Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Till separation do us part’

When things get rough, some married couples decide not to divorce but to take some time apart, reports Heidi Elhakeem

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Some people are wired to think marriage lasts forever. They read fairy-tales as kids, watch romantic movies as teens and as adults utter the words “till death do us part” at the altar.

Married couples are supposed to be together “for better and for worse”, but when push comes to shove many of them decide to split, permanently or temporarily.

When some couples face complications in their marriages, they decide to take a break and spend some time apart, hoping to reflect on their life together. For many, separation is often seen as a better solution than divorce.

Georgette Savvides is a counselling psychologist and founder and owner of the Psychological Health Center for Services and Training (Psychealth). She advises couples to go through a separation before divorce.

“It could be a positive thing,” she says. “It buys them time to make a final decision that they might not regret later on.”

Some stay separated, possibly because they can’t get a divorce. If their religious beliefs conflict with the idea of divorce, couples are able to live separately while keeping their marital status intact.

Sally, an American Coptic Christian, married an Egyptian Copt more than 13 years ago. Divorce is forbidden in Coptic Christianity.

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria has ruled that couples may only receive a divorce in a case of infidelity or when one of the couple converts to another religion.

Sally (who asked to not use her real name, as did the other couples in this story who wanted to remain anonymous) went to the church with her marital problems, hoping it would save her from her unhappy marriage.

The church, however, decided not to take any action. “They only listen to what my husband has to say,” she says, and paid her very little attention because “he is the man.”

Egyptian marriage and divorce laws, under the constitution and following Sharia law, grants Muslim female spouses the right to divorce. Women can file for divorce, known as khulaa, in court. Christians, however, must get approval from the church and then the state, but it’s up to the church to decide.

Sally believes her husband is only married to her “for the prestige of marrying a foreigner” and for the money she brings to the house. She recently got a job as an educator. In their early years of marriage, Sally was receiving her late husband’s insurance money.

Relationship expert Amal Mahmoud explains that “one of the consequences of divorce” for women “is raising the kids on their own,” and says that most of them “prefer separation over divorce.”

Fatma has two sons, aged 13 and 14. After separating from her husband, whom she says is “selfish and negligent”, she became fully responsible for all the financial needs of the house.

“I even pay for my kids’ schools,” she says. “I asked for a divorce more than once and he refused.” Her husband went on to marry two other women.

Mahmoud says that women “suffer the consequences of divorce” as most men “tend to escape their responsibilities towards their wives and children.”

A major cause of separation, according to Savvides, is sexual incompatability. Many couples come to her because of “sexual differences” and “sexual fetishes” that one partner refuses to participate in, which causes problems in the relationship.

According to Mahmoud, the biggest cause of separation is making the “wrong choice” and rushing into marriage. Some engagements are as short as ten days, he says. “In our society, there is a ‘I just want to get married’ trend going on. These factors will most likely cause a failure in the marriage.”

Financial matters are also a major cause of separation. One of the partners might be stingy. Finances could also be part of not being able to get a divorce.

A way for couples to solve their relationship conflicts is through marital therapy. “A lot of couples seek counselling as a step before they make a final decision of whether they went to continue with one another or before they need to finalise the separation into a divorce,” says Savvides.

Separation “shouldn’t last more than a couple of months”, but couples could have their reasons to stay separated for a longer time; for example, thinking it’s what’s best for the children, Savvides says.

Sometimes it could last “a lifetime” or the duration could be “as short as one week” Mahmoud adds. “Some women who spend their whole lives separated for the sake of their kids” lose their interest in meeting other men and getting remarried.

According to Mahmoud, separation mostly happens in couples from the “middle and poor classes.” Women face problems like “shortage of money and lack of skills.” Part of it is “not having a well-off family that can support them.”

“Lower-income people are not aware of couples therapy,” Savvides adds. “These classes are more concerned with how they are going to feed the children.” Higher classes have the privilege of getting a divorce, plus the privilege of seeking marital therapy. Most high-class people seek counselling.”

Separation “works most of the time” as it gives couples “space” and “the time needed to re-evaluate their life together.” Those more involved with “emotions and consciousness” and those who got married based on “love” are more likely “to reunite” more than others.

“Mostly, women ask for separation” as they are considered the “suffering party” in the marriage. When the situation gets tough, “men treat their homes like hotels, just go there to eat and sleep, but women are more emotionally involved.” Usually, women invest more time and effort in the relationship than men, Mahmoud says.

Says Savvides, “Lately I have been getting many cases of men who want to fix their marriage. They usually have done a huge mistake and they feel guilty about it. Some men also fear the idea that their wives might leave them.”

Some couples choose to remain together because they are afraid of the way people might look at them if they are divorced, so they sacrifice their desires and remain in an unhappy marriage.

“Most women prefer being separated and avoid the word divorced for the sake of their children, and to avoid getting any judgemental looks that divorced women suffer from in our society. They also are able to keep all the financial benefits of her husband.”

Men might play the separation card to meet other women behind their wives’ back. Savvides thinks that a man can even pretend to be “unmarried” just to meet other women.

Souad and Hassan are living in different countries but are still legally married. They have four children, the reason they are still “together”. Hassan is looking for other women while Souad devotes herself and her time to her children.

Another couple, Hanan and Youssef, have two boys. When she found out about Youssef’s extramarital affairs, Hanan didn’t want to get a divorce because of the children. She chose to stay married to him and gave him a pass to do whatever he wants.

Separation is different from divorce. Divorce is straightforward. When differences force couples to want to separate, they find themselves in a somehow looked-over phase —the separation phase.

Whether they decide to stay separated or to get a divorce, every couple is different and it’s up to them to figure out what is best for each of the parties.

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