Are children of divorce less likely to get married? Can they ever experience long lasting adult relationships? Or are they better equipped at handling challenges? Will they do the impossible to keep their partnerships alive?
Google these questions online, and you’ll get thousands of studies claiming completely contradictory conclusions. It turns out, no one really has a clue.
So instead of relying on confusing statistics all over the internet, I decided to speak directly to children of divorce – now adults aged 22 to 44 – about the effects their parents’ divorce has had on their romantic relationships.
Altamash Javed, for example, is a self-proclaimed “big advocate” of divorce, calling his own parents’ separation a “huge relief”. And how could he not, having seen them fight over infidelity since he was 6 years old.
He explains: “My father was not loyal to my mom… the issue, especially in our culture, is that because you have kids by that time, the parents will always try to push for reconciliation… But their issues came back up. I started seeing a slow, downhill spiral and things got just as bad, if not worse.”
Perhaps that’s why he says, “Everyone I know is getting divorced.”
His statement comes as no surprise. The Pakistani photographer works in Dubai, where the UAE sees 34% of marriages ending in divorce, according to a 2022 study by the Egyptian Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Center. The numbers are higher in nearby Kuwait, where as many as 48% of marriages end in divorce, followed by 40% in Egypt, 37.2% in Jordan and 37% in Qatar.
But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Especially in my culture, once you have kids, you feel like you’re in prison – that’s it, you can never get divorced… [But] if you know it’s going to be a disaster, it’s better to end that marriage as early as possible,” Javed says.
“That way, you might even be able to save the individual relationship between the kids and each parent…,” he adds.
‘I’d rather be divorced than unhappy’
He’s not alone in his views. Twenty-seven-year-old Emirati Ahmad, who witnessed his parents separate when he was 7, prefers divorce to an unhappy marriage.
“I don’t see it [divorce] as something simple. I see it as an unpleasant thing, but I would always prefer, if I was married and unhappy, to be divorced instead of doing what most people do – having kids and thinking they will reignite their relationship,” he says.
“Once you have kids, it’s harder to get divorced. I don’t see it as something shameful, though, I see it as something liberating. If you made a bad choice, you don’t want to carry your wrong choice with you to your grave,” Ahmad, who asked to remain anonymous, adds.
But the stigma around divorce in the Middle East makes it especially hard for women to cope after a separation. The lack of sexual education, paired with an ignorant idea surrounding virginity, could turn a divorce into a shameful taboo for women.
The perception is that “no one wants to marry a woman with kids from her previous marriage,” Ahmad explains.
“I say this because the woman could have been a virgin before she married. If she gets divorced – and I don’t agree with this at all by the way – they might think that she’s no longer clean,” he tells me.
“An Islamic teacher in my school was saying that even if a woman is a virgin, it does not mean she has to bleed. Some people expect a bloodbath and when that doesn’t happen, they become doubtful of the wife.
“They might not tell her, but they might think she did something without telling them, so it would put her in a bad position. I don’t know if sex education would help with lowering the divorce rate, but I know a lot of cases where this has happened,” he says.
Indeed, virginity has retained its importance across parts of the Middle East, with some countries taking the issue more seriously than others. In 2012, Iraqi women were forced to undergo court-ordered virginity tests, lawyers working at the institution told the AFP. Just a year earlier, however, activists in neighboring Egypt celebrated as the Cairo Administrative Court ordered an end to the procedure, calling it illegal.
Yet it remains just one of several fears surrounding divorce. Dubai resident Sarah, 29, says her mother avoids divorce despite having spent years in an unhappy marriage.
“My parents never got a divorce, but I wish they had. I can’t remember a day where it was a peaceful, stable day growing up with them. My mom is very stubborn, and my dad has a terrible temper, so it’s not a good combo.
“It’s very sad, to be honest, because you want to grow old and be happy with your partner,” she says. “You don’t want someone in your space that you’re not bothered to deal with. They’ve been keeping it civil and are formal with each other so, it’s not a marriage situation, it’s like, they are roommates who don’t like each other,” she says.
“In the Arab world, I think the father has some sort of power… There are a lot of factors – there’s a fear of not having custody of your kids as well as financial reasons,” adds Sarah, who asked to remain anonymous for the purpose of this article.
But it’s not just the women who suffer the consequences of divorce. Sharjah resident Saif, 50, says many of his male friends have been denied access to their kids after separation.
“The courts usually sympathize with the woman, which is great. The problem is that some women take their husbands for a ride when it comes to divorce. For example, the wife of a friend asked him for a divorce after he moved countries for a better paid job. She didn’t want to move abroad, and their relationship started to worsen because of the long distance,” he says.
“One day, she tells him she also wants half of his money. Mind you, it’s an Arab Muslim family, and they have three daughters and one young son. So, he told her he wants to try and repair the relationship, and that he wouldn’t give her half of what he owns because he had already planned that their kids would inherit most of it.
“She ended up taking the son to another country, where he could only see him at a designated place and only for a short period time. It just didn’t seem fair. It took him years before he could see his son freely,” Saif, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me.
The Blame Game
Regardless of who initiates the divorce, whose fault it may be, or how ugly it gets, Hannah, 44, from Ireland, doesn’t believe in the blame game for either gender. Despite growing up witnessing her mother tolerate her father’s infidelities, she doesn’t blame their divorce entirely on him. Rather, she believes her mother should have stood up for herself.
“I was very headstrong when I was younger. I always thought, I’m never going to put up with what my mother let my dad get away with. My mother is so weak. And when you tell yourself that enough, especially as an impressionable teenager, it becomes ingrained…
“I’m not one of these women who thinks all men are cheaters because I know my dad is a cheater. Although we never spoke about it, he did marry his secretary so, that says enough. My mom let my dad get away with a lot, which is why I am now so fussy. But it just has made me more certain of what I would and wouldn’t tolerate,” she tells me.
In Javed’s case, he initially refused to tolerate the idea of marriage entirely. That is, until he met his now-wife, with whom he’s got two young children. In addition to being an advocate for divorce, he is a self-proclaimed “happily married” man.
“I didn’t want to marry,” he tells me, “So when I met my now-wife in college, we had a really good friendship, but she also said that if this were to go to the next step, she’s not going to just be my friend.
“I decided I’m going to prove to the world that even though I’ve gone through this, I can defeat it and have a happy marriage. I’m not saying I have a perfect marriage, but it’s still going. What I try to do every day, and when it affects me, is to take my parents’ divorce as a lesson,” he says.
Emirati Ahmad followed a similar pattern, having been pessimistic about finding love after experiencing his parents’ divorce. Now married, he says his experience helped cement the kind of father figure he would – and wouldn’t – want to be for his future children
“Seeing how my parents were [together] made me think that it’s hard to find that true love. I know people would tell me it’s a hard thing and so on, but I already saw something growing up that was bad… it wasn’t a pleasant experience to see these things.
“But now I know what kind of dad I would like to be if I ever have kids. If there are issues between me and my partner, they [my kids] would definitely never know about them, because those things will stick with them for the rest of their lives.
“I would also not show them in any way that I am tougher than their mom. To me, it should be split 50/50. I want them to know that this is equal. I don’t want them to see their mom as being weak,” he adds.
It might be easier said than done, however. For Dubai resident Samuel Turner, 31, his parents’ divorce came as a complete shock when they announced their split when he was 17 years old.
“Honestly, they’re great parents. They would never fight in front of us or anything… I have two younger brothers, so he [my father] was waiting for us to be of age so it wouldn’t affect them as much.
“At the time, it’s not something you think about at all. You think about it later in life, and I would say that your parents’ marriage is such a foundation in your life. It’s what you judge other relationships on’ it’s your platform for safety. You go to your parents when you’re sad or something is going wrong,” he says.
“So, when that foundation breaks, that’s a little bit disturbing… And it kind of affects you as in, if you see that one relationship that you judge everything off [of] in life split up, then you worry about what that could mean for your future relationships,” Turner says.
Despite his girlfriend of 6 years also being a child of divorce, making it easier for him to communicate, he admits the impact of the divorce hasn’t left him still.
“I think it’s in the back of my mind sometimes like nothing lasts or problems could come out of nowhere. It kind of makes you a bit more pessimistic, I guess… We’re both very happy and she is a child of divorce as well. So, maybe that similarity between us both helps. But when you have a quiet moment, you do kind of think about it sometimes,’ he says.
Unlike Javed and Ahmed, Turner doesn’t think any divorce is, “okay.”
He says, “Even if people say it’s okay, it’s still messy on the inside.”
But does it have to be? Not according to 27-year-old Dania Tibetava from Uzbekistan, who claims she felt no negative effects from her parents’ divorce, which took place when she was just 3.
“I felt loved all the time and I used to live with my dad and my mom in two separate houses,” she says.
“They are still friends and they still talk to each other. Even when my mom travels to Uzbekistan, she visits him, and my dad would visit her when he comes to Dubai – we would all gather together and go out, and everybody is happy,” she tells me.
And so, I begin to wonder again, are children of divorce less likely to get married? Can they ever experience long lasting adult relationships? Or are they better equipped at handling challenges? Will they do the impossible to keep their partnerships alive?
Only they can decide.