When a friend of mine, I’ll call her Chitra, married in a lavish Hindu ceremony in India, she believed she was marrying a kind and supportive man. She had met him a few times before the wedding, introduced by their families in an arranged union. But soon after the ceremony, her husband became hostile and controlling, Chitra says, a difficult personality made worse by alcoholism. She used to be bubbly and party-loving, but 22 years into their marriage, she has become an emaciated figure, removed from her friends and guarded in her conversations with family members. Telling others about her marital troubles would mean losing her status in society. Even though the couple and their two children now live in the United States, divorce would be a shameful admission of failure in their Indian immigrant community. Her family would be shunned, locking them out of social and religious events and making it difficult for her children to get married in the future.
Chitra’s experience is an increasingly common one in the United States. 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.)
Chitra’s story, and the emotional suffering of other South Asian men and women whom I help as a counselor, show why those numbers are so concerning. 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.
The divorce stigma often is most severe in cases of arranged marriage. Though it’s not clear exactly how many such unions exist in the United States, we know that South Asians are part of the fastest-growing racial group here, and about 70 percent of Indian marriages are arranged. More than 87 percent of Indian Americans are foreign-born, and ties to relatives and communities back home mean customs like arranged marriage and the shame of divorce continue to be enforced across oceans and through generations. These traditions and values span social class: The high level of educational and professional achievement in Indian immigrant populations can disguise how deeply traditional they are in their personal lives. Youth who attend American schools and are immersed in Western culture still can experience extreme pressure from older relatives to marry someone from back home of the same religion and caste. At its worst, breaking the custom of arranged marriage can mean being disowned by one’s family.
Certainly, there are positive aspects to the cultural commitment to marriage, and arranged unions can be very harmonious. They are common in my own orthodox Hindu family, and I watched my father care for my mother through a prolonged and difficult illness lasting years with selfless devotion. And I have seen numerous other arranged marriages characterized by warmth and affection that have endured into old age. But the facade of happily-ever-after sometimes hides another story. In cases where arranged unions become abusive, deeply dysfunctional or break down entirely due to incompatibility, the repercussions are severe. Attorney and mediator Geetha Ravindra, author of “Shaadi Remix: Transforming the Traditional Indian Marriage,” explained it to me this way:
Some situations feel like bondage — the wife has no opportunity to continue her education or to work; she is often not allowed contact with her family back in India. She is precluded from having friends in the community. She has no income, no transportation, and is blackmailed by being told that if she leaves, she will be bringing a black mark on her family.
Men also can be trapped in dysfunctional marriages by abusive wives for fear divorce will stigmatize their children.
In my work, I regularly hear stories of broken marriages that lead men and women to seek comfort and escape in alcohol, gambling, workaholism, frenzied shopping or compulsive eating. While it’s not uncommon for couples to choose to stay in unhappy marriages for their children, unions steeped in traditional Indian customs – especially arranged marriages – often cause couples to feel they have no choice, no help and no way out. According to Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Indian Americans say having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their life, compared to just 34 percent of all Americans.The heavy weight of stigma takes away their self-determination.
On top of the stigma they face, language and cultural barriers prevent South Asians from finding and using the network of domestic abuse services, and they often lack a cohort of friends and relatives who encourage them to leave abusive situations. Often, it’s not the abuser who is deemed at fault, but the victim, for being a disobedient, uncompromising or difficult spouse. That stress and isolation can lead to mental health issues, in some cases, accompanied by physical illnesses like multiple sclerosis, cardiac problems and autoimmune conditions.
The result is a phenomenon that Parijat Deshpande, founder of the South Asian mental health organization MySahana, has coined “the invisible divorce” — a tortured cohabitation of a couple in a relationship that has irrevocably fallen apart. This problem is gaining some attention in South Asian communities in the West. For instance, Seattle-based organization API Chaya was established in 2011 in part to support survivors of domestic violence from the South Asian community.
Fixing this problem doesn’t mean ending the practice of arranged marriage altogether. But the traditional model needs to be reformed for the modern era, in which individuals enjoy more independence and self-determination. As Ravindra pointed out to me, parents’ traditional criteria for a compatible spouse – caste, community, education, family status, dowry, horoscopes – are less relevant to younger generations. Instead, they find marital bliss in shared interests, goals and values. In choosing a mate, families should give the happiness of the individuals in the union more consideration than the expectations of relatives outside of it.
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.com and 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.
For many Americans, it’s obvious that when a marriage is abusive and has irretrievably broken down, legal divorce is far more humane than invisible divorce. But in parts of the rapidly growing Asian-American community, that philosophy hasn’t been adopted. The tales of heartbreak are many, but layers of taboo have kept them hidden. People seeking divorce should receive compassion, not condemnation. And instead of blacklisting divorcees, we should encourage their remarriage, showing that renewal of life is possible. With more support and as more troubled spouses choose to shirk convention, South Asian communities can end the divorce stigma.
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