Monday, September 7, 2015

He's seen it all

published at The Standard, May 11, 2015


“You used to be a seminarian,” Arnulfo “Arnold” Lopez, who holds a PhD in clinical psychology, remembers a judge telling him in court. “So why are you now helping married couples separate?”
Lopez had seen many courtrooms in the course of his career as a forensic psychologist, but he was taken aback by the judge’s question. Why, indeed? And before an audience of other litigants of other cases being heard that day, he said: “Because in my profession I have seen the many psychological effects of troubled marriages, especially on children.”
Of course, his was not an argument for divorce. There is no such thing here—only legal separation, annulment, and a declaration of nullity. Lopez has carved for himself something of a reputation for serving as an expert witness in nullification cases, which hinge, to a large extent, on showing that one or both of the spouses suffer from a psychological incapacity (Article 36 of the Family Code) stemming from a personality disorder that renders him/her/them incapable of performing the necessary marital obligations. 
Lopez is well versed with the guidelines for the declaration of psychological incapacity, laid out by the Supreme Court in the so-called Molina Doctrine. He goes by these guidelines: that the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, that the root cause of the incapacity must be medically or clinically established and alleged in the complaint, that the incapacity must exist at the time of the marriage even as it may have manifested after, that it must be permanent or incurable, and that it must be grave enough to disable the partner to assume the essential obligations, among others.
The guidelines are science-based and airtight—assuming everybody plays fair, and that the option is available for the recourse of anybody who needs it.
Unfortunately, “fair” is the operative word. What has arisen from these strict guidelines is an unintended bias for those who can afford the process. Even they must bear the lack of assurance that their petition would be granted despite the genuine existence of personality disorders leading to the incapacity.
Is divorce the solution? A recent survey says most Filipinos are in favor of divorce despite the continued opposition of the Catholic church. After all, the Philippines is said to be the only country in the world without this recourse.
One might assume Lopez would agree, too  – but he does not.
In fact, he believes divorce is no longer necessary because existing laws are enough to provide the recourse to spouses who are trapped in unhealthy marriages. What needs to be done is to take out some unrealistic parts of the  guidelines such as the need to establish severity, permanence and incurability of the disorder, especially when the couple has been estranged for a long time anyway. After all, “permanent” and “incurable” have not even been defined in the law.
According to Lopez, divorce would have a significant effect on the children, because they will grow up believing that getting married is easy – you can always get out anytime you wished. 
On the other hand, because the perception is that getting an annulment is difficult and expensive, couples would think long and hard about getting hitched because it is too much trouble getting out.
***
Lopez began his “specialization” in the mid-1990s, when a friend asked him to render a psychological evaluation for his case when he ended his relationship. Since then, Lopez’s office has seen numerous individuals – from movie stars to overseas Filipino workers, politicians and ordinary employees asking the court to nullify their unions, and for a host of reasons.
Some of the reasons are strong and valid in themselves, unmistakably pointing to serious psychological conditions that make the lives of people around them simply miserable. These cases are what made him tell the judge that day that troubled marriages arising from legitimate incapacity have an effect on the couple and the family.
Some, not so much. These are perhaps what makes Lopez believe that couples should work hard to preserve their union and must only resort to separation as an ultimate option.
***
In a perfect world, the existing laws on terminating unions should be enough. Everybody, regardless of their socio-economic status and level of education, must be aware that they have this option so long as their grounds are legitimate.They must be able to afford the legal fees and other expenses related to the process.
Unfortunately, the law is skewed in favor of those who can afford, or at least those who are aware.  Those whose cases are not as strong can even afford to exaggerate their situation just because 1)they want out of the union and 2) they can afford it. 
Where does that leave the poor and the uneducated who must see their lives wither before them, just because they believe you have to stick with your choice no matter what until the end?

adellechua@gmail.com

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