Time to view divorce through a new lens
Rising divorce rates across the region and indeed around the world over the past few decades have been a cause for concern for governments and societies alike. Across the Arabian Gulf specifically, divorce is becoming quite common, with more than 53,000 cases reported in Saudi Arabia in 2017, compared to 35,000 in 2015 and 40,000 in 2016.
In neighboring Kuwait, the Ministry of Justice in 2017 revealed that around 60 percent of marriages in the country had ended in divorce. Given these staggering figures, and the impact divorce has been shown to have on all parties involved, as well as the wellbeing of societies, it is no surprise that a reduction in the divorce rate is usually at the top of every social policy agenda. But is it time to accept rising divorce rates as a new reality and address the challenge differently?
Objectively, and from a functional standpoint, families play the same role within societies that departments play in large companies. It makes sense that we all want to preserve this organizational structure that helps us “govern” societies (arguably more effectively) the way we do. Yet, in large companies, departments dissolve with little impact on the overall operation of the company if things are planned and executed correctly, and if the roles and responsibilities of the department are still carried out effectively. The question is: How can we apply the same level of flexibility to families going through a divorce the way we do with organizations?
A friend of mine who went through a divorce not long ago once said: “Divorce is also a relationship.” While it may be the end of a marriage, divorce does not necessarily mean the end of the relationship between two people and between family members; it is simply a different kind of relationship. In my small circle of family and friends, I have a few who have gone through divorces recently. The stark differences between every case have made me realize that, while we cannot realistically do much to reduce divorce rates significantly, we can help those seeking a divorce navigate through the process and find a new and improved family structure to replace the previous one.
The first and perhaps most important thing we can do to promote healthier families and societies is to view divorce through a new lens. Divorce is not the end of families (or at least it does not have to be) and it most certainly is not the end of the world for those going through it. It is simply an adjustment to an existing social organizational model. Post-divorce families can be whatever they want to be. They can choose to celebrate birthdays and other important occasions, they can go on vacations together, and can support each other through hardships as families and without any feelings of guilt or awkwardness.
Working to change the way divorce is viewed can also have a positive impact on the children of the divorcing parents; treating divorce like a mere living adjustment can help children accept it as such and thus feel less insecure, guilty or simply “different” to their peers. While divorce is most difficult for the children of the couple in question, it is a lesser evil than a life of constant conflict between parents. It is also better than carrying the guilt of knowing your parents are only together to provide you with some sense of normalcy, at the steep cost of their own happiness. Yes, there will inevitably be a transition period with many hurdles, but most families get through it and find a new normal.
Divorce does not necessarily mean the end of the relationship between two people and between family members.
Maria Hanif Al-Qassim
Children of parents who have gone through amicable, sensible and healthy divorces come out of the experience with many valuable lessons. They learn that relationships can change in form but they can and should remain respectful. They also learn that compromise is an important and effective skill, having seen their parents respectfully negotiate and work together to find a common ground. Most importantly, they learn that the health of the family members’ relationships with each other comes before what people say or think of them.
Another course of action we can promote to help families deal with the challenges that come with divorce is counseling. Counseling targeted at couples going their separate ways can help them deal with all the emotional, legal and logistical changes associated with the process and outcomes of divorce. It is quite common for couples to go through a grief period during and after a divorce. The end of a relationship and separation from a person that was at some point a major part of your life can leave a person feeling lonely, depressed and even fearful of the future. Communicating with divorce counselors who are trained to listen without bias and help both parties discuss, in a civil manner, where they are and what they want can address many of the anxieties and tensions that come with these trying times. Divorce counseling can also help couples learn how they will communicate during the process of the divorce, as well as prepare for the new phase in their relationship through developing the tools and skills required to redefine their relationship and have healthy interactions after the divorce.
Divorce counseling can be particularly helpful for couples that have children. There can be a lot of concern about how the divorce will affect the family, and counselors can help divorcing couples address such concerns practically and constructively. They can help parents decide when to inform the children about the divorce and how to explain it to them, as well as advise them on how to reduce the potentially traumatic effects that divorce can sometimes have on children.
Societies and social norms are fluid by nature. Marriage, divorce and all social ties are not immune to the changes modern life is subjecting them to. The key to combating the negative consequences of divorce today is not through blame games targeting husbands, wives, extended families or peers, or through government social workers and marriage counselors dissuading those seeking a divorce. Instead, we must accept this to be another “new normal.” We must fight the stigma attached to divorce and divorcees, and reshape family definitions to include those made up of a divorced couple with children, yet which continues to function as a healthy, loving and stable family.
- Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif