“Till Death Do Us Part”? Moral Questions on Marriage and Divorce

In continuation of my previous post on loyalty, I reflect here on some moral questions surrounding divorce. Marriage is an event and process that involves an intent to be loyal or at least a declaration of loyalty. In many, if not most, parts of the world, marriage is significant, and comes with important moral and ethical expectations and obligations. Thus, when a marriage breaks down, is dissolved or discontinued, there are certain moral and ethical questions that arise. Indeed, both from philosophical and theological perspectives, key debates that question whether divorce is right derive their origins from what is considered ethically or morally acceptable. In this note, I raise some of these questions – although I only partially answer a few of them.

Marriage

In most cultures and religions, marriage involves certain rituals that make it a very important event, and this brings expectations. Firstly, an oath of some kind is taken through which people declare that they now belong to each other. In many Nigerian cultures, a marriage involves exchange of food or drink between a woman and her partner. This symbolic gesture is part of the process of recognising them as a couple. In most Christian denominations, there is a declaration of fidelity and loyalty and the pledge to remain together unconditionally ‘till death do us part’. This unconditional declaration of loyalty brings along with it the expectation that people will stay in a marriage regardless of the circumstances.

Secondly, marriages in many cultures in Nigeria involve many different parts of a person’s life. Marriages typically involve families, extended families, friends and acquaintances of the couple. In fact, in some cultures, these marriages are hosted by the families of the couple. Thus, in this sense, ending a marriage through divorce or a permanent separation has implications not just for the individuals in question but also their families. Often, family reactions to divorces reflect a concern for the family’s reputation and, to some degree, shame. Thus, while marriage is seen as a declaration of loyalty between two parties, staying in it for some people may be a show of loyalty to their extended families. Thirdly, when a marriage is contracted, people make certain promises via the declarations or promises they make. These promises are significant in that they involve a conscious commitment to stay loyal to the other party regardless of what happens in the future. The vow below from The Knot is an illustrative example of this (see especially the last two lines):

I take you to be my partner for life,
I promise above all else to live in truth with you
And to communicate fully and fearlessly,
I give you my hand and my heart
As a sanctuary of warmth and peace
And pledge my love, devotion, faith and honor
As I join my life to yours.

Drawing from various debates, the key question, which forms the basis of this post is, is marriage sacrosanct? At what point is it reasonable to terminate or discontinue a marriage relationship? These are surely questions that have been debated for millennia, and it is unlikely that they will be resolved any time soon.

Is Marriage Sacrosanct?

When people contract a marriage, they do so based on their knowledge and feelings at that point in time. What if they learn of something that they did not foresee or anticipate initially, is this a reasonable basis for a divorce? Furthermore, people change. People’s behaviours evolve and their preferences change. If the changes in a partner’s life are not consistent with what the other party initially anticipated, is this a good basis for a divorce? What should a person do when their spouse experiences significant changes in their personality? Since a person makes a marriage vow based on limited information, should it be binding for life? Is marriage so important that it cannot be discontinued? Should a change in circumstances result in a different set of choices? For example, if a partner becomes violent and abusive, if a partner becomes uncaring or fails to maintain their own side of the bargain (fidelity, care, affection, etc.), should these factors affect the choices that the other party makes? Certainly, these are all not easy questions.

In his analyses, Justin McBrayer, outlined certain principles which should guide whether a divorce is morally permissible. McBayer posits that something is morally permissible if ‘there is no moral obligation requiring you to act differently.’ Based on the principle of moral obligations, he suggests that a divorce can be procured if moral obligations that accompany a marriage, through promises made in the marriage vow, are not kept or if there are circumstances that invalidate those promises in the first place. Two instances of these are cited here. Firstly, if the marriage promise is not valid, for example where a person’s agency and autonomy are taken away – if they were forced, manipulated or not in the position to make a valid marriage promise (certainly applies to child marriage). Secondly, if both parties mutually decide to end the marriage, to the extent that there are no moral obligations that require them to remain together for a period – such as when there are children involved. While this second point could be valid, one exception I would point out here is when violence is involved or when the wellbeing of one of the partners is at risk, this invalidates any obligation to remain as this could cause even further harm to both the person and the children they seek to protect.

In certain cultures, and religions, marriage is sacrosanct – ‘for better or worse, till death do us part’. In these cultures, people are strongly encouraged to remain together even when the certain moral obligations have been violated – for example if one partner breaks the promise of fidelity. In fact, certain Christian denominations insist that divorce is sinful and not acceptable. But this position fails to recognise that marriage is based on the promise to love and care and protect, and breaking these promises should have an outcome or consequence. Moreover, the challenge with this proposition when violence is involved is that there could be risks that one person’s behaviour can cause serious physical or psychological harm to or death of the other.

Despite this, in these societies, divorce elicits stigma, and the label of being a divorcee could cost a person opportunities. I question here, what is the right thing to do when one party has failed to hold up their end of the marriage bargain? Should the other remain? What if one person in the relationship intentionally wants to harm or end the life of the other? Is divorce tenable in this circumstance? At what point does it become unreasonable to remain in a relationship? What is the place of divorce? In some jurisdictions, a minimum period of separation needs to be met before a divorce application can be considered. Is this detrimental to either or one party? As I said at the start of this article, these are not easy questions. However, some philosophers, like McBrayer, have suggested that marriage is not sacrosanct and can be dissolved if certain moral obligations are broken. I agree with them, and suggest that in instances where certain obligations have been disregarded or broken, it is reasonable to leave or break a marriage.

What is the right thing to do?

As with most moral philosophy questions, the right thing to do is always a question of context, moral position of the person in question, and their personal beliefs. Having said that however, it is important to note that there are certain principles underlying loyalty that can offer guidance on what is the right thing to do. The first is the nature of loyalty itself. In much of the writings on the concept, it has been suggested that loyalty is voluntary. This means that at the minimum, a person’s intention to remain or leave a marriage, all things considered, should be voluntary. When loyalty is forced, it breeds resistance or outright rejection. Loyalty should never be forced. Thus, a person should not be forced to stay in a relationship against their will. Second is trust. As with scholars who have written about this topic, I agree that marital promises are made in good faith. But once these promises are broken, trust is broken, and this has could be a reasonable basis for leaving a marriage. Thirdly, there is the question of respect. Respect has so many dimensions. However, one dimension bothers on abuse. If a party in the marriage becomes abusive, either verbally, physically or sexually, that could be a reasonable basis to leave a marriage.

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