After a 15-year marriage, he wanted out. Unemployed, she wanted money – half the value of his farms in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
Seven years and 2,800 pages of divorce proceedings later, the couple’s case still lies on the desk of Girlany Alpízar, a family court judge in San José.
The man and wife are part of a growing list of couples seeking to untie the knot in this strongly Catholic country.
Divorces reached an all-time high last year, increasing by 20% from 2006, while the population grew by just 0.6% and the number of marriages stayed constant, according to the Civil Registry.
“It’s a cultural change,” said Roberto Pineda, director of the sociology department at the National University (UNA) in Heredia, north of San José. “People who find themselves in bad marriages are definitely not tolerating it.”
As women become more educated and financially independent, they are more willing to end marriages, said historian Eugenia Rodríguez, of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) in San Pedro, east of San José.
Another factor may be the waning influence of the Catholic Church over the last three decades. Although it is still the official religion, Catholicism today has less power to keep unhappy couples together, Pineda said.
Catholicism teaches marriages can end only through death or annulment. Mauricio Granados, director of the Central Valley Curia, calls the surge in divorces is “alarming.”
“People no longer believe in the sacraments,” said San José archbishop Hugo Barrantes. “People are fleeing commitment.”
The number of Catholic marriages has dropped 33.4% between 2001 and 2007, while civil marriages surged 30% during that time. Total marriages grew slightly, according to the Civil Registry.
Barrantes rejected suggestions that the requirements for a Catholic marriage are too onerous. The couple must take a 16-week course on married life, as well as interview with a priest to show they are ready.
More couples may be opting for civil marriages because divorcees cannot retie the knot in a Catholic ceremony, said Rodríguez, the historian.
Costa Rican couples still stay hitched at higher rates than in the United States, where 3.6 people out of 1,000 got divorced in 2005, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In Costa Rica, the rate last year was 2.5.
Still, Costa Rica’s surge has been quick. Just seven people got divorced in 1960, compared to more than 7,000 in 2001 and close to 11,000 last year.
If a couple has been married for at least three years, and they agree on the terms of the divorce, they can untie the knot by simply signing a piece of paper.
If not, the process can take several years. The couple must argue the case before a family court judge, and they must give one of seven reasons listed in the Family Code (see sidebar). The most common, Alpízar said, are adultery and physical or emotional maltreatment.
A judge decides who takes the children, depending on their best interests. Property and money acquired during the marriage, with few exceptions, are to be evenly divided. In the case cited at the top of this story, Alpízar said she expects to decide it soon, although the couple reached limited consensus in a recent meeting marked with yelling and tears.
“A lot of people don’t accept separation,” she said. “There is no love, there is no respect, and there is no fidelity, but you still want to stay married? Why?”
Grounds for Divorce
1. One spouse is having an extra-marital affair.
2. One spouse tried to kill one of their kids.
3. One spouse tried to force the other to prostitute herself or her kids.
4. One spouse physically or emotionally hurt the other or the kids.
5. The couple has been separated for at least a year under a court ruling.
6. The couple has been separated for at least three years, with no court ruling.
7. One spouse has disappeared and cannot be found.
8. The couple agrees on the terms of the divorce and has been married for at least three years.