I practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most diverse regions in the world. If someone can come from somewhere on the planet, that person has made the trip and is living in the Bay Area. I have long held the impression that cultural conditioning influences how people approach divorce and how they engage in the divorce process. At time my impressions have engendered real debate with colleagues who maintain that when it comes to divorce, litigants are culturally disaffected. Well . . . turns out I was right, and my pundits were stone cold wrong.
An article from the Washington Post discusses the particular factors influencing Hindus and divorce, but I would argue that the thinking applies to a plethora of cultures.
While divorce is an accepted and relatively easy process in Western countries, it has remained stigmatized in growing Asian immigrant communities, particularly where arranged marriages are still the norm. Even discussing marital problems is limited. Divorce rates for the 3.5 million people of South Asian descent in the United States. are extremely low, but that’s not necessarily because they’ve selected better mates or constructed healthier unions. While the U.S. government doesn’t track the divorce rate for Indian Americans specifically, expert estimates range from 1 percent to 15 percent, compared to a divorce rate of 44 percent for all Americans. (In India, divorce is even less common – just one in 1,000 marriages ends in divorce.)
Husbands and wives are forced by social pressure originating 8,000 miles away to stay in emotionally unhealthy and abusive relationships. While parents and siblings might show sympathy over an unhappy marriage, divorce is often considered beyond the pale. Divorcees often are isolated from their families, an object of mingled pity and disdain. Sometimes, they stop receiving invitations to family functions, and when they do attend, they’re made a target of relatives’ shaming. In conservative families, a divorced woman is often viewed as pariah or harbinger of bad luck. The divorce taboo has particularly severe consequences for women who have no financial resources of their own. If their families oppose the divorce, they may be left with no place to go and no means of supporting themselves and their children. So while many are cheering about the falling divorce rates in the United States, this isn’t good news for all. In some communities, what’s needed is more divorce, not less.
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Traditional arranged marriages aren’t the only problem. The divorce stigma affects South Asian couples in troubled “love marriages,” as well, and demands more attention from local leaders both inside and outside of the South Asian community. Resources targeting South Asian communities, such as workshops and therapeutic centers, should be established to provide therapy to embattled couples and to normalize divorce and remarriage. Early signs of change exist in Web sites such as My Sahana, masalamommas.comand my own DearSharadha.com, which help raise awareness and change attitudes through lectures and essays. Meet-ups for Asian divorcees and dating sites and modern matrimonial sites like secondshaadhi.com are popping up across the United States and Canada, as well as in India.
The premise of the argument is that because of this social conditioning divorce rates for certain populations here in the U.S. are actually falling. That may or may not be true, particularly here in Northern California. Regardless, the article also demonstrates how much more problematic a divorce case can be when it actually happens because of cultural differences. The problems (if that is the correct descriptor?) are the product of generations of cultural conditioning. It can be very perplexing for the parties in a divorce to understand the U.S. legal process that is foreign to them, and very challenging for the U.S. lawyers that have to explain and demand conformity with our American way of divorce.