December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Divorce or un-divorce?

By |2023-11-15T02:38:07+01:00November 13th, 2023|"Notebook"|
Yes, it is possible. You might stay with him.

n old friend recently filled me in on the details of a circle of friends and acquaintances that goes back a few decades. It was what you’d expect from people in their sixties; children married, deaths and health issues. A few years ago, divorce would have been in the mix. Instead, there was a new category. Two couples had reunited after decades, which in my small friend group defies statistics.

For my generation, divorce was the reflexive response to some sort of stress on the marriage, such as extramarital activity or the pressures of life. The view was often the quicker the better. Get out, move on. It was better for children to have separate but happy parents than fighting ones. Divorce legislation agreed, and the trend has been for ever easier and faster divorces and for “no fault” or “no contest” divorces.

I have seen no evidence that a fast, easy divorce is a better one.

And its opposite, a slow divorce?

When I got divorced many many years ago, my American friends shook their heads in pity at what they considered Italy’s laborious and reactionary procedure. Comments on the nefarious influence of the Catholic church inevitably followed.

With the Italian system, couples may remain permanently separated and never divorce — but also not remarry.

Divorce only became possible under Italian law in 1970. The church vigorously opposed Italian feminists’ campaign to permit what the law calls “the dissolution of marriage.” Under the Vatican’s watchful eye, Italian legislators made a law designed to encourage reconciliation.

To file for divorce in Italy, a couple must have been legally separated for three years. There are two ways to do this: “Consensual” separation, in which the spouses set the terms and a court certifies the agreement, and “judicial” separation, which is a negotiation carried out with the intervention of lawyers and a judge. Even a de facto separation must be documented and approved by a court to be valid.

In some ways, legal separation is more important than the final divorce, since it handles the meat of a marital split; children and spousal support. Whether agreed on by a couple or hammered out with opposing lawyers or in front of a judge, a separation agreement establishes custodial and visiting rights and responsibilities and the terms of financial support.

A legal separation leaves the civil status of marriage untouched. Spouses maintain most of the rights and responsibilities of marriage, including to an estate or a spouse’s pension in case of death. (Italy is a civil law country where half of an estate automatically goes to a spouse and half to children.)

Three years after a separation has been filed, the couple can file for divorce. A divorce settlement may not be that different from a legal separation, particularly for child custody. Different and permanent financial arrangements for spousal support are usually made.

Since it is neither as final as a divorce and can be modified along the way, the intermediate solution of legal separation reduces the fear and “now or never” mentality, which is so much gasoline on a fire. During negotiations for a divorce, terms can be adjusted to reflect changes such as children who have grown and financial reverses (or success).

Best of all, no bridges are burned. If a couple does decide to reconcile, it is easy to terminate the separation agreement with a judge. That’s it; amici come prima (friends just like before).

With the Italian system, couples may remain permanently separated and never divorce — but also not remarry. There are benefits for almost every party in this permanent state of limbo. No subsequent marriages complicate matters of support or custody. Vulnerable children and spouses are protected from disastrous remarriages.

In my world — and I can comment only on that — divorces happened with couples who shared similar backgrounds, values and education, and married in good faith.

The three-year separation that my American friends found so onerous has many advantages. The most important is how it slows everything down.

Things usually fell apart in mid-life when husbands — almost always — experienced either a major career “failure” (losing a job, being passed over) or great career success. Either way, they awoke like hibernating bears stunned by bright light. How had they gotten there? What caused the failure? Why didn’t success feel better?

An imperfect marriage (and aren’t they all?) is an easy scapegoat. Blaming mid-life pain on a marriage or a spouse spares painful self-reflection or change. Divorce is a ready-made solution, which brings the related lure of a new start.

The three-year separation that my American friends found so onerous has many advantages. The most important is how it slows everything down. Three years is enough time for the infatuation of an affair to cool. And it can allow partners to satisfy all the whims of a mid-life crisis. In three years, you can put a lot behind you and even rediscover what brought you together in the first place.

In our sixties, my friends’ careers are winding down. We have all mellowed. Our children run their own lives. And no one is as interested in the children and the grandchildren as another parent. As I said, most of my friends’ marriages had some sort of foundation. All this plus the shared memories of the happier parts of a marriage make reuniting a good choice.

In his eighties a wise friend of mine reflected sadly on his mid-life affair. Divorce had been the obvious solution at the time. It satisfied his wife’s anger and his own libido, but ruined his family. “The marriage was not that bad,” he said. “We should have just muddled through,” he said.

And muddling through is just what divorce Italian style lets you do.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."