife like a child, as if she is incapable of making her own decisions. The judge concluded not only that this behaviour was to be expected, but also that being “wretchedly unhappy” is not grounds for divorce.

This case highlights the need for no-fault divorces in the UK, though even under our current system whether there is blame to be apportioned over the breakdown of the relationship or not should realistically be inconsequential:  if one party wishes to trap their spouse in marriage then they are abusive, and that should be grounds enough for a court to grant a divorce irrespective of anything else.

The length of time currently required for a no-fault divorce is, its defenders say, necessary to uphold and protect marriage as an institution, and to ensure that marriage vows remain meaningful. This ignores (perhaps wilfully) the fact that the institution of marriage is one which explicitly grants men power over women. Women are still more likely to take on the responsibility of the home and childcare, and because of the wage gap it often makes financial sense for them to do so. When mothers do return to work they are more likely to work part time in lower paid roles, and are less likely to be promoted. Such inequalities mean that men are often in control of household finances, leaving women financially dependent.

In the Owens’ case, the husband’s refusal to agree to a divorce, and the judge’s refusal to grant one, means that Tini Owens must wait five years to end the marriage. Whether she is financially dependent on her husband is unclear from the reports, but if she is that will mean five years of living with a man who knows she is unhappy and wants her to continue to be so. Even if she is financially able to live a separate life the fact that she is legally bound to a man who wishes her trapped and unable to move on is unacceptable.

It must be enough that one party wishes to end a relationship; the law should not provide the means by which someone can be forced to stay in a relationship against their will. As it is the institutions of marriage and law continue to protect emotionally abusive spouses, consciously ignoring the potential for serious consequences on the health and well being of those forced to remain married.

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