Not-so-happily ever after: New MSF report points to steady rise in divorce rates

A longitudinal study on marital dissolution by the Ministry of Social and Family Development evinces a sharp spike in divorces and annulments here in recent years, particularly among newly-married couples. TheHomeGround Asia speaks to several stakeholders to understand the factors at play in this rise and to explore the potential steps to consider going forward.  

Till death do us part? Well, not anymore it seems, at least if the data on divorce is anything to go by. According to a new report released by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) on the dissolution of resident marriages, a growing percentage of Singaporean couples are choosing to go their separate ways, with freshly married spouses likelier to untie the knot than those who were together longer.

Key findings from the MSF report

In order to gain a “better insight on marriage stability” in the local population, MSF tracked the rates of marital dissolution (that is, divorces and annulments granted by the Family Justice Courts and the Syariah Court) among 29 cohorts of all couples who wed between 1987 and 2015. The resultant findings reveal that couples who wed more recently are splitting up earlier and in larger numbers than those who were married for a longer time.

For example, out of the 2006 cohort (i.e. couples who wed in 2006), 16 per cent broke up before their 10th anniversary, almost double the 8.7 per cent of the 1987 cohort. Likewise, 21.1 per cent of the 2001 cohort uncoupled before their 15th anniversary, as compared to 12.3 per cent of the 1987 cohort.

The report also seems to corroborate the proverbial seven-year itch, with the highest percentage of couples splitting up five to 10 years after their nuptials.

For instance, of the 2001 cohort, 9.6 per cent ended their union between the fifth and 10th anniversary, a conspicuous increase relative to the 6.4 per cent who did so before the five-year mark and the 5.1 per cent who did so between the 10- and 15-year mark.

Overall, there was a discernible uptick in the cumulative proportion of total marriages dissolved across the various cohorts. This is in consonance with figures previously published by the Singapore Department of Statistics (Singstat), which demonstrated a nearly threefold jump in divorces and annulments over the same time frame, from 2,708 in 1987 to 7,522 in 2015.

In 2019, the marital dissolution rate climbed to a record high in Singapore, with some 7,623 couples parting ways, up by about 5 per cent from 2009 and about 44 per cent from 1999. (Source: Canva)

As further indication of a continued surge in divorces and annulments among Singaporeans, in 2019, the marital dissolution rate climbed to a record high, with some 7,623 couples parting ways, up by about 5 per cent from 2009 and about 44 per cent from 1999.

A variety of reasons could be cited for this spike, including a reduction in the social stigma surrounding divorce; the increased economic independence of women; the prioritisation of other aspects of life such as career and finances; and a rise in individualism (research by the University of Nevada found that individualist societies exhibit more favourable attitudes toward divorce), among others.

Pandemic’s side effects on divorce

What with the strict stay-home rules, the disruption of normal routines, the extra household responsibilities, the financial repercussions of a COVID-burdened economy and the chronic stress of living through a global pandemic, many predicted a coronavirus-induced peak in the break-up curve, last year.

Speaking at the Asia Thinker Series hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in May 2020, Jean Yeung, Provost-Chair Professor in the National University of Singapore’s Sociology Department, outlined the potential implications of the pandemic on family life.

“In times like this, most families will experience major income loss and many will lose their jobs. Some will have family members who become extremely ill or die,” explained Professor Yeung. “Such events are linked to emotional distress, anxiety, depression, health problems, unstable marriages and mounting tension in the family.”

“Couples have more quarrels and conflict. Intergenerational relations become more tense,” she said. “[Thus] it is not surprising that we have been seeing a rise in divorce and domestic violence abuse [cases] in many countries recently.”

Seeing as many couples were cooped up at home together 24/7 during Singapore’s lockdown last year, experts predicted that Covid-19 would put extra strain on already-tense relationships. (Source: Burak Kostak / Pexels)

Contrary to expectations, however, it appears that the pandemic might have had a positive influence on divorce rates. According to statistics published in the Family Justice Courts (FJC) Workplan 2021, the number of divorce writs (a mode of initiating a divorce suit) filed actually dropped by 5 per cent last year, down from 6,321 in 2019 to 6,016 in 2020.

Local non-profit gender rights organisation AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) also notes a slight dip in queries related to conjugal problems through its first response channel, the AWARE Women’s Helpline: “The calls [we] received pertaining to the category of ‘marital issues, including divorce’ have remained fairly consistent over the past three years: 938 in 2018,  1,011 in 2019, and 905 in 2020,” says Shailey Hingorani, AWARE’s Head of Advocacy and Research.

But experts caution that the data may not tally with reality. A decline in divorce cases does not necessarily equate to an upswing in marital happiness. Instead, it may be practical considerations that are keeping couples together – for now.

Empirical studies have shown that couples may postpone or reconsider their divorce during times of crisis, because they may need to capitalise on the economic benefits of marriage (e.g. the income advantage of a dual-earner family, tax reliefs and rebates etc.) or because they simply cannot afford the financial cost of getting a divorce. 

Online portal Singapore Legal Advice estimates that divorce fees here range from S$1,500 to S$3,500 (US$1,123 to US$ 2,643) for a simplified uncontested divorce, and from S$10,000 to $35,000 for a contested divorce – a not-insignificant amount to fork out, especially in the midst of a deep global economic recession.

Contributing factors to rising divorce rates

Additionally, the longitudinal survey conducted by MSF identifies several factors at play in the increasing incidence of matrimonial dissolution over the last few decades.

Education

The statistics evince a general inverse relationship between the level of education and the rate of marital disruption. In other words, a higher proportion of marriages involving persons with less education end in divorce or annulment and vice versa, a trend that American sociologist Steven Martin dubbed the ‘divorce divide”’

One possible explanation is that educational attainment is strongly linked to earnings, and when insufficient income is conflated with cost-of-living pressures and other financial stress factors, it can prove to be a lethal combination in a marriage.

The resultant findings from the study by the Singapore Ministry of Social and Family Development reveal that couples who wed more recently are splitting up earlier and in larger numbers than those who were married for a longer time. (Source: Canva)

Age

The report also establishes a negative correlation between the age at which a person enters into matrimony and the rate of marital dissolution. This is particularly pertinent in the case of the husband, as a higher proportion of marriages involving younger grooms end in divorce and annulment, as compared to marriages involving older grooms or younger brides.

Such marriages could be more vulnerable as younger grooms tend to be less financially secure and less emotionally mature – and therefore less equipped to handle family responsibilities – than older men, which could take a toll on a marriage.

Remarriage

On top of that, the data points to a higher proportion of dissolved marriages among those who remarry versus those who are marrying for the first time.

Isn’t practice supposed to make perfect, though? When it comes to marriage, not necessarily.

For example, if a person has already gone through a divorce but has not worked on improving his or her communication and conflict resolution skills, there exists the danger that he or she could carry over unhealthy relationship dynamics and emotional baggage from one marriage to the next, and thus find himself or herself back at square one. Besides that, there are sensitive issues to iron out concerning children and/or stepchildren, ex-spouses, finances (e.g. child support and spousal maintenance payments) and more, which could create tension in a marriage.

Impact of divorce on children

This latest report on matrimonial dissolution comes hot on the heels of a polemical MSF study on the long-term effects of divorce on children, which made waves when it was published in December 2020. The first local study of its kind had suggested that divorce predisposes children to poorer outcomes, across a range of key indicators.

Analysing aggregated data from administrative records of over 100,000 Singaporeans born between 1979 and 1981 with the aim of shaping future interventions, the study determined that children from divorced families suffer long-term socioeconomic disadvantages or “divorce penalties” as a consequence of marital disunion.

In comparison to their peers from intact families, children of divorced parents were not only less likely to obtain a university degree, they also earned less and had lower balances in their Central Provident Fund accounts. What’s more, they were less likely to get married but conversely, more likely to get divorced themselves.

But, several commentators were quick to voice their concerns over the study’s shortcomings and the stigmatising message it could be sending out.

Member of Parliament for Nee Soon GRC Carrie Tan, for one, questioned the intent of the study during a Parliament session back in January, stating that it could come across as guilt-tripping divorcees and could lead to the negative stereotyping of children from divorced families.

“I understand the spirit of data-sharing and observations,” said Ms Tan. “But the timing of this publication and the limited scope [and] insights it provided… unfortunately created a certain effect in divorcees. I went through a broken marriage before and I think I was quite saddened when I [read about] this.”

A 2020 report by the Singapore Ministry of Social and Family Development on the impact of divorce on children has suggested that divorce predisposes children to poorer outcomes. (Source: Canva)

AWARE also believes the methodology of the study “masked important subtleties in [factors such as] strength of family ties, income [status] etc., [which] may contribute to these outcomes”.

“Although the study controlled for variables such as the children’s gender, year of birth, parents’ ages and highest qualifications, it did not control for the strength or quality of family ties,” says Ms Hingorani. “To more accurately measure the effect of divorce on children, children of divorced parents should be compared to children of parents who faced similar issues as their divorced counterparts, but chose to remain together. In other words, children of divorced parents should be compared to children of unhappy but intact families.”

Ms Hingorani adds that the study did not control for the income status of parents and whether or not the children were exposed to a stable housing environment in their childhood. This compares to past research that has established that parental income is “positively associated with almost all dimensions of a child’s well-being,” she says.

“We [at AWARE] concluded that making it more difficult for parents to divorce in order to secure more positive outcomes for children, based on that study, would be fallacious and unlikely to benefit either parents or children,” states Ms Hingorani. “If we are concerned for children’s well-being, we need to comprehensively determine which factors contribute to children’s welfare more than others.”

Governmental actions tackling impact of divorce on families

Cognisant of the need to give succour to families undergoing divorce, the Government has stepped up with an array of initiatives in recent years, including the appointment of six Divorce Support Specialist Agencies and 10 Family Service Centres; the introduction of counselling services, like the Mandatory Parenting Programme; the provision of Marital First Responder Training for community and religious leaders; and the launch of a digital portal in tandem with the Community Psychology Hub, where online counselling support can be accessed anonymously, via live chat and e-mail.

The Government has put in place a number of measures to help parents and children cope better with divorce, including mandatory and voluntary counselling programmes. (Source: Cottonbro / Pexels)

But while such strategies look good on paper, they do not always succeed in execution, as Joan Leong discovered when she and her ex-husband decided to go their separate ways.

“We attended a mandatory counselling programme, [but] my ex-husband and I found it to be rather traumatising, as we had to sit through a presentation on how badly affected [a] child would be by parents who fight and disagree in a divorce,” shares Ms Leong of her experience. 

“Our relationship is not like that. We’ve always been respectful of each other and careful in the way we help our [daughter] through the situation. It was a group session and felt so impersonal – I wouldn’t have called it a counselling session.”

Ensuring that her relationship with her ex-husband would not affect her daughter’s well-being was paramount for Ms Leong: “In fact, when my daughter was younger, she used to complain that her dad and I chat too much (in her opinion).”

Meanwhile, Vanessa Yeo, whose parents separated when she was in her early teens, believes that children should not be dragged into the divorce proceedings.

“It should really be on the parents to have to deal with [the divorce],” says Ms Yeo. “I think that if a child [is] singled out at school or [elsewhere] to go through counselling [so as] to handle these personal [matters], that’s probably [asking] a lot from the child, when [he or she] shouldn’t have to deal with [the divorce] at all, actually.”

Potential next steps to consider

Latterly, the Government has also mooted the possibility of instituting an ‘amicable divorce’ option, which would allow couples who mutually consent to jointly file for divorce without citing fault. At present, couples must state one of the five facts of divorce when filing their papers, such as unreasonable behaviour, adultery or separation, in order to prove the grounds for an “irretrievable breakdown of marriage”.

But as Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Social and Family Development, wrote in a Facebook post at the beginning of May, having to cite a fault “often causes the couple to revisit their hurt and does not help them to move on”. While filing for divorce as plaintiff and defendant also sets the couple up in an “adversarial” relationship. An amicable divorce option could thus mitigate any acrimony and animosity involved in the process.

The Singapore Government has mooted the possibility of instituting an ‘amicable divorce’ option, which would allow couples who mutually consent to jointly file for divorce without citing fault. (Source: Canva)

Expressing agreement with the Government’s proposal, Ms Hingorani says that studies on no-fault, or amicable, divorce in countries such as the US, Canada and Australia have shown that it “reduces acrimony”, and makes the process “less distressing” for children.

“It also lowers the cost of divorce and empowers women to leave abusive marriages without carrying the burden of proof, which may be hard to produce,” she says.

Statistics have shown that there seems to be a “real demand for no-fault divorce” in Singapore, notes Ms Hingorani: “A large percentage (44 per cent) of 2019 divorces were granted not on the basis of ‘fault’, but instead on the basis that the couple [had] lived apart for at least three years.”

Concurring, Ms Leong says she is “all in favour” of ‘no-fault’ divorce. She notes that while she was “very lucky” to receive “tremendous support from family and friends, she did experience emotional stress at the start. Hence, an ‘amicable divorce’ option would “provide a more positive atmosphere for couples who are already going through a stressful time.”

Furthermore, Ms Hingorani suggests that the Government look into reducing the length of the required period of separation as grounds for divorce; currently three consecutive years apart with spousal consent, or four without consent. She contends that this would “greatly ease” the process for couples who mutually agree on divorce, as some women have told AWARE that the three-year bar makes the process “more painful”. 

“One client mentioned that she and her husband are considering annulling their marriage, possibly on non-consummation grounds, because of the time bar,” she shares, while another had said that although her marriage was “toxic”, she could not divorce her husband, because they had been married for less than three years.

“Shortening the time bar [would] create a less onerous process for those involved [in divorce],” proffers Ms Hingorani, adding that with men and women getting married later in life, “a reduced bar would also allow them more time to find new partners and have children, if they so desire.”

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