21 Ways Cultural Diversity Impacts Divorce

21 May is World Day of Cultural Diversity and to commemorate that, let’s look at the role cultural diversity plays in our relationships, families and communities especially when going through separation and divorce.

Diversity is a great thing. It enriches our relationships and widens our horizons. Opposites attract and it’s super exciting to get to know a new person with a different culture than our own. What is more romantic than being swept off your feet by someone from a far away place and to hear sweet nothings whispered in your ears in a foreign language?

So we fall in love and decide to spend the rest of our lives together. At this stage, most of the cultural differences between us are adorable and even sexy but as time goes by and we start a family, those differences could turn into challenges. The expectations we have of each other are no longer easily met and our individual ways of doing things become an irritation.

In the unfortunate event that we end up in a divorce, the diversity in our cultures might very well be a huge point of contention and cause massive disruption in the relationship. If we could transcend beyond the limits of an ethnocentric approach and develop cultural empathy, we’ll be much better equipped to manage marriage as well as divorce. Trying to see the big picture from each other’s cultural perspective, improves negotiation and the possibility of achieving a reasonable compromise in divorce.

Regardless of the challenges, it is paramount that children’s right to maintain a connection to the ethnic and cultural background of both their parents and extended families is respected.

Here are some examples of how cultural diversity plays a role in divorce:
  1. In some cultures husbands have a duty to go out in the world and provide their family with security and sustenance while wives have a duty to remain at home and take care of children and household responsibilities. These husbands would still have a duty to support & provide for the ex-wife after divorce, while she continues to take care of the children.

    In other cultures where both husband and wife pursue their own careers and ambitions, both parents would have equal responsibility to provide for and take care of children. Cultures that place this responsibility on husbands alone, might regard both parents away from home working, as disruptive for the family or subversive to their culture.

    In a divorce it is important to consider the cultural expectations of both parties in terms of providing and caring for children and ensure that everyone’s needs are met as much as possible.

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  2. Some cultures put a high value on individual freedom, independence and fulfilment, therefore the idea of sacrificing personal happiness or success for family is regarded as weak or foolish. After divorce, parents would be able to continue their careers and personal pursuits while the needs of the children would be secondary and met by contracted individuals.

    Conversely, in cultures where a high value is put on daily responsibilities of family care and child-rearing, being present at celebrations and special occasions and making personal sacrifices for the sake of a marriage and a family, both parents or at least one parent would be expected to sacrifice personal gain for the sake of the family (children) after divorce.
  3. Cultures that focus on cultivating a collective identity generally regard divorce as the inability of both spouses to do their duty to society and their family. Divorcees are blamed for giving up too easily, doing something bad or being selfish and their family and community look down on them. Such cultures tend to assign blame to the spouse with the duty to maintain the household and care for the children (women/mothers). Women in these cultures are taught that personal sacrifice is needed to fulfil their marital duties and they are under pressure to avoid divorce at all cost. One party will generally be held responsible for the divorce and punished accordingly, hence a spouse might make substantial personal sacrifices to avoid divorce and the shame associated with it. This is particularly prevalent in cultures where arranged or forced marriages occur and the women are generally expected to ensure the marriage lasts.

    On the other hand, cultures that focus on individualism generally regard divorce as the result of couples not being properly prepared for marriage, incompatible personalities or irreconcilable differences. Couples are not expected to make personal sacrifices and blame is not assigned to one spouse only. Both parties will be held responsible for the divorce and a reasonable compromise will be sought.

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  4. Most countries in Europe allow unilateral divorce, which means divorce can be granted upon request of only one party. Ireland and Italy are the only two countries where a divorce may not be granted if it is opposed by a spouse. In the Philippines, where divorce is illegal, an annulment or marriage void (a legal separation) can be obtained in rare cases, but are time-consuming and costly.
  5. In Muslim culture, a husband can divorce his wife by simply stating it to two witnesses, but if a woman wishes to divorce her husband, the husband has to grant her the divorce and she might be pressured to forego certain assets and spousal support in order to get it.

    Similarly, in Orthodox Jewish culture, the husband also has the power to grant a divorce to his wife or refuse it. If he objects, she won’t be able to remarry. However, if the wife refuses to grant her husband a divorce, the husband may still remarry.
  6. When one party converted to the other’s religion for the sake of the marriage and they decide to revert back to their original religion during a divorce, it can cause conflict about how the children will be raised. In the case of Christians who believe that divorce is a sin, it could also be used to impose guilt or shame on the other party who desires to divorce.
  7. Cultures respond differently to unfamiliar situations or new challenges, so a particular society might exhibit high levels of mistrust, fear and anxiety over the divorce process while another society might have complete trust in the process and show no fear or anxiety. One spouse might try to withhold information or not be completely honest due to a lack of trust and fear of being harmed, while the other spouse could be fully transparent and open-hearted as a result of feeling safe and secure.
  8. Monochronic cultures such as Germans, Canadians, Americans and the British need to focus on one thing at a time and would prefer to tackle one issue at a time during a divorce process. Polychronic cultures such as the Middle Eastern, Southern European, African and Latin American societies can do multiple things at the same time and would prefer to address various issues simultaneously to speed up a divorce process.
  9. Body language differs widely among cultures so a Japanese spouse who’s culture is fairly formal and emotional displays are disliked might feel agitated by the hand movements, physical contact and emotional displays of a Mexican for example. These varying behaviours could be misinterpreted and lead to serious misunderstandings in divorce negotiations.
  10. Migrant parents often perceive a threat to the values imported from their country of origin. It is difficult to practice one’s own culture in a foreign environment where a different culture is prevalent in the community, families and relationships. In marriage, this often leads to over-emphasis of those cultural values in parenting and could escalate during divorce. Settlement agreements and parenting plans should make ample provision for upholding the cultures of both parents and their families, for the sake of the children.
  11. Cultural views on clothing & fashion could lead to judgemental behaviour toward foreigners who marry into a culture. Clothing is also prescribed by some religions and may pose problems for those who do not subscribe to them. Apart from couples jointly facing the behaviour of others toward their clothing this can also become a challenge between parents with different views on clothing for their children.
  12. Many women in cultures that relate femininity to physical appearance and attractiveness spend a lot on clothes, make-up and jewellery and would dress up every time they leave the house. Other women in cultures who do not dress up every day but reserve that for special occasions , might regard them as insecure or over-the-top. In other cultures, naturalness, independence or a high level of education might be typical features of women. All of these matters impact the needs of parties and desired outcomes of a divorce.

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  13. Interpretations of eye contact differ vastly. Certain cultures regard eye contact as disrespectful or even invasive of privacy while others regard a lack of eye contact as disrespectful or even suspicious. Consider for a moment how a family in a culture that does not allow eye-contact would respond to meeting someone from a culture who regards eye-contact as important. Furthermore, imagine how a couple’s disagreement might play out if one of them makes eye contact and the other avoids eye contact?

    There is an interesting difference in child-rearing cultures between western cultures that value eye-contact with infants for stimulation and bonding and some African cultures that avoid eye contact with infants for fear of them thinking they are in control of their elders.
  14. Language is a system of symbols with meaning which is an integral part of a culture. Silence or pause is regarded by some as a necessary part of social integration and a valuable communication tool, whereas others who communicate in a lively, loud manner might experience discomfort in the silence and vice versa. People who are accustomed to speaking slowly might have difficulty understanding someone who speaks fast.

    Similarly, when a couple speaks two different languages, their families and friends might not be able to communicate with their partners due to a language barrier. Another interesting challenge occurs when children speak different languages to their parents and the other parent is unable to follow the conversation. Cases have been reported where children ask one parent for something and when that parent responds negatively, they ask the same thing of the other parent in a different language, excluding the first parent from the conversation and often getting a positive response.

    During conflict when emotions run high, mixed-culture partners often revert to their mother tongue to express their anger or frustration, leaving their spouse at a loss and having to guess what is being said.
  15. Cultural hierarchies such as the strong recognition of rank, age and gender while greeting someone in Asian countries, could pose a challenge to someone who is unaware and a casual greeting might be construed as rude or disrespectful to members of that culture. In divorce negotiations, these cultural differences could complicate matters if anyone feels disrespected or disregarded.

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  16. Views on masculinity and femininity and the traditional roles they play, vary from culture to culture and affect not only spouses, but their extended family as well. In some cultures the man is the head of the family but in other cultures the woman is regarded as the head of the family. For example where men are the head of the family, women are raised to take care of them so they’ll cook and clean even if it’s not their own house. In another culture it could be regarded as offensive if a guest cleans your house or even oppressive if a woman is expected to look after a man.

    Cultural expectations about the roles and functions of partners differ greatly, such as the way some men are expected to be chivalrous and romantic while in other cultures women do not expect men to open doors for them or carry their bags.
  17. Some cultures do not tolerate fussy eaters and their children eat the same foods as the adults, where other cultures prefer their children to eat before or separately from the adults and prepare simple foods for them. It could take considerable compromise from parents to accommodate these differences in their parenting during marriage and even more so post divorce.
  18. If you were raised in a culture where emphasis was placed on your cognitive development, you would expect to raise your children in the same way. However, if your spouse was raised in a culture where emphasis was placed on their physical needs and emotional development as a child, they would expect to raise their children in that way. A combination of both would benefit any child in a married family but in a divorced family, care needs to be taken to uphold both cultures in the absence of one parent or the other.

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  19. In cultures that place a high value on the family unit, children are allowed to stay up late and spend time interacting with each other, whereas cultures that place a high value on individual development, children have to go to bed early in order to prepare for school the next day. Allowing children to stay up late is often construed as a lack of routine and discipline by the parent and might be opposed by the other parent.
  20. Some societies rely on a strong intergenerational family unit and children provide social security for elders, so several generations will live together. In other societies, children are sent far away to pursue careers as they rely more on personal success, so family members live scattered apart.
  21. Cultural views about corporal punishment play a large role in parenting. Sweden banned it in 1979 and many countries have followed suit since then. While some cultures might consider spanking a necessity, others might consider it abusive or violent.

    Being mindful of the cultural diversity in our relationships, families and larger communities, fosters a deeper understanding and cultivates a high level of tolerance for that which is foreign. Once that is achieved, civilised divorce negotiations and co-parenting can be achieved. Then we can indulge in the joy of discovering new cultures, rituals, music, food and much more. Better yet, we’ll make life-long connections and raise brilliant families!

    Written by Sinta Ebersohn, creator of www.fairdivorce.co.za (Stellenbosch RSA)