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CD 15: Til America Do Us Part

Brooklyn -

When Katya enrolled at Kingsborough Community College to learn English after immigrating to the U.S. from the Ukraine in 2002, she did not think it would be the beginning of the end of her marriage.

But as the months wore on, Katya, now 28, and her husband, Michael, also 28, began to drift apart.

In addition to the 25 hours a week she spent studying English, Katya, who requested that her real first name not be used, also worked as a waitress and sold vacuums. Michael, who also requested that his real first name not be used, took a series of jobs that required minimal English — construction, busing tables, taxi driving, factory work.

The couple, who lived in Sheepshead Bay with Michael’s mother — their only acquaintance in New York — had virtually no social life. The strain eventually became too much, and by 2004, Katya left him to start a new life for herself.

“I had to take care of myself,” she said.

Couples and Cultures Clash

The difficult process of immigrating, experts say, is complicated by several factors when a married couple is involved.  Socioeconomic status, gender roles in the home country, and the social support networks a couple has when they arrive all affect the likelihood of whether they will stay together.

Like Katya and Michael, some young immigrant couples split up to pursue separate life paths.  “If there are cracks in the bowl when they come to the U.S., they’re only going to get bigger,” said Craig Diesslin, an instructor in the CUNY Language Immersion Program, or CLIP, at Kingsborough.

Vera Kishinevsky, an education professor at Manhattan College who emigrated from Russia in 1978 and later received a Ph.D. from New York University, said having one partner immigrate first can insulate the second partner from culture shock. “If one person goes and creates a more or less comfortable life, the other partner may find it more comfortable to stay,” she said.

Debra Lattanzi Shutika, an associate professor of English at George Mason University and director of the Mason Project on Immigration, noted that immigrant couples who are able to recreate the extensive social support networks they had in their home countries often have greater success in maintaining their marriages after they settle in their adopted land.

Building a New Life

Dmitry Zvezdin, 48, left his wife and young son behind in Belarus when he came to the U.S. in the late 1990s to build a nest egg for the family. He also built a social network before his wife Iryna, 46 and their son Anton, 18, joined him in Sheepshead Bay, where the family now lives.

Recalling the time apart still makes Dmitry so sad he didn’t want to talk about the 10 years he lived alone in the U.S.  But Iryna, who is enrolled in Kingsborough’s CLIP program – the same English-language program Katya attended – said the familiarity her husband gained with people and places in New York eased her transition.

“When I arrived to the U.S., my husband met me and he tried to explain all the things for me,” Iryna said. “I didn’t have so big trouble when I first arrived in New York — and maybe not the same troubles a lot of immigrants have.”

The adjustment can be bumpier for couples who make the move together. The man often gets a job while his wife attends school to learn English, which allows her to assimilate more quickly than he does. “Psychologically the immigrant men feel better about themselves if they’re working rather than jumping into school and having their wives support them,”  Diesslin said.

Role Reversal

Kishinevsky, who runs a private practice that caters to Russian immigrant couples and their children, said men can have trouble adjusting to gender roles that are more relaxed in the U.S. “Husbands were expected to become providers soon after the arrival,” she said.  “There is no splitting bills, no splitting rent.  The man is expected to provide.  If he can’t, he may become depressed.”

When Katya enrolled in an intensive language program at Kingsborough, her husband continued to work his many jobs. “I had to take the responsibility of the family, and that’s why I had to work full-time,” Michael said. “I sent her to school because she’s the woman, and I decided, okay, it’s fine for me to get some money.”

Though Michael says he supported his wife while she studied, Katya notes she also worked nights and weekends while attending classes.  She believes her ex-husband struggled to adjust to life in the U.S. because he was brought up, like most Ukrainian men, to believe he must be the breadwinner.  When her English skills surpassed his and she managed to work, study and adjust to New York more easily than he did, he became jealous, she contends.

After she moved out of her mother-in-law’s house, Katya struggled a bit at first, but she was soon able to support herself with a part-time job and financial aid.  She earned her bachelor’s degree at the College of Staten Island, bought her first car and is now studying at Brooklyn College to take the CPA exam.

Michael, who also graduated from the CLIP program at Kingsborough and has earned a business degree at Baruch College, continues to live with his mother while he works at an engineering firm in Manhattan.  He also is studying for the CPA exam and hopes to go to law school someday.

Separate Paths

He believes the couple’s troubles began when they stopped sharing the same goals. “When we actually met some obstacles, in order to overcome them you change your set of mind and you start to think differently,” he said.  “I believe that was the primary cause, when our minds split.”

Both agree they were too young to get married. “Back in our 19’s or 18’s, who knows what we had in our minds,” Michael said.

But despite the hardships and the end of their marriage, both say they are glad they came to America.

Life on her own in the U.S. “made me really stronger,” Katya said. “I didn’t know back then that I’m that strong.”