After filing for divorce in Singapore in 2019, Filipina expat Arlene* says her marriage wasn’t the only relationship that changed dramatically.
“Initially, all my friends were his friends’ wives,” shares Arlene, who asked to not use her real name for this story, as she and her ex-husband are still finalising their settlement. “People that I thought were my friends suddenly dropped me – as if getting divorced was contagious.” Beyond losing these former friends, she says she struggled with feelings of guilt and disappointment, too. “I felt like I had failed my family by leaving my ex,” confesses Arlene, who works as an entrepreneur and is a mother to three young boys. “It took a lot of crying – and a whole lot more self-love – to realise that what I had done had benefitted me and my sons. I had been unhappy in my marriage for a really long time, but hadn’t had the courage to say so.”
Going through this difficult experience led Arlene to create an invite-only Facebook page for other people undergoing divorce, and in search of comfort and camaraderie. The group even hosts in-person networking and social events. Arlene’s goal? “To ensure that members feel like they are part of a community where they aren’t judged or shunned for having a failed marriage,” she says.
More and more people are in need of such support. The global divorce rate has more than doubled in the four decades between 1970 and 2008. Today, there are 5.5 divorces for every 1,000 married people, according to research published in the December 2018 issue of Social Forces, a leading academic journal based in the U.S.
In addition, various studies indicate that expatriates may be more prone to getting divorced than the general public. “Divorce cases in Singapore with at least one party of a different nationality has increased by 9 percent – from 31 percent of cases filed in 2011 to 40 percent in 2015,” reported The Straits Times in 2017.
Singapore is often portrayed as a haven for expats – with hefty pay packages, domestic help and a safe, sunny lifestyle. Of course, the reality isn’t always that rosy. While most expatriates do adapt well and enjoy their time in Singapore, there are factors that can put severe stress on relationships.
For instance, a number of expats who move here for employment quickly find that their jobs involve significant regional or international travel. When one partner is frequently out of town for work, the “trailing” spouse is left to handle family and household matters, including all of the challenges of settling into a new life in a new country. This often leads to resentment, explains Dr. Yvonne McNulty, who has studied 252 expatriates in SG going through divorce, as part of her work as a senior lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences and founder of Expat Research.
Counsellor and life coach Ralitza Peeva concurs with Dr. McNulty’s findings.
“The culture of workaholism is quite prevalent nowadays, and that leads to one person in the relationship feeling abandoned. This is especially true in the case of expats, when one partner travels for work quite a bit,” says Ralitza, who has been coaching for the last eight years of her 17 years in SG. “In this scenario, children are practically being raised in a single-parent household. And, despite the fact that finding help is easy here, most [marital] arguments revolve around a parent not being present in the everyday lives of the children.”
Another common factor contributing to expat divorce, according to Dr. McNulty: being away from family role models. “Moving away from the home country means that men and women are no longer positively influenced by family members that would ‘keep them on the straight and narrow’,” she explains. “When adults are removed from those strong role models, they become ‘free agents’ – there is no one to witness what they are doing and no shame associated with it. It’s a bit like the ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ mentality’.”
These reasons and more can contribute to a loss of trust between the partners – “one of the primary reasons marriages don’t work,” says Ralitza.
Divorce is never easy. But, being an expat brings new complexities into an already difficult process. Foreigners living here are faced with laws they may not be familiar with, rules they may not be aware of and other complications.
Before you decide to serve your partner with divorce papers, however, it’s important to try to discuss it with him or her. “Speak to your spouse first to gain an understanding of his or her position – whether he or she recognises that the marriage has broken down,” advises Gloria James-Civetta, head family lawyer of Gloria James-Civetta & Co. “This will determine whether there is room to start negotiations in order to reach a settlement for the divorce, as well as other issues related to division of assets, and child and spousal maintenance.”
According to Sonny Patel, a partner and senior solicitor at Expatriate Law, it is essential to take legal advice from a Singapore lawyer as well as from a lawyer in any other jurisdiction in which you believe you may be able to initiate a divorce. “Both lawyers should specialise in family law and have experience dealing with crossborder divorces,” he says. Consulting with multiple lawyers will help you compare procedure, timescales, legal fees, etc. And, experts recommend, you should meet with said lawyers ASAP, as the timing of which party files first, and where, can affect the country in which the divorce will be carried out.
It’s important to prepare thoroughly for this initial consultation with your lawyers, too. “Prepare a chronology detailing your personal history, your personal financial history and a financial history of the marriage. Also, prepare a list of questions,” Sonny says, suggesting that you should send the notes to your lawyers before your first consultation. “You will get much more out of it.”
No surprise, divorces can be expensive. Your best bet is an uncontested one, which could set you back by about $2,500 SGD. Depending on how drawn out and contested the proceedings are, the number can run into the tens of thousands. This is where mediation can help.
Sheryl Bathman, a counsellor and psychotherapist at Tucker Health, says that she’s noticed more couples are choosing this route. “I work a lot with couples to minimise the acrimony involved in the process of getting separated,” says Sheryl. “Sometimes it works well for the couple to get one legal mediator. It goes a long way in minimising emotional stress, costs and the time spent on the process. Divorces, after all, are almost like a second job – what with replying to affidavits, filing responses and the whole emotional journey.”
Lawyer Gloria suggests another alternative: using a collaborative family practice as the first step, which takes place before court proceedings start and has lawyers help both parties reach an agreement. “Parties are both vested in the process, and it takes them on a journey to explore all their issues, interests and concerns, coming up with a workable order they both can live with,” she says. “Over 50 percent of divorce cases are resolved at pre-writ stage through such a process.”
“My divorce was complicated, as my former partner and I were angry with each other, and each of us was scared of losing custody of our only child,” confesses Indian expat Simona*, who claims her husband was unfaithful during their marriage. At the time, Simona was holding down a demanding job in banking, while taking care of her young daughter and ageing parents. She also had to file multiple complaints against her former partner, while no significant action was taken. One counter-complaint got her arrested for five hours.
“After the investigation was completed, the police officer gave me a letter stating that there were no grounds to arrest me,” she recalls. “The ordeal was heart-breaking for my young child, who was diagnosed with a pre-condition of asthma because of this stress.”
Despite this upsetting incident for Simona and her child, there are laws to keep children’s welfare paramount and ensure nothing untoward happens to them. Courts make decisions on custody, care and control of, and access to, the child as well.
“Under Singapore laws, the child may not be taken out of the country for more than one month unless there is written consent from both parties or leave of the court,” explains lawyer Gloria. “Singapore is a signatory of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. If your child has been taken to a foreign jurisdiction that is also a signatory of this Convention, you can seek redress under it. You are likely to work together with the Singapore Central Authority to seek the return of the abducted child, if there is an existing order to prevent the child from leaving jurisdiction.”
Legalities apart, there is also the mental well-being of the child to be considered. A divorce can be a traumatic experience for a child even when it is straightforward and uncontested. “When parents are not emotionally supported, they tend to make the children their confidante,” explains counsellor Ralitza. “This results in children growing up enmeshed, having to deal with issues that only adults should be dealing with and, in many cases, they become quite anxious.”
That being said, children from divorced families are not necessarily unhappy. “There are cases where children are more comfortable to see their parents out of a marriage than in it, because of the toxic home environment,” points out Sheryl.
Marriages failing aren’t the end of the world, of course. Sometimes a divorce can serve as a catalyst to change your life. (Read about one such inspiring expat here.)
Simona, for instance, began learning about various healing practices after her divorce. Though she still works at a bank, she has now started a healing space in Singapore where she helps others “understand the lessons of their life”. “I would not have the same humility or compassion that I carry today, had it not been for this turn in my life,” she says. “I do not wish to forget the goodness the nasty divorce has brought.”
Meanwhile, Arlene has built a strong social network, and reconnected with friends she lost touch with during her marriage and divorce. “Many of them said I was a different person with my ex and they didn’t like how miserable I looked all the time,” says Arlene, who is writing a book tentatively titled, Girlfriends’ guide to post-marital bliss.
If there’s a silver lining to the societal issue of divorce, it’s that much of the stigma surrounding it has faded. Many divorcees are giving love a second chance, and even marrying again, which is adding to today’s growing number of blended families. Offers psychotherapist Sheryl, “It is getting easier to find like-minded people.”
One of the fi rst challenges a “trailing” spouse faces – once a divorce is underway – is the cancelling of his or her Dependent Pass (DP). If the working spouse asks his or her HR department to cancel the DP of the spouse without prior notice, the dependent partner can immediately apply to the family court to have the pass reinstated until proceedings are over, which can take up to three years. (Note: In general, the SG courts take a dim view of foreigners using passes as leverage in divorce.)
“If the expat holds an Employment Pass (EP), his or her ability to stay in Singapore is independent of his or her status as a spouse,” says lawyer Gloria James-Civetta. “But, if the spouse holds a Dependent Pass, he or she will have to leave Singapore within 14 days after the divorce is granted. If the Dependent wishes to continue living in Singapore, he or she will have to find a job locally and obtain an EP in his or her own name.”
When it comes to divorce, more often than not, counselling is considered as a last resort, agree pros who work with such couples in conflict.
“There is often too much bitterness and pain by that time, for any hope of reconciliation,” says psychotherapist Sheryl Bathman. “I strongly recommend marriage enhancement. That gives you a chance to upgrade and improve – before things start going awry.”
Life coach Ralitza Peeva adds, “I think the biggest factor that can help is the courage to be vulnerable and to learn to listen, instead of going into an automatic defensive mode. It also helps if the partners are willing to address each other’s needs in the relationship, whether it is spending more time together or being present for each other.”
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