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Divorce Sicilian Style
by Maria Luisa Romano

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The end of marriage.The entire topic of Sicilian marriages is interesting enough, but what about divorce? Even with the ever-increasing popularity of the foreign bride, and the lingering tradition, especially among the popolino, of the rustic engagement, Sicily is having a veritable "boom" in divorces. Divorce has been legal in Italy only since the mid 1970s, but you'd never know this to talk to Sicilian divorcees; it's as if divorce had been woven into the fabric of Sicilian life since the beginning of history. Indeed, marriage itself seems to be under assault as an institution, with an increasing number of Italian couples having children without ever marrying. Nationally, some of the most prominent politicians are divorcees --Berlusconi, Casini, Fini et al. In typical Italian fashion, many end up with women decades younger than their estranged wives.

Yet for most Italians, and certainly most Sicilians, divorce is rather difficult in practice, for legal reasons as well as emotional and financial ones, and this has spawned some bizarre trends. In Italy even the simplest uncontested divorce presumes a three-year separation before the actual divorce decree is issued, though in law an "uncontested" divorce does not, strictly speaking, exist. Some kind of "cause" must be cited.

Ironically, considering the general backwardness of Italian divorce law, it is possible, by signing a simple form when marrying civilly or ecclesiastically, to declare a separation of assets. This strikes one as especially incredible in the case of a wedding in church, but Italian law requires that the couple be presented with this choice. This means that in many cases there are no "communal assets" to contest. Unless there are children involved --custody being weighted heavily in favour of mothers-- certain divorces are remarkably simple in terms of procedure. But that mandatory three-year waiting period can be pretty frustrating if you want to remarry soon.

Divorce statistics are usually linked to the duration of a marriage, in other words how many people divorce after five years, ten years and so forth. The statistics are tricky because they rarely tell the whole story, and in Sicily social and economic factors have fostered some unorthodox practices which, though tantamount to divorce, are actually something quite different.

The most ridiculous of these seen in recent years is the idea of being "separated" while still living together in the same home. Italian law expressly declares that a separation must be physical to be valid. In other words, once a couple is legally separated they can no longer live together if they expect to eventually (after three years' time) be granted a divorce. Yet numerous couples, particularly those in middle age who have been married for a decade or more, choose to be "separati in casa," literally "separated at home." How this works depends on the couple. In most cases, it seems to be done more for financial reasons than for social ones, divorce being very acceptable in Sicily nowadays, and it is a middle class thing. Nevertheless, it's strange that unmarried couples living together outside marriage (there's presently no "common law marriage" in Italy) find themselves, in a certain sense, in the same situation as married-but-separated couples still living together. Poorer women seem to seek separation --of any form-- with less frequency than their more affluent sisters.

Incidentally, the annulment of Catholic marriages by Church authority is relatively rare in Italy compared to what exists in certain countries (notably in the United States). At all events, it is most likely that a couple would already be civilly divorced before being granted an ecclesiastical annulment of their marriage. In the highly exceptional case of the Church granting an annulment before a couple obtains a civil divorce, Italian law recognises the annulment legally as constituting a dissolution of the civil union as well.

While precise statistics are lacking, it seems that men are more likely to remarry than women, and the second wife is often much younger than the first one. This "second adolescence" is so common among Italian men that hardly anybody finds it unnatural. But when you see a greying middle-aged man with a wife twenty years his junior, this is more often than not The Second Wife.

Isn't is odd that so much "background information" is requested of you when you apply for a job or even a credit card, but that The Second Wife marries a divorced man without inquiring (from an unbiased source if not from his first wife) about his prior marriage?

The reasons for divorce in Sicily are varied, as elsewhere, except that here adultery (in one form or another) is cited in some thirty-two percent of cases since 1995, making it the primary cause, and there's even a popular term for a cuckolded husband --the highly unflattering word "cornuto." In the popular mind, it has become a general insult for any man you wish to offend.

I recall a man who was cheating on his wife being reminded by a close male friend that he was married. This was phrased as a question. "Aren't you married?" asked the friend. He responded, "My wife is married."

About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has written about social topics for various Italian magazines, including this one.

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© 2009 Maria Luisa Romano