Focus: Can a marriage survive the cultural divide?

She was a socialite with money to burn and a Chelsea lifestyle to match. He was old enough to be her father, a cricketer turned politician. Sholto Byrnes asks whether their marriage was doomed - while, below, a couple explain how they survived the union of East and West
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The Independent Online

If marriage is a gamble, as Imran Khan's father said when his son married Jemima Goldsmith nine years ago, it is one which the couple have lost. While Jemima is thought to be at the Goldsmith family home in Spain, her former husband has gone to a mountain retreat in Pakistan with two friends to reflect on the failure of one of the most high-profile unions of the late 20th century.

When they met in 1994, the 21-year-old Jemima and the cricketing superstar who was twice her age, may not have seemed to have had much in common. For her previous birthday, her billionaire father Sir James Goldsmith had flown Jemima and 100 friends to Paris for a party, at an estimated cost of £250,000. Although studying English at Bristol University, Jemima was a fixture on the Chelsea party circuit, where her escorts included the chocolate heir Joel Cadbury, who she once dumped on the M25 after an in-car argument.

Imran may have had a reputation as a playboy but he was now serious about his Muslim faith. He was developing a political career in Pakistan and was scathing about the shallowness of Western life. The subject of marriage came up at their second meeting.

That may seem surprising, but the Goldsmiths have a habit of marrying young; Jemima's father did and so have both her brothers. While Imran and Jemima had the disadvantage of coming from hugely different backgrounds, the cultural gulf was bridged by privilege - Imran knew Jemima's world very well.

From his flat on Draycott Avenue, he had regularly ventured forth to the society fleshpots of Knightsbridge and Fulham Road. His former girlfriends included Susannah Constantine, now famous as part of the makeover duo Trinny and Susannah, but then best known for having stepped out with Viscount Linley; and Marie Helvin, who said of him, "no man looks like Imran".

The Oxford-educated captain of the Pakistan cricket team was older, but in London he mixed in the same social set as the woman who was to become his wife. As his biographer, Ivo Tennant, puts it: "He seemed completely successful at straddling east and west."

Jemima was equally eager to embrace the customs and religion of her new husband, converting to Islam and taking the name Haiqa. When she and Imran moved to Pakistan, the sudden changes in her appearance and lifestyle shocked many, but the new bride was insistent that she was content living a simpler life and swapping designer dresses for the shalwar kameez. "Judging by some of the articles which have appeared in the press, it would seem that a Western woman's happiness hinges largely upon her access to nightclubs, alcohol and revealing clothes; and the absence of such apparent freedom and luxuries in Islamic societies is seen as an infringement of her basic rights," she wrote at the time. "However, as we all know, such superficialities have very little to do with true happiness."

Nevertheless, there were persistent rumours that she was unhappy. Conditions at their home in Lahore were reportedly somewhat different to those Jemima was used to. They occupied three rooms in her father-in-law's house, as opposed to the vast Goldsmith estates in France, Mexico and Spain; peeling wallpaper, stained carpets and intermittent water and electricity contrasted poorly with the splendours of Ormeley Lodge, her family's London residence. Imran spent his time raising funds for the cancer hospital he built in memory of his mother, and fighting, mostly unsuccessfully, for his political party Tehrik-I-Insaaf. He appeared unsympathetic to how his wife, with whom he has two young sons, was coping with her new life. "Struggle is good for you," he said. "Life has been very easy for Jemima. Maybe I'm a godsend to make her struggle."

In December, Jemima issued a statement to the Pakistani press explaining why she had moved back to England with her sons Sulaiman, seven, and Qasim, four, whose Muslim upbringing she is now determined should be complemented by a western education. "I am currently studying for a Masters degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. It is certainly not true to say that Imran and I are having difficulties in our marriage. This is a temporary arrangement and Inshallah (God willing) I will be moving back to Pakistan once my studies are finished and once the building of our farmhouse outside Islamabad is complete." She described comments to the contrary as "spiteful" and "hurtful".

Those rumours were fuelled when she was spotted out in the company of Hugh Grant. "Pictures of Jemima appearing with other men were not seen kindly by Imran's political opponents," says PJ Mir, a friend of Imran, "and he has been taken to task, even though she may have been out with those men in a purely platonic way." It was noted that while Hugh Grant attended Jemima's 30th birthday party at Annabel's, the Mayfair nightclub named after her mother, earlier this year, Imran did not. Neither was he present in March for the launch of Lady Annabel's memoirs at the Ritz. Only a couple of weeks ago, Imran and Jemima went to Spain for a holiday, but then, last week they announced their divorce. There have been suggestions that this was more Jemima's decision, although Imran's refusal to compromise may have contributed.

He is said to have become increasingly conservative about the role of women, and Jemima, who has a determination of her own, may no longer have been willing to be as dutiful a wife as was wished. She made considerable sacrifices for the sake of her marriage - although Imran is often thought to come from the Pakistani upper class, his background is relatively modest, and as he was too proud to accept financial help from the Goldsmiths, money was in short supply in Lahore. It may have been his unwillingness to make sacrifices in return that has led to this gamble not coming off.

The worst thing a couple can do is say 'We're in love, there aren't any differences between us'

By Joanna Moorhead

For Gita Sharma Bourne and her husband Ian, the secret to making an inter-cultural marriage work has been to confront the issues head on and never ignore the big differences in their upbringings.

"From the start, we never tried to brush under the carpet the gulf between Gita's background and mine," says Ian. "Gita grew up in the UK but her family are Hindus from the Punjab who came here in the 1960s. Their ideas are pretty strict and in lots of ways they're very different from my family, who are Catholics - my mother has Spanish roots."

Gita, 36, and Ian, 40, met at a party. "It was quite unusual for me to have the chance to go to a party like that," says Gita. "But I'd gone to college and broken out a bit from the world of my family."

Gita's parents had expected her to have an arranged marriage, so she was aware they would be shocked to hear of her intentions. "We knew it was something we'd need to be very sensitive about and we were very careful in the way we handled it," she says.

The couple, who live in north-west London, followed the Indian tradition of Ian and his mother visiting Gita's parents for tea to ask for her hand. The Sharmas then visited Ian's family in a reciprocal gesture. "It was all very tense, because my family just didn't know what to expect," says Ian. "But it went well, and that was what mattered. Gita's parents had this idea that Westerners were very individual people who didn't share their ideas on the value of the family. We were aware of the need to let them know our ideas were very similar and that families were important to us, too."

Today, they say, everyone is happy: Gita's parents are fully involved with their family and spend a lot of time with their grandchildren Natasha, nine, Joshua, seven, and three-year-old Angelina. Ian's mother has found that she enjoys Indian food so much that she takes her friends to a Punjabi restaurant in Southall for their get-togethers.

Another important factor in the marriage, according to Gita, is to keep both cultures alive within their own family. "I feel very strongly about introducing my children to Indian culture," she says. "They have Indian clothes and we eat Indian food - we even watch Bollywood films. In the future, when Angelina is a bit older, we'd like to go to India and spend some time there."

One of the potential sticking-points was the children's education. Ian goes to church alone with the children, although Gita always gets involved at important moments such as first communions and at Christmas. "We also have Diwali," says Ian. "We see it as an enrichment in our family life. Gita takes the children to her parents' house for Hindu family events."

Heather Al-Yousuf, a British-born Anglican married to a Muslim from the Middle East, runs a Muslim-Christian marriage support group to help couples in marriages like her own. "Not every religion is tolerant to the same degree to the views of others, which can make life difficult for couples to live with a foot in both camps," she says.

Islam, for example, can demand more of its followers than is sometimes understood by a secular westerner: a total overhaul of what's important in all areas of life, from what you eat and drink to whether to circumcise your son. Also, marriages in general work better when both partners have to make a compromise rather than when half of the couple is being required to make all the changes.

Probably the worst possible scenario, she says, is the couple that says: "We're in love, there aren't any differences between us." In every inter-cultural marriage there is always a lot of negotiating to be done. "If they aren't prepared to do that work then, sooner or later, the marriage will crumble."

Another difficulty, she says, is working out your attitudes to your partner's culture without seeming to be dominated by them. "Take alcohol, for example. My family drink and I've enjoyed drinking in the past, but it would be very difficult to be married to my husband and to drink - in the Muslim culture, my husband's culture, drinking alcohol is beyond the pale. I don't drink, because of my marriage, but it's taken me ages to feel comfortable with the reason I don't."

The initial hurdle in many inter-cultural marriages is also one of the most important: how to organise a wedding ceremony or ceremonies to suit everyone involved. Gita and Ian Bourne had two wedding ceremonies. "We invited Gita's family to a church wedding which was a very big deal - many of them had never been in a church in their lives," says Ian.

"And then we had a Hindu wedding afterwards, which my family was intrigued about. The important thing, as far as we were concerned, was to make it clear that in getting married we weren't dismissing our different cultures. And that's been our attitude ever since."

Opposites attract, but shared values keep us together

By Elizabeth Heathcote

Falling in love is a bit like being a tourist: a time for pure pleasure, focusing on the welcoming locals rather than the rubbish in the backstreets. There are so many bonkers chemicals flying around, so much hope, expectation and lust, that it can be hard to catch glimpses of the stripped-down reality of five years hence.

But as a relationship agony aunt, I have learned that reading the signals from a prospective partner can be even harder if you come from different cultures - particularly if theirs looks glam. And while it is romantic and stimulating to take the short-cut into someone else's culture that only a love affair can offer, the truth is that, long term, it can mean hard work. Relationships thrive on similarity, not difference.

"Think of each partner as a disco ball with lots of little mirrors," says Adrienne Burgess, author of Will he still love me tomorrow?, which analyses relationship data.

She says: "For a relationship to work, quite a lot of your mirrors have to be similar but especially in terms of values and experience. Opposites attract but they don't stay together as long."

Burgess's research rates shared values and experience as two of the most important factors in successful relationship; much more so than shared interests. It's a cliché that meeting "the one" feels like "coming home" but that is what most people are looking for: a person we can finally relax alongside; who understands what we mean and what we want and who we are. That comes from familiarity and shared assumptions.

"All of us are born into families and communities with their own belief systems, and where two different sets meet, there is always the potential for a rub," says Denise Knowles, a Relate counsellor. "Ideally, what you get is compromise, a rich cross-pollination, but it can turn into a major source of conflict, especially when children come into the picture."

This does not mean that cross-cultural relationships are never made in heaven. It is possible to have grown up in a family of a similar size with a similar feeling and values even if it was half-way across the world, or within a different race or creed.

"I know a very successful mixed-race couple whose backgrounds, on the surface, look so different," says Burgess. "But both families had a similar sort of feeling - warm and happy - with a similar number of children and similar aspirations. The couple emphasise these similarities. They are very close."

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