For almost all new immigrant families, starting a new life in a new country is challenging. The challenges of this transition put immense pressure on people’s relationship with one another. While some thrive and turn a new chapter in their lives, many relationships get damaged beyond repair.
In a 2021 survey by Statistics Canada, 16 per cent of immigrants rated their personal relationships under five on a scale of ten.
Shreyas, a Toronto-based IT professional whose name has been changed upon request, moved to Canada four years ago and says that immigration took a heavy toll on his personal relationship.
“Soon after arriving in Canada, my relationship with my wife went downhill,” Shreyas told New Canadian Media. “There was an evident loss of intimacy, and we started sleeping in different rooms. We started bottling up our emotions instead of communicating, which would explode during a disagreement. All our issues with each other slowly started compounding. Eventually, most of our talks ended up in arguments. Divorce seemed imminent.”
Conversations with new immigrants, researchers who study relationships among immigrants, and a look at the existing research reveal some of the causes of strife in these relationships. The impact of changes in power dynamics between men and women upon arrival in Canada, financial pressures, and the lack of a support network all play a part, according to our findings.
Vancouver-based management professional Anupriya, whose name has been changed on request, says plans made by immigrants seldom work in the host country.
“Immigrants often land in Canada with a bucket list. We dream of owning a brand new car within the first few months, a palatial home in a couple of years and a dream life on auto pilot within the next few years,” Anupriya said. “But when reality hits you, these dreams come crashing down. And that is when we fall victims to psychological stress.”
Multiple studies have shown that deteriorating mental health is a common phenomenon among immigrants, whether they are married, in committed relationships, single or if they belong to marginalized groups like LGBTQIA2S or refugees.
Experts that we spoke to on and off the record, as well as existing research, suggest that cultural differences, language barriers, financial stress, changes in a partner’s socioeconomic status, loss of independence (or too much dependence on one partner), and Canada’s lack of recognition of foreign professional credentials, could all play a role.
Dr. Alka Kumar, a research fellow at the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration at Toronto Metropolitan University, studies how racialized skilled immigrants integrate into the labour market in Canada.
“Usually men tend to travel first, and women follow later with the kids. However, in certain cases, often it is the women who travel first to Canada with the kids” Kumar said.
“Their husbands tend to stay back in their country of origin, providing financial support as they might have a job back at home, joining the family later. These women, responsible for their kids’ safety in a completely new country, are forced into an unfamiliar position: one of power. They start performing everyday tasks, like fixing things at home or driving – jobs which were until recently reserved for men.”
This newfound freedom and independence result in empowerment for women which doesn’t always fade away when the husband, who likely expects subservience, joins them later on, creating a recipe for conflict.
Blame it on the spirit of Lake Ontario
The experience of navigating a marriage while immigrating to a new country can lead to newcomers resorting to urban legends and myths to cope with what they’re going through.
In a fascinating study titled ‘I’m Divorcing Because I Drank Lake Ontario’, Dr. Martha Donkor from West Chester University closely examines the breakdown of marital relationships among Ghanaian immigrant families in Toronto in the 1990s. The divorce rate in that community was high and around the same time, a popular urban myth was spreading in the city.
It was said that the spirit of Lake Ontario was a vengeful divorced woman and that any married woman who drank from the lake was susceptible to divorce.
This myth allowed members of the Ghanaian community to find traditional ways to explain the inexplicable. By attributing this phenomenon to a supernatural entity, the women might be absolving themselves of any role in the break down of a relationship.
Dr. Donkor spent over a decade following the lives of a few women who immigrated as sponsored spouses. One of the conclusions of her study was that both men and women realized that ‘their ability to successfully adapt to life in Canada depended, to a large measure on their ability to make gender role adjustments. But these adjustments created tensions that sometimes led to divorce or the threat of divorce.’
In countries like Canada where foreign education and credentials aren’t recognised, Dr. Donkor noted, immigrants must go back to school to work in their chosen fields. This exposure to Canadian perspectives often leads to shifts in gender roles within immigrant marriages, where women were traditionally supposed to handle household chores and child care.
Women who now contribute financially to the household income demand men take equal responsibilities at home. Eventually, many couples manage to arrive at an agreement, but others never do.
Montreal-based project manager Sreshta, whose name was changed upon request, spent a decade in Europe before moving to Canada in 2020. Despite not being new to the immigration experience, she described her experience as nothing less than daunting.
“You and your partner might be highly skilled, but limited opportunities for new immigrants combined with rising inflation and diminishing funds give you a very short runway,” Sreshta said. “Having left the comfort zone of well-established support systems at home, immigrants often need to create their professional and personal networks in Canada from scratch. There isn’t a Plan B for immigrants. We have no other choice but to make it work, despite the obstacles that prevent us from doing so. This comes at the cost of your relationships and mental health.”
Immigrants also often struggle to establish new relationships and connections in their host country, leaving them vulnerable to social and emotional loneliness.
“Women coming to Canada from developing countries are expected to conform to traditional gender roles despite now being in a different and a more ‘free’ environment,” Dr. Kumar said.
“Early in the settlement journey, many women stay back at home and take care of the children, while the men go to work. While this may not always be the case as each family is unique, this logical ‘turn-taking’ system to divide responsibilities including childcare, sees more women staying back at home than men. This delay in restarting a professional career can lead to social isolation, diminishing confidence, and even fear of failure. All these factors coupled with a difficult and discriminatory labour market can further negatively impact the ability of women to be financially independent.”
In some relationships, arguments over trivial matters can be directly linked to immigration stress. But in some cases, immigration-induced stress can be directly or indirectly linked to domestic violence or child abuse.
According to Statistics Canada, single, divorced, separated, or widowed immigrant women were ten times more likely to report intimate partner violence compared to immigrant women who were married or were living with a common-law partner.
In several cases, the woman faced significant barriers to seeking help and accessing support services. Systemic flaws that result in fear of change in immigrant status, loss of custody of their children, and potential deportation, dissuade many women from seeking help, according to several studies.
Despite these challenges, there are some ways in which immigration can make relationships stronger.
According to Statistics Canada, immigrant couples in Canada were more likely to report high levels of marital satisfaction than non-migrant couples. Immigrant groups in Canada have also expressed higher levels of satisfaction with life than people in their country of origin. Across Canada, divorce rates in 2020 were the lowest they’ve been in over fifty years.
Sreshta stresses upon the importance of couples laying a strong foundation for their relationship before immigrating.
“As a couple, we have always maintained an open channel of communication. Both of us are allowed to open our hearts to one another without hesitation,” Sreshta said. “However, several months into our immigration to Canada, we realized that unconsciously my husband and I had stopped sharing our feelings out of fear of adding onto each others’ stress. This wasn’t an ideal situation in our relationship. We had to immediately take conscious steps to address this communication gap.”
Shreyas, who felt things were heading to Splitsville, decided to take a methodical approach to the problem. After seeking therapy for himself, he realized that the best way to face the storm is by walking directly into it.
“We decided to have that one big talk and vent it all out,” Shreyas said. “After putting our child to bed at 8 PM, we reserved the remaining part of the night for ourselves. We had to relearn being comfortable in each other’s presence. During those heartfelt conversations, we discovered aspects of each other’s personalities that we hadn’t known about for the last 14 years. We have learnt to cut each other some slack and we are in a very happy place now. All immigrant couples should really make time to spend with each other.”
Anupriya considers it a silver lining that absent support systems often force couples to fall back on each other. It’s a lot of work but as a result, individuals bond as both spouses and life partners.
“No amount of money can repair a broken relationship. I and my husband work on our relationship daily,” Anupriya said.
“We are doing this despite the fact that neither of us have the same set of weekly days off. We are not holding ourselves to high expectations as immigrants. We know things take time and that they will slowly fall into their place.”
Elvin Jacob is a Strategic Communications Consultant and Commercial Photographer who has worked with brands like Amazon, Krispy Kreme and Flipkart. He holds the immigrant identity close to his heart, having moved and lived in more than 20 homes across India. He moved to Toronto in December 2022, where he now resides in his twenty-fifth home with his wife and daughter.