The Times, 13 May 2011
In contemporary modern societies, individualisation is becoming increasingly common in all aspects of life. Though we are influenced by factors such as class, gender and culture, we are increasingly autonomous and reflexive in our life choices. Family life is no exception.
Though not always the case, people are increasingly likely to make their own decisions about the formation and dissolution of families, rather than simply follow inherited traditional social rules. It is as if people are freer to write their own biographies, in a context of reflexivity. In turn, lifestyles have become more flexible, variable, complex and plural. Here, opportunities and risks are two sides of the same coin.
Hence, we no longer speak of “the family” in the singular tense as if there is just one type of family but we speak of “families”, comprising situations and formations such as marriage, separation, divorce, annulment, cohabitation, single parenthood, same-sex relationships and so forth.
Of course, not everyone welcomes such changes. Broadly speaking, traditionalists believe that families (as defined by traditionalists) are in decline while progressives maintain that what is happening is a continuous process of change and transition. Indeed, there have been different family forms throughout the history of human societies, across time and space.
Even though most people would like to live in a stable marriage, the plain truth is that not everyone does so. An interplay of factors, such as personal beliefs, character traits and experienced situations (at times contrary to one’s aspirations), have to be taken into consideration in this regard.
One may decide not to remain in a relationship, for various reasons, ranging from economic realities to abuse; from lack of love to incompatibility. Others might prefer to be in a relationship but cannot do so because of reasons such as having their partner deciding to stop the relationship. This is the case even in Malta, which does not permit divorce within its boundaries. Let us not kid ourselves into assuming that Malta is some “crib” in the Mediterranean.
Indeed, separation is on the increase in Malta. Despite the absence of divorce, and despite the rhetoric of traditionalists, many people go on with their everyday lives, which, sometimes, also means ending relationships and, also, forming new ones. What is specific for Malta is that separated spouses cannot remarry whereas in other societies they can. Thus, Maltese persons who decide to remarry in their own country are being discriminated against and have to settle for cohabitation or a financially prohibitive divorce overseas, unless they have valid grounds for an annulment.
Maltese traditionalists of the fundamentalist type prefer burying their heads in the sand rather than come up with viable and inclusive policies, which make life easier for people whose marriage fails. They assume it is divorce that is harmful to children and not the context in which children live. For example, a child living with quarrelling parents in a marriage “made in heaven” and experiencing conflict every day could possibly suffer serious negative repercussions, which could “scar” him or her. Such a child might be in a better situation if his/her parents quit their relationship, yet give him/her love and serenity in their own ways.
Various sociologists and social policymakers are arguing it is important that both biological parents should be in frequent contact with the child should a marriage (or a relationship) fail. Indeed, when children are involved, many parents whose relationship would have failed still maintain contact, though this is not always the case. In various societies, such an arrangement is also supported by social policymakers such as government agencies, legislators, lawyers and family counsellors. There are various reasons for this, including the increase in separated/divorced fathers who would like to maintain access to their children, which, in turn, is more likely to ensure that the same fathers support their children financially.
In this regard, sociologist Anthony Giddens speaks of the need to move towards “emotional democracies”, where parents, irrespective of their marital or relationship status and living arrangements, would be legally obliged to cater for their children’s emotional and economic needs. Such a perspective is truly fitting for the individualised context of today and goes beyond rigid stereotypes of family structures and gender roles.
The traditionalists of the fundamentalist type want us to believe we should return to some “golden age” of the traditional family, which, in all probability never existed. Indeed, various oppressive characteristics of families in the past are unacceptable today. Women won’t give up the rights they have won. Sexual partnerships and marriage have changed. Emotional communication and individual decisions are a key aspect of the individualised society, whether one likes it or not. And the right to happiness is prized by many.
Unless Malta legalises divorce within its shores, social policy will remain out of synch with the life courses of thousands of people whose marriage has ended. It is ironic that a society which declares itself as being a guardian of “family values” is prohibiting thousands from marrying.
The author is chairman and spokesman for economy and finance of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party.