More Malaysian marriages are hitting the rocks than ever before.
Couples used to be more or less obliged to stick with their deteriorating marriages and soldier on with growing loathing and regret, just to avoid the shame of divorce.
But today, separations and divorces are no longer taboo and do not carry the social stigma they used to.
So it’s hardly surprising that without the social pressure to stay unhappily married, many people choose not to.
Recent figures from the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) show that the number of divorces increased from nearly 51,000 in 2018 to 57,000 in 2019. That’s an increase of 12% in one year.
The median age at divorce is 37 for men and 34 for women.
Ezane Chong is a family lawyer of 19 years’ experience and Fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers.
“I have definitely seen an increase in divorce over the years,” she tells MalaysiaNow.
Recent figures show that the number of divorces increased from nearly 51,000 in 2018 to 57,000 in 2019.
“Some newlyweds even seek a divorce in the first year of marriage even though a petition for divorce cannot be presented within the first two years of marriage.”
Her experience backs up the DOSM figures.
“Divorce is very common among millennials, especially those in their 30s, even those with young children,” she says.
The most common reasons for splitting up that she hears from her clients are still the traditional ones. They include incompatibility causing conflict; extramarital affairs; money problems; physical and mental abuse; and growing apart from each other.
However, there are newer reasons her clients’ parents could not have seen coming.
If one spouse, still usually the husband, is regularly travelling away for work or often working late, the one left at home would, in the “olden days”, pass the time watching television or doing something similarly passive.
These days, the stay-at-home partner is much more likely to spend their alone time on the laptop and smartphone being highly active exploring the many apps and websites that open a whole new world of making friends and building relationships.
Social media like Facebook and WhatsApp provide each partner in a modern couple with plenty of “friends” at their fingertips, who they can turn to for instant comfort and confidential advice when they run into a rough patch in their relationship.
Without this luxury, the modern couple’s parents and grandparents had little choice but to work out their problems together after an argument, with many begrudgingly deciding to stay together “for the sake of the children”.
It used to be the husband who did the divorcing, but financial independence and the support of social media groupings increases the options available to a modern woman and influences the choices she makes.
“A woman today will be less motivated to stay in an unhappy marriage if she is gainfully employed and does not need to rely on her husband to support her,” Chong says.
And yet some things never change. Chong believes that for married couples raising a family, the children’s best interests should, as ever, always be the paramount consideration.
“If the marriage is salvageable and both parties are willing to commit to making it work, then that would be the best outcome for the family,” she says.
“But if a marriage or a relationship has irretrievably broken down and creates an unhealthy atmosphere in which to raise children, then it may not be worth grimly hanging on.”
Social psychologist Elaine Fernandez tells MalaysiaNow that modern women’s empowerment, particularly through financial independence, has reduced the need for unhappy wives to stay in a problematic relationship in order to survive.
“This means younger people may be prioritising other aspects of their relationships, such as compatibility, when deciding whether to stay together,” she says.
“There is more emphasis today on relationship satisfaction and lower tolerance for toxic relationship behaviours.”
There is also a much wider range of potential partners available through social media and dating apps such as Plenty of Fish which can lead to “choice paralysis”, according to Fernandez.
When continually presented with plentiful choices online it becomes harder for young people to settle with one partner.
“There is more emphasis today on relationship satisfaction and lower tolerance for toxic relationship behaviours such as gaslighting or manipulation, due to rising mental health awareness in society.”
“This was less of an issue when people were more likely to date within their immediate communities and had less knowledge of or exposure to others beyond that network,” says Fernandez.
With increased mobility that drives couples apart and into different social circles, and the possibility of encountering others who may be more compatible partners, whether online or IRL, life is different for the social media generation.
Although the decision to stick it out or throw in the towel is a very personal one, Fernandez advises young people to identify and clarify their reasons before deciding.
If the reasons that brought a couple together at first are still relevant, then it’s important to talk things over and work towards a constructive solution to sustain the relationship, she says.
“If communication is difficult, and you don’t know where to start, it may be worth seeing a professional like a couple’s therapist to help you work through these issues together in a safe, neutral environment.”
With such professionals growing in numbers and available at the click of a mouse, maybe divorce need not be inevitable after all.