Lots of American Muslims are divorcing. But why isn’t the divorce rate higher? Given the complexities of balancing religion and culture in America, we ask the tough question.
Marriages among Muslim-Americans happen in many different ways. Aisha and Muhammad meet in college. The two fall in love and decide to tell their parents about their desire to marry. The parents meet. The two youngsters marry. Or, the parents of Sumaya are introduced to the parents of Kashif. They decide their kids would be perfect for each other. The kids meet and approve their parents’ decision. A wedding date is set. But recent statistics reveal that both couples may not remain married for too long.
Muslim-American marriages over the past 10 to 15 years last fewer years and end at much higher rates than the previous generation’s. The most recent study, in 2000, placed the divorce rates at 30 percent, or about three times the highest divorce rate in Muslim majority countries (Turkey, for example has a 10 percent divorce rate). Since then, however, an empirical analysis seems to prove that the rate for divorces has crept upward, and one may guess it even equals the divorce rate of average Americans, which stands at 50 percent.
So, let’s assume 50 percent of all Muslim-American marriages end in divorce. Given the complexities that exist within the community, we suggest that the rate is probably lower than it should be.
Muslim-American couples face all the problems that typical American couples face with respect to expectations, compatibility, communication, children, a greater sense of individuality and financial issues. But crucially, Muslim-American couples (and in specific, we are speaking about children of immigrants where one or more parents are from a Muslim-majority country) do not benefit from a normative cultural framework that helps manage expectations and define what it means to be a husband and a wife. As children of immigrants, they may find some of the paradigms of their parents’ marriage as incongruous with the prevailing Western social and cultural norms in which they grew up, particularly with respect to gender dynamics. At the same time, those prevailing norms, especially with respect to relationships between men and women, are not easily translatable into an Islamic worldview. If one also accounts for the impact of globalization, rapidly changing modern lifestyles and the ubiquity of modern mass media, there are tremendous forces rapidly shaping and reshaping what it means to be married. As a result, Muslim-American couples are caught between the old-school traditional practices of their parents and the hyper-modern relationships of the larger society, without a compass or framework with which to pattern their own marriage. It should come as no surprise that divorce rates are on the rise.
Within marriage, cultural paradigms serve to reduce points of negotiation and potential conflict, creating space for couples to manage expectations based on a broader social framework. Built into the cultural paradigms are shared expectations that are largely accepted by both husband and wife without the need for constant renegotiation. While gender roles may also be in flux across many cultures, there are aspects of the cultural frameworks that remain intact in places like Pakistan, Egypt or India that make marriage easier to navigate. So for example, in the case of a Pakistani couple, certain aspects of their relationship with in-laws, their in-laws’ behavior towards them, or expectations with respect their own interpersonal emotional relationship are in many ways guided by cultural context. This is not to say conflict does not arise, but rather that the couple has a shared foundation that facilitates addressing issues that arise from those spaces. The key here is that the underlying assumptions are shared based on common experience and common culture, so they are less likely to build a sense of resentment from either partner in the marriage.
This is less likely the case for Muslim-American couples. Given the lack of successful cultural framework and common experience to draw from, more aspects of their relationship must be negotiated without a shared foundation in place. This means a Muslim-American couple may need to work two or three times as hard as their parents just to sustain the marriage, leaving aside efforts to pursue a larger sense of happiness.
While this process of negotiation is constantly playing itself out, there are external shocks to the marriage that make that process even more difficult.
In an essay titled “Keeping Marriages Healthy, and Why It’s So Difficult,” published for the American Psychological Association, Benjamin Karney, an associate professor of social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that one reason why marriages fail is that when couples first marry, they tend to have a generally positive view of their spouse. As time passes, and the inevitable disappointments of marriage surface, the couples that are more charitable regarding their spouse’s deficiencies tend to have successful marriages. However, the ability to be charitable is negatively affected by external stress factors such as children, in-law relationships, financial security and other issues. As Karney explains:
“So, why is it so difficult to maintain the initial positive feelings that characterize most newlywed couples? It is difficult because some disappointments are inevitable in any long-term committed relationship, because some spouses lack the ability to respond to those disappointments effectively, and because even spouses who have the ability may encounter stressful circumstances that prevent them from exercising their abilities when they are most needed.”
If Muslim-American couples could limit conflict to dealing with disappointments and negotiating through the various aspects of marriage, perhaps the divorce rate would decline. However, as Karney argues, stressful situations can make things even worse.
A recent report published by the Institute for Social Policy Understanding on divorce in the Muslim-American community surveyed a number of married couples to better understand the reasons for rising divorce rates. Among the various findings, the report concluded that a significant factor in marital conflict is relationships between couples and extended families or in-laws. Of all the reasons for divorce or conflict outlined in the report, the in-law relationship was the one source of stress that was external to the marriage, i.e. a factor that could not be entirely resolved by the couple within the marriage. So much of this happens because of what Kashif’s family or Muhammad’s family may demand of their wives stems from their own cultural understanding, from how they were raised in another country and in a different social structure. But both Sumaya and Aisha were born and raised in American society and the struggle of negotiating their expectations compared with the demands of their parents or their in-laws may place on them could create greater friction between the two couples.
Given the tremendous difficulties facing Muslim-American couples that are navigating uncharted territory with respect to modern Muslim marriages, it behooves the Muslim community to begin to address and remove the additional stresses created by in-law and family relationships. Parents need to recognize that the expectations and assumptions they bring to the marriage relationship based on their cultural background from Muslim-majority countries may be doing more to destabilize relationships than help them. The external stress produced by extended family relationships may be the extra factor that pushes a couple, that would otherwise be capable of handling the difficulties of marriage, into a divorce.
When discussing the role of parents within marriage relationships, it is also important to better understand how filial piety, or respect of parents, plays a role in the interplay between and across various relationships. While Islam has accorded parents a special status, it is incumbent upon parents to recognize that, as much as that status is a right, it also bears responsibilities. Given the religio-cultural context of modern marriage, parents must be sensitive not to overextend those rights or employ the religious language of filial piety in a manner that creates inordinate stress on their children and their children’s marital relationships. While respect certainly is accorded, Islam does not require children to guarantee their parents’ happiness. As Muslim-American culture continues to evolve, there will no doubt be disappointment with major life decisions on the part of the parents. Learning how to deal with these issues in a positive manner that at worst does not destabilize their children’s marriages, and at best may even be supportive of them, is a responsibility they must bear.
Better management of family relationships is not a panacea for rising divorce rates amongst Muslim-Americans. Marriage counseling, community support programs and better management of expectations on the part of spouses are all important factors. However, external shocks to the marriage could represent one of the “tipping points” that push couples toward divorce. Marriage in general is not easy. Muslim marriages in the context of American culture are even more difficult. Given that the odds of a successful marriage are not so great to begin with, removing at least some of the external factors that lead to divorce can be an important first step in solving the problem. In this regard parents must learn to recognize that judging their children and their marriages by cultural standards foreign to their reality adds an unnecessary stress to an already difficult situation.