'Life is short. Get a divorce." That advertisement by a Chicago-based law firm is best understood in the context of US divorce statistics. According to the American Psychological Association, 40 to 50 per cent of US couples divorce.
The latest issue of the United Nations Demographic Yearbook ranks the US among the 10 countries with the highest divorce rates. However, it's the old Soviet bloc nations, led by Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, where divorce is most common.
Thankfully, Arabian Peninsula nations are in a different league, although divorce is not as unusual as it once was. UN data from 2007 put Kuwait's divorce rate at 37 per cent, the highest in the Gulf, followed by Qatar with 34 per cent.
Data on Bahrain and Kuwait, reported by Bahrain's Central Informatics Organisation also in 2007, suggest divorce rates as high as 50 per cent among people aged between 20 and 29. There is also a trend among younger couples to divorce fairly soon after marriage.
In the UAE, trends differ among the emirates. In one study, Abu Dhabi had the highest divorce rate at 33 per cent, while Umm Al Qaiwain's rate was just 3 per cent. A statistical blip? A consequence of less urbanisation? Or do the shabab Quwania, as they are known, hold the secret to marital longevity?
Not only are Gulf divorce rates generally high, they're also rising. The UN data suggest an upwards trend between 1995 and 2007. So, why here, and why now?
One common explanation is the ease with which divorce can be initiated. For males, it involves a triple declaration of the word "taliq", which means to untie a knot, but equates to "I divorce you".
Technology has further facilitated this unhappy process, giving birth to the digital divorce. Reports from Saudi Arabia, and further afield, cite husbands divorcing wives by text messages.
Slightly lower tech is the report of a husband who, having seen his wife accept a phone number from a stranger at the mall, pronounced divorce over the mall's loudspeaker system. But repeating "talaq" is not new; for men, divorce has always been fairly easy to initiate. This can't be a sufficient explanation for the rising divorce rate.
A less palatable, but more feasible, explanation is the higher level of education, and greater employment opportunities available to Gulf women in recent decades. These factors are almost certainly contributing to changing patterns of marriage and divorce.
Census data from 2007 reported by Kuwait's ministry of planning demonstrate a clear relationship between divorce rates and female educational status. Marriages where wives had university degrees experienced higher divorce rates (47 per cent), than those where wives had only primary education (1 per cent).
This has to be a key area for future social research across the Gulf states. What are the specific factors at play, and how best to mitigate them?
A final explanation for higher divorce rates is globalisation. In their book The Narcissism Epidemic, psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell argue that the global culture of modernity has become increasingly individualistic, and teaches people not to compromise. This me-first, self-centred attitude is particularly bad for relationships.
With global media, these values are promoted everywhere. We read the same books, watch the same TV shows and see the same advertisements. Advertising is particularly toxic, with its carefully crafted, delusion-promoting messages: "because you're worth it", "don't settle for second best" or "now you can have it all".
Such messages promote selfishness, vanity and a delusional sense of entitlement. There has been an increase in these narcissistic traits in the industrialised West, where marriages have become increasingly short lived.
Paradoxically, just as we're investing less time in marriage, we're also spending more money on lavish weddings. Factoring in inflation, the average cost of a wedding in the US rose by 18 per cent between 1990 and 2006. As the rate of divorce has risen across the Gulf, I suspect, so too has the average wedding cost.
Is this excessive matrimonial showboating a manifestation of rising levels of entitlement, vanity and selfishness? Address these dark traits, and we will begin to witness a reversal in the global divorce trend.
Justin Thomas is an assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi
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