Malta divorce vote: Second chance or try harder?

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"When I first told my parents about Peter, I had to tell them he was separated, which meant there'd be no white dress, no wedding bells, none of the fancy ceremonies we're used to in Malta."

Ramona Frendo, a Maltese lawyer, was faced with this dilemma when, some 14 years ago, she met Peter Borg.

He was separated from his wife and had two sons, but as a Maltese, he could not get divorced, because it is outlawed in his country. So the two have conducted an unmarried relationship ever since.

But this situation may alter, as Malta will vote in a referendum on Saturday on whether or not to introduce divorce.

"In order for your relationship to survive for any length of time, you have to have defence mechanisms," Ms Frendo says.

"Otherwise the social reaction wears you down, the authorities wear you down, the looks from other people wear you down. Most people in my situation feel that, socially especially, we are being deprived of a right.

"Some people just say they're married, and introduce their partner as their husband, even if they're not.

"There's nobody to ask you for a certificate of proof, after all. You just pretend. If you're lucky you'll get away with it."

'Ain't broke?'

Ms Frendo, dressed in a stylish suit and speaking with a near-flawless English accent, says her personal situation did not hold her and Peter back as a couple - they have an eight-year-old son.

But she admits to a "bit of disappointment" some years ago when she realised her choice of life partner could not become her chosen husband.

She admits to hating the word "partner" when it comes to describing Peter, "because for me that's what you have in business".

She adds: "I'm too old to have a boyfriend, and I wouldn't lie and say I have a husband, so I just introduce him as 'my Peter'."

This 39-year-old, who regularly deals with family law, is resigned to the fact that she may never actually marry, but has more concern for her clients, whose family lives have fallen apart.

"When you meet people who are about to separate, they often ask if they can get re-married - you wouldn't believe how many of them have not got their ideas clear about this.

"You have to tell them that it could only happen if they get an annulment from the Catholic Church and they tend to say 'oh, never mind, I'm never going to bother getting married again'.

"But in my experience, most people who get separated are still very young, and so in the natural course of events they are bound to form new relationships. If that new relationship is with someone who hasn't been married before, then the desire to get married is very strong indeed."

Would she consider getting married now, after all these years, if it became an option?

"Personally, I would definitely consider it. You do get a bit superstitious and think, 'well, if it ain't broke, should we fix it?' But yes, I think I would like to."

Rebuilding lives

On her wedding finger is a large ring, similar to an engagement ring. Does it hold any particular significance?

"Every time Peter buys me a new ring, I put it there. I wouldn't go anywhere without it.

"I'm as committed to Peter as if I had been married, so for me, his ring being on that particular finger is a sign of commitment. It's where I would always wear it."

Someone who definitely wants divorce to become a part of Maltese life is Raymond Saliba, a 50-year-old police constable who is stationed overseas in Bosnia and is on a brief trip back home with a particular purpose.

"I came back from abroad just to vote," he explains. "I'm in favour of divorce. I have previously passed through an experience myself and I'm not thinking of just myself now.

"If someone else's marriage doesn't work out, like mine, and they have two children, like I do, then they should have another try in their life."

Mr Saliba was married from 1986 until 1996, and has twin sons aged 21.

"They passed through a traumatic time when they were young, when they saw the separation of their parents, which still affects them today.

"My wife and I are separated by the courts but we are still married. I cannot rebuild my life again because of this situation in Malta. Life is too short, they should give us a second chance."

Mr Saliba also claims that many failed marriages in Malta do not pass through courts of law, but are arranged privately, so the rate of marriage failure is far higher than the statistics quoted by those who oppose divorce.

"If the 'Yes' vote wins, I'll be seeking a divorce. I hope that the vote for divorce will pass, so that people like me will have another chance of rebuilding their life again, and can be happy."

Close by to where Mr Saliba is speaking are the offices of the Cana Movement, a voluntary organisation within the Catholic Church of Malta which promotes family life.

It also runs the marriage preparation classes that all couples who wish to marry in a Maltese church must first attend.

Reunion hopes

The vice-president of Cana, Marthese Borg, says that she is not in favour of divorce because it creates "an instability in marriage" and that it is "difficult to be for marriage if you are for divorce".

And for people who are separated in Malta, there is, she says, always that "little, little, little hope that maybe some day they will get together again.

"But when you divorce, you split, and everybody goes their own way."

She also says "divorce is not a solution for anyone. If they want to have another relationship there are statistics, which prove the second relationship doesn't work, even more than the first one.

"There are one-offs that do find happiness, but for that one, you are jeopardising the rest and that would then be unfair.

"And it's not just the man or woman involved, who wants to create another family. What about the children, the wife, the husband who are left behind?

"Shouldn't we think about them too? Why should we think about one person and not the other?"

The Maltese public clearly have plenty to think about when they vote Yes or No on Saturday.

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