Uncertain futures, hypersensitivity, and the burdens of the 1990s are eroding Ukrainians’ trust in the institution of marriage
Over the past few years, Ukraine’s divorce rate has risen to the top among European countries, with 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people. This despite the fact that Ukrainians are overwhelmingly eager to get married – more so than people in Western Europe where every third marriage is civil, compared to every tenth in Ukraine. Experts claim that while Ukrainians often get married as early as possible, they do not know how to maintain their marriages. The major factors leading to broken families include constant financial strain and the fact that the generation raised in the 90s – when Ukrainian society plummeted into a psychological and demographic abyss – is now ready to get married.
ALCOHOL, CHILD SUPPORT AND POVERTY
“Ukrainians are a matrimonially active nation,” says social psychologist Andriy Strutynsky. “But this is more of a bubble: people get married early and easily, and they split up the same way. The family is no longer the crucial element holding society together. Very often, we don’t take marriage seriously, and we break it. Financial factors matter, too. As a result, respect for marriage fades. And remember alcoholism, one of the fiercest pandemics tormenting Ukraine. It destroys 20-25% of all marriages.”
Serhiy and Liudmyla, a Zhytomyr-based couple, have lived together for six years. They have a son, Oleksiy. Serhiy wants a divorce because he has met another woman and wants to start a new life with her. The only unresolved issue between him and his ex-wife is the child: Liudmyla threatens never to allow him to see his son. However, Ukrainian statistics signal that children rarely hold marriages together, as up to 50% of divorces occur in families with children. The number of single-parent families increases annually, hitting 20% in 2012. Children remain with the mother in 90% of all cases.
The Kyiv-based Okhrymenkos are in the process of getting divorced. Oleh and Olha have spent nine years together. They have no children although they had been planning to have one this year. Both say that they got married for love. “It’s hard for me to live with a woman who, after so many years together, does not understand that every man has hard times sometimes – financially and psychologically,” Oleh says. “My business has been declining over the past two years as a result of the ongoing pressure from tax authorities. Obviously, we’ve had a much lower income and could no longer afford the life we were used to. Instead of supporting me during this difficult time, my wife began to nag at me. I had not agreed to that when we got married.”
Olha says that her husband is insensitive and cannot be the head of the family. “He often comes home drunk, and that has been the last straw for me. I won’t tolerate an alcoholic at home. My father drank and it was terrible,” she complains.
This is typical for Ukraine. According to experts, an average married couple in Ukraine divorces after 11 years of marriage driven by a crisis in the relationship. The most widespread reasons include financial difficulties accompanied by alcohol addiction, ultimately leading to irreconcilable differences. Moreover, the divorce procedure is very simple and the cost of child support is absurdly low. These are two more factors that encourage Ukrainians to treat marriage irresponsibly.
An average divorce procedure in Ukraine takes a month and a half compared to at least a year for the court to register the appeal in many European countries. Child support usually costs the husband a small percentage of his official salary (excluding unreported earnings) and rarely prevents the divorce. At just UAH 300-400 or USD 36-50 per month, child support is very affordable for most men working in big cities. Ukrainian law only provides for child support, while many foreign jurisdictions require an ex-husband to support his ex-wife through alimony until she remarries.
“A normal government is always interested in encouraging people to get married and keep their marriage strong,” claims sociologist Serhiy Mazurets. “Family is the cornerstone of society. Earlier, it was supposed to provide new hands to work and fight. Today, it has become an important socio-economic unit. Statistics show that married people spend twice as much as single people do, thus families make a much more significant contribution to a stable social life. Moreover, single men tend to be more aggressive and radical. However, in 20 years of independence, the Ukrainian government has never articulated a clear marriage or family policy.”
THE LOST GENERATION
According to research conducted by the Research & Branding Group, 79% of Ukrainians got married following their emotions, while 15% were guided by reasonable motives. “An important reason for the irresponsible attitude towards marriage in Ukraine is the immature hypersensitivity about family life,” says psychologist Nadiya Artyshko. “Most get married because they are carried away by their emotions, which is not inherently bad. The problem with marriage is that feelings alone can not solve any problems once the initial wave of emotions has faded, leaving bare routine and reality. There is another interesting difference: most Western Europeans first live in a civil union and then get married officially. By contrast, most civil unions in Ukraine fail to generate a full-scale family and eventually fall apart. This is because Ukrainians have no confidence in the future or themselves, and society is infantile.”
“Like other post-Soviet countries, Ukraine has one of the highest divorce rates in Europe,” claims Liudmyla Sliusar, a researcher at the Institute for Demography and Social Studies. “The first surge came in the late 1960s after the complex two-tiered divorce procedure was simplified. Virtually unchanged until the late 1980s, the divorce rate soared again during the crisis of the early 1990s. After the 2000s, it slowed down but the process is not consistent, and is prone to fluctuations. We saw the divorce rate rise in 2010-2011.”
Experts project that the trend will intensify. Ukraine has not yet fully overcome the 2008-2009 financial crisis that hit both people’s wallets and their confidence in the future that had just begun to flourish after a moderate rise of welfare in the mid-2000s. Sociologists note that Ukrainians are currently rolling back to the 2000s in terms of their mindset and expectations. Since economists project another wave of crisis, a plausible assumption is that many people will soon file for divorce due to the reasons mentioned above.
There is another important socio-demographic trend causing the current divorce situation in Ukraine. “In the past two to three years, the generation that was born in the 1980s and grew up in the mentally and psychologically turbulent 1990s has reached the matrimonial age,” Andriy Strutynsky explains. “That was when the divorce boom occurred, as most people who suddenly found themselves in a new world had no chance to live the life they were used to, including the usual life of marriage. Children raised in an atmosphere of chaos, complete destruction of the usual order and the lack of an understandable moral code absorbed this lack of confidence in the future and reluctance to undertake long-term obligations. Now, this ‘crisis generation’ is getting divorced just as quickly as it got married because it does not view marriage as particularly important and does not believe that it is worth saving in a crisis situation. It is also influenced by the common European trends of increased marriage age and number of unregistered unions. Unlike Western Europeans who treat the civil union as a test before married life, Ukrainians use it to escape the burden of excessive financial and psychological obligations.”
According to the Institute of Demography and Social Studies, over 80% of Ukrainians aged 50-54 are married, compared to only 44% of Ukrainians under 30. The average marriage age in Ukraine is 30 for men and 27 for women. 10-12% of couples, predominately young people under 35, do not register their relationships.
“Family and marriage are losing their conventional roles in Europe and the US,” states Nadiya Artyshko. “In this sense, we’re pretty close to developed countries. However, the biggest problem is that the old religious conservative essence of marriage is gradually replaced with a new social role in Europe and the US, and a social, psychological and moral vacuum in Ukraine.” The challenge is not so much about the growing rate of divorces and civil unions as it is about the need to gain confidence in the future, which will in turn raise people’s self-esteem and allow them to treat their personal life with more attention and care.