Rebuilding After Divorce
Indian divorcees find life a tad easier in America than in India.
It’s Saturday and Priyanka Aggarwal, a working professional in her mid-thirties is getting her hiking gear ready for a single again group meeting in midtown Manhattan. Today the group has organized a hiking trip in Central Park followed by lunch in an uptown eatery. This group of Indian American men and women from diverse backgrounds and professions meet once every fortnight to let their hair down while discussing everything from their work to children. The group has one thing in common — all its members are either divorced or are undergoing proceedings for one.
In an alien land where many Indian women often accompany their husbands as their sole relative to start a new life, divorce can seem like one of the most dreadful things to happen. However, in a surprising twist, many young men and women who have gone through the unfortunate fate of divorce in America say they actually experienced a lot more solace and comfort being in this country than they ever imagined. While the idea of being in a society without any stigmas attached to divorce was refreshing for many, a few others took it up as a challenge to build up their singular lives from scratch.
According to psychologist Dr Sameer Malhotra, divorce can be a very discordant experience for both the parties involved: “Most couples who come to us for counseling show withdrawal systems. Suddenly you are faced with the reality of not having someone around to share your everyday life’s experiences and this can be traumatic. During such times people want to cloister close to their family, friends or relatives they can trust. It’s one of the most natural human tendency.”
For many looking for such bonds in a home away from home also led to solid friendships. Bhavik Parmar, who lives in New Jersey, formed a whatsapp group titled “Divorced Separated Widow Desis,” says he was overwhelmed at the response: “I created this group in 2014 after undergoing a bitter divorce myself. My family though settled in U.S. for many years is very traditional and we have had no divorces in the family thankfully. I felt convinced that there are others like me looking for support and today the group has 330 members.” Parmar says the group is open to anyone and charges no membership fees. He says, “This group has changed so many people’s lives. Several members have found love and we have several couples. Besides we have festive events, children events. It’s like an entire community.”
No Judgements Please
Bhavik Parmar (seen here with daughter): “I found myself going to malls, bookstores, out to eat, etc. pushing a little baby in a stroller everywhere, changing her diapers, and crying as a Mr. Mom.”
For women who came to United States as dependents, the idea of staying back after a divorce seems particularly trying. But many have chosen to carve an alternate life, albeit alone here. Aggarwal relates her story: “I came to U.S. after I got married and a few years later I discovered my husband was seeing someone else. Meanwhile my in-laws too came over to stay with us and things worsened, as they never reprimanded their son. One day when we had a bitter fight I gave a call to 911. The police immediately arrived and upon listening to my story immediately put a restraining order on my husband. I doubt if such a quick action was possible in India.”
Indian women are relieved that divorce does not hold the same stigma that it does in India. Parmar adds that men are also stigmatized.
He recalls: “My wife and I separated when my daughter was a year and half old. I was left penniless, had lost my job and was left with our joint bank account wiped out. I found myself going to malls, bookstores, out to eat, etc. pushing a little baby in a stroller everywhere, changing her diapers, and crying as a Mr. Mom.”
Parmar says back in India it would have been additionally stressful to explain to people the status of a single dad. Here despite his turmoil people didn’t balk at the idea of a man bringing up a baby alone. He adds, “Being single in American I think is easier because of technology and use of meetup.com to create communities and groups such as mine.”
While many agree that the social aspect may be less trying with fewer people to answer to, they also miss the support of their families. Manjari Velluri, who works as a researcher in a pharmaceutical firm in Connecticut, says: “I came to U.S. as a student and found someone here and got married. Unfortunately, when my marriage ended I had no family here to immediately fall back upon. Often it was tough because one had to make all the legal decisions also on their own.” About the societal stigmas, Velluri says: “Americans mostly are not hung up on marital status, but amongst Indian Americans the stigmas still exist. It depends on the kind of people you meet. Some Indian Americans are very conservative and some very liberal.”
Those who have undergone a divorce maintain that the additional responsibility of picking up the pieces and moving on also helps, as here you have no other support system. Aggarwal says, “May be if I was in India I would have taken more time to brood, but here I knew only I am there for my child so I had to find a job and let go.”
Satish Kumar, an IT manager who lives and works in Central Jersey and underwent a divorce a few years ago, however, views it differently: “When you are in a relationship, getting a divorce is not easy. The emotional loss is the same no matter which part of the world you are in.”
He adds that he didn’t think he had to answer to any fewer people in the United States than in India: “I am a very social person, so I did have a large circle of friends and well-wishers who wanted to know what was going on. There was some explaining to do.”
But overall, life after divorce is easier to manage in the United States than India, many divorcees say. Also you are far more likely to find people in your situation as nearly half of all marriages end in divorce in this country. In comparison, there are fewer than 13 divorces per 1,000 marriages in India.
While battling a court case in America can be financially draining, the time for the proceedings is lot shorter. In an uncontested divorce, when the parties agree on such issues as child custody, property rights, etc. the divorce can be quick and even done online with guidance by a lawyer. Kumar says, “My ex-wife and I decided to divorce because we were two different people. Our consensual divorce took less than six months. When the parties involved agree then there is a lot less involvement of lawyers. The court appointed private mediators and later the outcome was quick.”
The divorce process is far more streamlined in the United States. Velluri recalls: “While we started in a contentious way with our lawyers arguing and the process getting derailed. After 7-8 months I decided that I needed a closure and from there it was easier to navigate. We didn’t go through the trial and litigation phase and sought a divorce mutually. After that it was a fairly smooth transition.”
Many women who choose to stay in the United States post-divorce say that child support, while difficult, is at least available, especially if the ex-spouse is financially stable.
In India, court proceedings can be traumatic. It is fairly common for divorce cases to drag on for years in India. In the United States divorce proceedings vary from state to state, with the time ranging from 6-12 months.
But what most divorcees cherish is the freedom to live the life after. While some join support groups, others have a community. Satish Kumar who is a member of desi divorcees group, says: “While there may be other single groups for whites the desi group is unique because we have members from Pakistan and Bangladesh too. Also the focus is lot on our children and activities for them too.”
Kumar runs a table tennis league amongst the members of the group, which meets once weekly for a game. Members also organize hiking and various other activities.
Velluri says, “Life after divorce can be easier in U.S. as everything moves in a streamlined manner.”
For some it has even been empowering. Aggarwal says: “I got help from unexpected quarters. After my divorce, I enrolled in a self-help course and was in a bad shape. Someone from my batch heard my story and offered to pay for my course fee for next semester.”
Women also say that being in a society where people are more understanding about a divorce or judicial separation also makes the process less cathartic. Parmar says the U.S. procedures are fairer and more transparent. He was awarded sole custody of his daughter; in India the mother is presumed to be the preferred custodial parent.
Divorcees say ultimately they have to figure out ways to move on with their lives.
For Aggarwal it is coming to terms with the fact that her ex-husband is all set to remarry. She says, “After talking to so many people who have been in the same boat as I made me realize that accidents happen in life. Today I send my kid to spend weekends with his dad and his family. We have found a way around our differences and I wouldn’t deny being in a more culturally receptive environment has shaped me into what I am.”
Single Again Indians
Source: American Community Survey 2015
Single Again Indians by Gender
Proportion of all Indian Americans who are widowed, divorced or separated.
Source: American Community Survey 2015
Indian American Women
5 times more likely to be widowed
50% more likely than men to be divorced
67% more likely to be separated
has the highest divorce rate among Indian Americans
has the second highest rate of divorce and separations
has the highest proportion of Indian Americans who are widowed or separated
has the second highest proportion of Indian American widowers
Source: American Community Survey 2015