Counting Bitterness


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Category: Relationships Date: 14 Jun 04


At the 20th wedding anniversary party of a couple who were later to battle in a bitter divorce that cost both of them their health, peace of mind and property, a youngish married woman quipped cleverly after the toast "20 years! Even prisoners get out on parole for good behaviour"!


All married people present laughed in a nervous, commiserating way, since we all know marriage is no rose-strewn pathway and wedded bliss is bloody hard work. The still-single looked on wistfully.


Yet marriage has compensations that sadly turn invisible to married couples over the years (someone to fetch water in the middle of the night, to have companiably by your side so loneliness doesn't lay its slimy paws on you, to support you through crappy times) and enviably obvious to those still hankering after that knot.


That's why many middle-aged men stray. Lucky for them that their crisis hits them at the precise time when their fat wallets negate the effects of their thickening waists and become Young Women magnets. The familiar wife of so many years generally doesn't stand a chance against his edgy mistress who is exciting because she is scarce, (supply and demand laws kick in here) and he has never seen her in the romance-killing atmosphere of the low fever of domestic domesticity, day in day out, for decades. (How sexy can a woman look washing socks, anxiously smearing Ponds on her face or handing out medicine to a sick child?)


So he has his fling.


What is real is the strength of feeling with which this gentleman returns to his wife when she falls sick, or when the mistress demands that he divorce her - the realisation hits him like a hammer on his head that his wife has become part of him over the years. It's the alchemy of marriage that only crises reveal. We won't go into the murky areas of trust and hurt except to say these are the reasonably happy endings.


Many aren't. And the monster of the low fever of domesticity takes a high toll, leading many couples straight to the divorce courts. More often than not the reason is infidelity, mostly by men who need to reclaim their youth but, increasingly, by women who are no longer as economically dependent on men as they used to be and don't see why they, too, can't grab a second chance at happiness.


The Economist let its hair down this month on this prickly issue, and no doubt grabbed the full attention of many a warring couple amongst its subscribers with an article on divorce laws, comparing practices in four countries-England and Wales, New York (which clearly counts as a world apart), Germany, and France.


"Herr X was a rich man before he married his English wife, and when he moved to London with her some years later, he got a nasty shock. She filed for divorce and-whereas in Germany that means sharing out only the assets accumulated during the marriage-in England, everything is potentially up for grabs. Facing ruin, Herr X moves fast, apologising convincingly for his infidelity. His wife withdrew the divorce petition. The couple then moved back to Germany-where Herr X then filed for divorce again, but this time under rules that saved his fortune."


The information in this piece gets more gripping.


"Globalised lifestyles create plenty of scope for this sort of regulatory arbitrage. Germany and most continental countries ring-fence premarital property. England usually tosses it all in the pot. English judges can wholly ignore pre-nuptial agreements; elsewhere they can be binding. In France and other Mediterranean countries fault plays a role; infidelity can mean losing out financially. But in northern European countries, conduct short of the mad or murderous is excluded. Judges in England now look very kindly on wives' needs, especially after long marriages during which their earning power may have been eroded. In most of Europe long-term maintenance is very rare; women are expected to work just like men."


The article is accompanied with an easy reference table comparing divorce laws in four countries titled "A globetrotter's guide to divorce", revealing delightful tidbits such as in Germany divorce is quick and cheap; in France it's "slow and cheap, in New York it's "quick and costly" while in England and Wales it's "slowish and costly". Equally, in France adultery and other misconduct is "relevant" while it is "ignored" in New York, Germany and England. In Germany and France the accrued assets are divided 50-50, while in New York and Wales it is left to the judge's discretion. In England maintenance is often lifelong, in New York, Germany and France it is limited.


In England pre-marriage assets are usually included but excluded in New York, Germany and France.


A prominent Port of Spain-based attorney confirmed that divorce, especially among younger couples, is on the rise here, that it is generally acrimonious, that women are increasingly filing for it, their financial independence directly correlating with their unwillingness to be unhappily married, and that we follow English law.


I went through The Economist's "Globetrotter's guide to divorce", asking this prominent attorney what obtains in Trinidad and Tobago and she supplied me with the following information. Adultery? "Not a consideration." Pre-nuptial agreements? "Not valid." Division of accrued assets? "Based on judge's discretion, depending on the income, earning capacity, expenses, financial resources and age of the parties, as well as the duration of the marriage and the contribution, financial and otherwise (scrubbing the floors at home and bringing up kids while hubby works counts as a contribution) of each party. It also depends on the overall resources and future earning power of each party (including future lump sums such as pensions). There are no fixed percentages in property settlements and while all assets are to be stated including the pre-marital assets, it is unlikely a spouse will be successful in claiming a share in such property." Maintenance? "If the spouse is employed or employable it is not likely that she gets maintenance. However if she shows she's employed but dependent on the husband for her lifestyle, or sacrificed her own career for her husband's, she gets maintenance which stops if she remarries."


Divorce: Highly inflammable material where sex, betrayal, cash, property and revenge poisonously snake into one another. My attorney source hopes that with the establishment of the Family Court, the emphasis will be conciliatory, round-table discussions rather than the mangled mess of bitter human emotions, leaving no winners, only victims, whether you get it here or in France.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur