Marriage is the “legal union between one man and one woman”.[1] It is an institution deemed sacred and the law respects the sanctity of the institution. In Ephesians 5:33, the Bible states that “Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband[2]“. This further reinforces the fact that married couples are expected to love one another and live in peace and harmony. However, due to marital disputes between spouses, this sacred institution is broken down in pieces. The sanctity of marriage is no longer preserved or respected.

Divorce and Separation has become the new norm and tradition in the contemporary world. In recent times, spouses barely stay married for a period of 7 years before conflict arises. Conflict between spouses in a marriage is inevitable because marriage is the joining together of two separate individuals with distinct personality traits, opinions, attributes and worldviews. Marriage requires total commitment, compromise and sacrifices. This is a lot of work for which most are not prepared before marriage.

There are certain instances where Divorce or Separation would be the only option available to a couple in a “sinking” marriage. However, marriage is not just the bonding of the man and woman but rather, their entire families and relations. The impact of Divorce and Separation on family relationships can be severe. The relationship between both families of the spouses becomes strained and sour. The children of the marriage especially minors undergo mental, emotional and psychological trauma which affects them negatively. Spouses are bitter to one another and a once happy family is crushed to dust.


According to Black’s Law Dictionary, Divorce is defined as “the legal dissolution of a marriage by a court[3].” This is the process of terminating a marriage between parties. To institute an action for the dissolution of marriage, the party seeking the divorce shall come by way of Petition. This could either be the husband or the wife. The party instituting the action is called a Petitioner while the other party to the petition is called the Respondent. When the decree of dissolution of marriage under the Matrimonial Causes Act becomes absolute, a party to the marriage can remarry again as if the marriage has been dissolved by death.[4]

In Nigeria, the Marriage Act recognizes 2 major types of marriages (a) Customary marriages and (b) Statutory Marriages. A marriage conducted under the Act in compliance with the provisions of law can only be dissolved by a competent court of law.


A Marriage under the Act is marriage conducted in compliance with the Marriage Act. This is the union of one man and a woman to the exclusion of all others. A marriage under the Act is different from a customary marriage conducted under the bride and groom’s native law and custom[5].


Under the Marriage Act, the appropriate venue to conduct a valid statutory Marriages are (a) The Registrar’s office at a Marriage Registry[6], (b) A licensed place of worship before any recognized Minister of the church denomination or body to which such place of worship belongs, and according to the rites or usages of marriage observed in such church, denomination or body[7] (c) In a place other than a licensed place of worship or the Registrar’s office.[8]


A statutory marriage conducted in compliance with the provisions of the Marriage Act can only be dissolved by a competent court. However, the court will not readily grant a decree of dissolution of marriage (divorce) to a party in a divorce petition. This is because the marriage institution is deemed sacred by the court. A petition for the dissolution of marriage will only be entertained by the court when it is satisfied that the marriage has broken down irretrievably[9].

The court hearing a petition for a decree of dissolution of a marriage shall hold the marriage to have broken down irretrievably if the court is satisfied of the following facts;[10]

  1. The respondent has wilfully refused to consummate the marriage.
  2. The respondent has committed adultery since the marriage and the petitioner find it intolerable to live with the respondent.
  3. The respondent has behaved in ways the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent since the marriage.
  4. The respondent has deserted the petitioner for a continuous period of at least one year before the presentation of the petition.
  5. The parties to the marriage have lived apart for a continuous period of at least two years before the presentation of the petition and the other party does not object to a decree being granted.
  6. The parties to the marriage have lived apart for a continuous period of at least three years before the presentation of the petition.
  7. The other party to the marriage has for a period of not less than one year failed to comply with a decree of restitution of conjugal rights made under the Act.
  8. The other party to the marriage has been absent from the petitioner for such circumstances to provide reasonable grounds for presuming that he or she is dead.

Where a party to a petition for the dissolution of marriage can satisfy the court of one or more of the facts above, the court shall hold that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. Though the marriage institution is respected by the court, the court will not force couples to stay in a marriage that is ‘ipso facto’ broken down irretrievably.


It is common practice in recent times for couples who have conducted a statutory marriage declare their intention to obtain a divorce just less than a year into the marriage. This is a common practice in the western community. However, under the Matrimonial Causes Act[11] applicable in Nigeria, a petition for dissolution of marriage cannot be presented before the court within two years after the date of the marriage.

This rule upholds the sanctity of the Marriage institution to an extent. If this rule was non-existent, newly wedded couples can decide to get a divorce after hours of getting married. However, to every general rule is an exception. The law is not enacted to cause hardship on anyone. There are certain exceptions where the court will grant a decree for the dissolution of marriage less than two years.


A proceeding for the dissolution of marriage shall be instituted within 2 years after the date of marriage but by the leave of court[12]. The leave of court is not ordinarily granted. The court must be satisfied on the ground that the refusal to grant the leave of court would impose exceptional hardship on the applicant or exceptional depravity on the part of the other party to the marriage.[13]

The court will always consider the interest of any children of the marriage. Whether in a proceeding for judicial separation or dissolution of marriage, priority will be given to the children of the marriage. The court will consider the probability of reconciliation between the parties before the expiration of two years after the date of the marriage.


The term Separation and Divorce (dissolution of marriage) are sometimes used interchangeably. Many confuse them as being the same but they are not. Under the Matrimonial Causes Act,[14]  Separation relieves the Petitioner from any obligations to cohabit with the other party to the marriage. Unlike in a divorce where the marriage is totally dissolved, under separation, the marriage itself is not dissolved. It does not affect the rights, obligations and status of the parties to the marriage. A separation is when the parties no longer live under the same roof but still married. When parties are separated, no party has a right to remarry. Separation does not equal a divorce. Separation can be court sanctioned or by the mutual agreements of the parties.



This is a court sanctioned separation which is made in court where matters relating to child custody, child support, spousal support, maintenance are dealt with. An action for judicial separation is by way of petition just like a divorce. This petition is then filed in court. This order by the court is relevant where one of the parties to the marriage is unlikely to consent to a mutual separation.


Unlike a court ordered separation, this type of separation is created by the parties through a separate agreement that will contain issues relating to child custody, child support, spousal support, maintenance and property. This type of separation between parties to a marriage is only possible where both parties are on mutual agreement and are convinced that separating is the only way to protect their children and themselves. This is peaceful arrangement.

It is safer to involve a lawyer in this type of arrangement. The family lawyer can be involved in the process to mediate and put the terms of agreement into writing. The parties can then decide if they intend dissolving the marriage or start living together again by virtue of the agreement.


The term ‘Family Disruption’ refers to events that disrupt the structure of family life. These events include divorce, separation, parental death, deployment etc.[15].  There are several effects of family disruption and these effects are all negative and detrimental to an individual’s growth especially on the children of the broken home. These negative effects amongst few are;


Some studies suggest that juveniles who have experienced more family disruptions are at a high risk of anxiety. Anxiety and depression has been linked to family disruption in various studies. The children whose parents are divorced face a period of change and uncertainty which disrupts their sense of security.[16] Researchers are of the belief that divorce brings heightened concerns for security, loyalty and fears of losing a parent.   This has a greater potential of impacting behaviour and success in school.


Researchers are of the belief that family disruptions impacts boy’s social and economic development into adulthood.[17] Men who experienced family disruptions lacked opportunities to move to the upper class and acquire inheritable wealth. The parents lose the ability to positively impact their son’s adjustment in their professional life.


Divorce/Separation strongly impacts depression into adulthood. The risk of depression on the children increases if they had lived through immense tension between their parents. The high risk of depression is certain.[18] Children who grow up depressed due to their parent’s separation or Divorce grow up with suicidal mind-set. They easily give in to pressure and never confide with others in respect of their emotional and mental state.


The family is the bedrock of the society. A healthy family produces crime free individuals with healthy personality. An unhealthy, unstable and toxic family however produces a criminal congested society. Spouses cannot avoid the difficulties and differences in marriage such as problems from in-laws, financial problems, childlessness, poor communication, religious incompatibility, lack of parental skills, sexual incompatibility etc.. Those who fail to resolve these differences end up breaking up the home.

In Nigeria, marriage is not an individual affair. It involves the entire family. Marital breakdown affects the relationship between in-laws (bride and groom family), the couple, and relationship between the children and their parents.

  1. IN- LAWS

The relationship between in-laws is strained upon marital breakdown. Where the husband was the reason for the marital breakdown i.e. where the husband committed adultery, it is common for the wife’s family to severe communication with him in accordance to their daughters wish. They blame and detest the husband for breaking up his happy home and hurting their daughter.


Most couples after a divorce/Separation never maintain a friendly relationship. This is more so where the marriage had broken down with a lot of tension and bitterness or the separation was not on a good note. The relationship deteriorates over time. The impacts of divorce/separation on couples are most times negative. This is unhealthy for the child/children of the marriage. As parents, they have obligations to fulfil and the child/ children should not be deprived of a happy home.


The impact of divorce/separation on the relationship between parents and their children are negative. Where one of the parent is awarded custody of a child or children after divorce, there is an unconscious emotional withdrawal that starts gradually in the child or children towards the absent parent either the father or mother. As the child or children begins to grow in the absence of the other parent, the relationship between them continues to diminish until adulthood. Children also become rebellious after their parent’s divorce/separation. A child needs the help of both parents to help shape his personality, mental growth, emotional growth and social abilities.


The aftermath of a marital breakdown is nothing but a nightmare. It is however more hard on the child/children of the marriage. Marriage is a social institution that should be respected and cherished but sadly in recent times, divorce/separation is the first option couples seek out without thought for counselling sessions to see how best their marriage could be saved.

Where a marriage is on the verge of divorce/separation, couples ought to try the option of reconciliation especially for the interest of the children except where exceptional hardship or depravity will be suffered by one of the party to the marriage.


[1] Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009)

[2] New King James Version

[3] Black’s Law Dictionary (9th ed. 2009)

[4] Section 33 Matrimonial Causes Act 1970

[5] http://www.mondaq.com/Nigeria/family-law/985124/overview of statutory-marriage-in-nigeria

[6] Section 17 Marriage Act

[7] Section 21  Marriage Act

[8] Section 13 Marriage Act

[9] Section 15 (1) Matrimonial Causes Act 1970

[10] Section 15 (2) (a)-(h) Matrimonial Causes Act 1970

[11] Section 30 Matrimonial Causes Act 1970

[12] Section 30 (1) Matrimonial Causes Act 1970

[13] Section 30(3) Matrimonial Causes Act 1970

[14] Section 41 Matrimonial Causes Act 1970


[16] Hoyt, L.; Cowen E.; Pedro-Carroll, J.; Alpert-Gillis, L. (1990) “Anxiety and Depression in Young Children of Divorce” Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 19 (1): 26-32

[17] Biblarz, Timothy J.; Raftery, Adrian E. (February 1993) “The Effect of Family Disruption on Social Mobility” (PDF) American Sociological Review 58, No 1: 97-109 via JSTOR

[18] Gilman, Stephen E.; Kawachi, Ichiro; Fitzmaurice, Garett M.; Buka, Stephen L(May 2003) “Family Disruption in Childhood and Risk of Adult Depression”. American Journal of Psychiatry 160 (5); 939-946

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