Divorce in Other Cultures
Divorce is common in almost all societies, but cultural views about it are changing as societies develop. In societies such as the United States, Sweden, Russia, and most European countries, divorce is relatively simple and has little stigma. The exceptions are countries that are largely Roman Catholic; because Catholicism does not allow divorce,
it can be difficult to obtain in Catholic countries. Ireland legalized divorce in 1995; prior to this time, Ireland was the only country in the Western world to constitutionally ban divorce (Pogatchnik, 1995). The last country in South America to legalize divorce was Chile, where legalization took place in late 2004.
To assure that divorce did not disrupt the community, many traditional societies, including some in Africa, performed rituals for peacefully dissolving marriages. But today divorces can be disruptive and messy as couples fight in court over marital assets and custody (Kayongo-Male & Onyango, 1984).
Traditional laws about divorce can still be enforced, especially in more patriarchal cultures. Islamic law, like traditional Jewish law, allows a man to divorce his wife simply by repudiating her publicly three times. A wife, on the other hand, must go to court to dissolve a marriage (Rugh, 1984). In Egypt, it is far easier for men to divorce than for women, and because of this only about 33% of divorces in Egypt are initiated by females. In Israel, women need their husband’s permission for a divorce, and councils have been set up to try to convince men to let their wives have a divorce.
In 2001, China’s government revised its 20-year-old marriage law and included the concept of fault in marriage (Dorgan, 2001; Ruan & Lau, 2004). Before this law was implemented, Chinese couples had an equal division of family property regardless of the reasons for the divorce. Under this new law, however, if a partner is caught engaging in extramarital sex, he can lose everything (research has found that it is mostly men who cheat in China). To catch the cheating spouses, many entrepreneurial types have started detective firms where women pay them to catch their cheating spouses.
The reasons that people get divorced are numerous, although different patterns emerge in different societies. In Egypt, the most common reason given for divorce is infidelity by the husband, whereas among the Hindus of India, the most common reason is cruelty (either physical or mental) from their partner (Pothen, 1989). Arab women’s main reasons for divorce include the husband’s physical, sexual, or verbal abuse; alcoholism; mental illness; and in-law interference (Savaya & Cohen, 2003). In China, more than 70% of divorces are initiated by women and the main reason given is an extramarital affair of the husband (Ruan & Lau, 2004). This is also the main reason for divorce in Brazil and many other countries (de Freitas, 2004). See Human Sexuality in a Diverse World, “Reasons for Divorce in Four Cultures,” on page 281 for more information about cross-cultural reasons for divorce.
Overall, divorce rates seem to be increasing worldwide as countries modernize and as traditional forms of control over the family lose their power. Only time will tell, however, whether a backlash will stabilize marriage rates, as they seem to be doing in the United States.