MANILA, Philippines—The call came in the middle of a workday. My lawyer’s name flashed on the caller-ID screen, and there was no small talk when I picked up.
“I have the court decision,” she said.
She was literally holding my future in her hands, in the form of an annulment decision we had sought for four years. After opening the envelope, she rambled a bit, skimming the contents out loud to fill the dead air.
Then she paused.
“Petition approved. Congratulations!” she said. “You are now a free woman!”
I had finally gotten out of my long-dead marriage in the devoutly Catholic Philippines, the only country in the world (other than Vatican City) where divorce is not legal. Two people can voluntarily choose to love, honor, and remain faithful to each other, but in the Philippines it is pretty much only through death, or the torturously long process of annulment, that they can part.
I had walked out on my marriage five years earlier and had barely spoken with my daughter’s father for just as long, but on paper he was still my husband. I was a single woman, but I was not free. My name was only half mine—all my identification papers remained in my married name. Any major purchase I made would be considered conjugal property. If I got into a new relationship, I risked being charged with adultery and jailed.
I was 28 when I left my husband, 29 when I finally decided—against my family’s wishes and without their support—to file for annulment. I was 33 when I received the court decision. And on the phone that day, I felt like the oldest 33-year-old in the world.
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Under Philippine law, two people wishing to end their marriage have limited options. They can file for legal separation, which will allow them to separate their possessions and live apart, but does not legally end a marital union and thus does not permit remarriage. They can file for divorce if they are among the estimated 5 percent of the population that is Muslim and is governed by the Code of Muslim Personal Laws.
Or they can get an annulment, which in the Philippines is a lengthy and expensive court proceeding. (An ecclesiastical annulment, granted through a Church tribunal, is a separate procedure, without which a Catholic cannot get remarried in the Church. Pope Francis has said that the Church should “streamline” this process, which can take up to a decade.) An annulment ends a marriage, but differs from divorce in important ways. The parties, for instance, must prove that the marriage was never valid to begin with. Under Philippine law, reasons can include one or both parties having been younger than age 18 when they got married, either party having an incurable sexually transmitted disease, or cases of polygamy or mistaken identity.
Divorce has not always been banned in the Philippines. The Spanish colonizers who ruled the island until the late 19th century imposed their own Catholic traditions, allowing “relative divorce,” or legal separation, in cases involving adultery or one spouse joining a religious order. But the relevant law declared that “so great is the tie and force of marriage, that when legally contracted, it cannot be dissolved even if one of the parties should turn heretic, or Jew, or Moor, or even commit adultery.” After the Spanish era, divorce laws depended on the colonizer. The Americans, who acquired the nation in 1898 following the Spanish-American War, allowed divorce, but only on the grounds of adultery or concubinage. The Japanese, who occupied the Philippines during World War II, introduced liberal divorce laws. Following liberation, however, divorce was once again outlawed—except among the Muslim minority—under the Philippine Civil Code of 1949.
If marriage is essentially a contract, the difference between an annulment and a divorce is the difference between declaring the contract null—because, say, it was signed under conditions of duress or fraud—and terminating it.
In the case of marriage, declaring the contract null is a far more difficult proposition. Infidelity and physical abuse, for example, are not on the list of acceptable reasons for a marriage to be declared invalid under Philippine law. A petitioner seeking to leave a marriage for those or any number of other reasons has to try to prove that his or her spouse is suffering from “psychological incapacity” such as narcissistic personality disorder.
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Filipino TV host Amy Perez is familiar with the difficulties these rules pose. Perez married a rock musician in 1995, and the couple had a son two years later. But within a year of their son’s birth, Perez’s husband had left her with their baby and gone to live abroad. Perez filed for an annulment in 2000, and was denied. She appealed and lost. In 2006, the Philippine Supreme Court declined to hear her case, declaring:
We find [the husband’s] alleged mixed personality disorder, the ‘leaving-the-house’ attitude whenever they quarreled, the violent tendencies during epileptic attacks, the sexual infidelity, the abandonment and lack of support, and his preference to spend more time with his band mates than his family, are not rooted on some debilitating psychological condition but a mere refusal or unwillingness to assume the essential obligations of marriage.
Statistics from the Philippines’ Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) show that there were more than 10,000 petitions filed to end marriages in 2013, out of a population of roughly 100 million, with women filing slightly more than half of the petitions. The most recent statistics OSG provided me, based on a sample of such cases from 2010 to 2011, showed that 6 percent of these petitions were dismissed or denied. But this obscures the fact that such cases can drag on for years, and that court fees, which typically amount to nearly $400 just to file paperwork, can exceed the average monthly wages of Filipino workers, which a 2012 International Labor Organization study estimated at less than $300.
“The system is so unfair, especially to women like me in a situation of abandonment. Why do they have to make it so hard?” asked Perez, whose marriage didn’t formally end until a decade after her husband left her. She declined to give details about how she finally obtained the annulment. Last year, she married her longtime boyfriend, with whom she has two children.
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Like Perez, I filed for annulment claiming my spouse was psychologically incapacitated. My lawyer suggested I try to have both of us declared psychologically incapacitated to double the chances of success, but I refused. I was afraid such a designation would damage my chances of getting a job or custody of my daughter.
“Don’t worry. It’s just a term to justify your petition,” my lawyer assured me, echoing the two other lawyers I had consulted before her. (I wanted a second opinion.) They all gave me some variation on: “It’s just the Philippine version of ‘irreconcilable differences.’”
But making such a claim is not an innocuous formality. Trying to show psychological incapacity is an adversarial process in civil court, aimed at proving beyond a reasonable doubt that one spouse was exhibiting behavior indicating an inability to take on the responsibilities of marriage. It means stating in public court all the reasons—both trivial and consequential—why you cannot stay married to your spouse. It involves psychological tests and, in some cases, witnesses. It’s a game of mud-slinging and one-upmanship that makes breaking up that much harder and uglier. It encourages a petitioner to exaggerate problems—to declare a once-loved partner an alcoholic as opposed to someone who occasionally came home drunk, or a chronic womanizer as opposed to someone who once had an affair.
“The process is inhumane. It is hurtful to two people who may have at one point loved each other and may have even tried to work it out,” Philippine Senator Pia Cayetano, a prominent women’s-rights legislator, told me. She should know: She’s been through it too.
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This kind of hassle can be avoided for the right price, however.
Michelle, a former classmate of mine who asked that I not use her full name, claims to have paid her lawyer $10,000 for an all-inclusive annulment package that covered a psychiatric evaluation, all the related paperwork and fees, and a guarantee of a favorable decision from the judge, an old law-school buddy of the lawyer’s.
As a 28-year-old middle manager, I couldn’t afford that. It took me a year before I found a lawyer I could afford; my cousin eventually negotiated a fee of $2,000 with a former law-school classmate. I paid this lawyer in installments as my case dragged on.
But you get what you pay for.
Michelle got her annulment in six months. I waited four years.
Michelle had to appear in court only once. I spent years using up vacation days for intermittent court appearances.
Michelle took the stand to answer only one question: her name. I withstood a barrage of inquiries from a judge.
It was a harrowing experience, forcing me to dredge up years of bad, buried memories. The judge probed for details about the fights I’d had with my husband. He accused me of not trying hard enough to keep the peace in our relationship. When I brought up the allegations in my petition—regarding the abuse and infidelity I’d had to endure—he asked me if I thought that was enough to end a marriage. (My then-husband didn’t show up to any of the court proceedings, which is a way of opposing the annulment petition.) I was too proud to beg the judge to stop his line of questioning, too angry to stay quiet. I was ultimately taken off the stand because I was crying uncontrollably. I felt like I was on trial, as if I were a criminal.
And in the eyes of the Church and Philippine matrimonial law, which is largely based on Church doctrine, I had done something worse than commit a crime. I had sinned. I was reneging on sacred vows. I had desecrated the sanctity of marriage.
“You could have chosen your battles better and just stayed quiet,” I remember a friend telling me when I told him what had happened in court. “That judge is going to decide whether or not to grant you an annulment. He is not someone you want to piss off.”
He was right, of course. But I couldn’t see that. My lawyer later told me the judge had said I was too smart for my own good, and suggested that this was why my marriage had failed. I still did not see how that could warrant shaming me in front of a courtroom full of strangers. When I went through the legal prerequisites of getting married, I was not subjected to such interrogation.
“It’s really hard for us too,” Noel Segovia, a senior lawyer at the OSG, told me. “In some cases, we know the couple can no longer live together, but because of insufficient evidence, we have to deny their petition for annulment.”
A bill to legalize divorce, proposed in 2010, received little support from the country’s Catholic, bachelor president, who told reporters that he did not want to turn the Philippines into Las Vegas, where “[t]he stereotype is you get married in the morning [and] you get divorced in the afternoon.” In the meantime, Philippine public opinion has moved steadily in favor of legalizing divorce, from 50 percent in March 2011 to 60 percent in December 2014, according to a survey by the Philippine research institution Social Weather Stations. When legislators were asked if the results of the survey would sway their opinion on divorce, one senator explained: “I cannot favor a divorce law. My wife might use that against me.”
If there’s a middle ground between Vegas and the Vatican, the pope didn’t advocate for it during his recent visit to the Philippines, despite his earlier calls for the Church to show more kindness toward sinners. And so the Philippines, the land of no divorce, continues to lay claim to a title no other country wants.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting under the Persephone Miel Fellowship.