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Can the move to the UAE wreck your marriage?

Counsellors and family therapists explain why so many expat marriages end in tears

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Gulf News

Dubai: The matter of divorce rates among expatriates in Dubai has been an important one with statistics attesting to this problem.

In 2014, for instance, among the total population of Dubai, the number of divorces surged by nearly 38 per cent with two-thirds of the divorces among expats. In that year, an average four divorces and 11 marriages took place every day.

In 2015, statistics for Dubai show six divorce cases for each 1,000 people. This number “is high as compared to world divorce rates”, the Dubai Statistics Centre noted in a report last year.

In 2016, 779 divorce cases were registered in Dubai courts alone. The UAE figures do not take into account the number of divorces among expats that take place back in their home countries.

Abu Dhabi’s government statistics centre calculates its divorces in a different way, making the rates hard to compare.

However, data from 2015 reveals that women expats were almost three times more likely to apply for divorce.


Compare these figures with Russia, for example, which has one of the world’s highest divorce rates. That figure stood at 4.8 divorces per 1,000 people, and 3.6 per 1,000 people in the US.

Asking the experts

What accounts for these numbers here?

Marriage and divorce counsellors based in the UAE say that married expats who have moved to the UAE face a unique set of pressures owing to their choice of lifestyle.

And the effects on marriages after moving to a better life abroad are not quite simple to enunciate.

For starters, it’s hard to get a clear, nationwide picture of the issues expat couples go through. One reason is that counselling of any kind in the UAE tends to be expensive.

In Dubai, a 45-minute counselling session can run from Dh500 to Dh700.

And that sum is rarely covered by health insurance.

Because of high costs, most counsellors are more familiar with financially better-off clients. This means that many expert insights in this story apply more to couples with greater financial resources.

But one point applies to just about everyone: many married couples in the UAE lack a support system (family and long-hold friends) during tough times.

“The habitual circle of friends and people around us — our support group — are what builds our resilience,” says Anne Jackson, a consultant life coach at the Dubai-based Breath & Health Alternative Medical Centre.

“With everyone moving [most of the time] in an expatriate mode, [people] are out of their comfort zone and so need support and that is a huge pressure on couples.”

There are many ways expatriates attempt to create a social circle for themselves, sometimes even starting from scratch. One of these ways is to sign up for coffee mornings, which is a popular pastime with many expatriate women. But as a way of building social connections, it does not always help, Jackson said.

“The UAE coffee morning culture can be hugely supportive or deeply frustrating when used to build your network of friends,” she says.

“You may have to pretend for an hour or so that everything is fine rather than talking about your frustrations safely.

“This can shine an even brighter light on how you are really feeling when you leave these mornings,” Jackson said.

Rootless

For wealthier expats, life in Dubai can present “unique challenges” compared to other big cities, says Dr Kennon Rider, marriage and family therapy practitioner with the German Neuroscience Centre.

First of all, couples are away from family, friends, and longtime colleagues — “all people who give not only support, but advice,” said Dr Rider.

Back home, people are more likely to be in touch with those who hang on to common values — something that can be less likely to happen when you move abroad.

“Here in Dubai, people [may] feel rootless,” adds Rider, who is also a psychology professor at Zayed University.

Having few ties or no roots makes it easier to get outside of your comfort zone.

Getting outside of your comfort zone can be a double-edged sword. On the one side, there are the new experiences and perspectives gained from moving to a new place. On the other side, there are more chances of a partner straying.

Almost half of the couples who come to Dr Rider for therapy have what he calls “broken trust issues.”

Predictably, not all of these are about infidelity, but “most are.”

A common scenario is when one spouse is usually away on business trips while the other stays home. “Because they are lonely and vulnerable, some people will turn to alcohol; we see this a lot,” says Dr Roghy McCarthy, clinical psychologist at the Counselling & Development Clinic Dubai.

“They become depressed, sometimes they turn to charity work, and yoga … it depends which kind of coping mechanism they will choose,” she adds.

Money lust

With busy, high-flying careers comes plenty of cash — and all the troubles that go with sudden wealth, counsellors said. Problems start when the move makes people forget what really matters to them.

“Some people are trying to catch their dreams. They want to have this big shot at millions,” says Roghy McCarthy.

“They want to make huge money. They forget family, they forget what’s happening around them. They are just chasing their big dream.”

The daily chase after cash can lead to a lack of real connection between partners, adds Dr Sonia Gupte, doctor and clinical hypnotherapist, Illuminations, Dubai.

She has noticed that “marriage breakdowns and divorces are on the rise” — and the long work hours commonly found in the UAE are also to blame.

“The high demands of long work hours keep the person away from family where slowly he or she completely gets disconnected from the other partner.

“On the other hand, this leaves the partner feeling insecure and unloved, aloof and emotionally disconnected, and those are the situations for which sometimes where they seek therapy.”

Unfair compromise

The counsellors all agree on one thing — that often, one partner loses from the move and the other gains. And that can be a key source of bitterness.

“[There are] cases where one partner has had to leave a flourishing career as the other found a promising opportunity in Dubai,” says Dr Sonia Gupte.

“As one partner loses himself in the [rush of the new job], the other is left bitter and frustrated trying to start afresh.”

Women seem to be most likely to lose more from the move.

“One client, for example, has a very good job in London. She moves here, and she is a homemaker,” says Dr McCarthy.

“I’m not saying that being a homemaker is bad. But somehow, her self-esteem, self-confidence, were [all] relating to her career.”

The sense of satisfaction and purpose derived from doing a job well ends up being replaced by activities that are simply to pass the time.

“Now, how many times can you go to the mall, attend a coffee morning, paint, or go for yoga [classes]? There is a limit,” adds Dr McCarthy.

She tries to dispel the long-held stereotype of the suburban rich homemaker — a wealthy individual who fills her days with lunches, spa trips, and parties as their partners work.

According to Dr McCarthy, “people are really judging them, calling them [mocking names]. But what people don’t realise is that [many] of these women are highly qualified people.”

That’s when the need for support — especially for families with children — is most needed.

“When you relocate abroad, often, the other spouse doesn’t have a job to go to and might need support to accept the fact that they have lost a well-built-up career back home,” adds Anne Jackson, consultant life coach.

“Add to the mix children who will need support to overcome their own sense of loss of their family, friends and school and the urgency to adapt to a new life abroad and you have everyone in the family needing support.”

What should you be prepared for?

So if you have been looking at moving to the UAE with your spouse, should you be worried? That depends.

Here’s the key question you need to ask yourself: am I in a healthy relationship?

“When people have healthy relationship, they are seeing it as: ‘us against the world,’” says Dr McCarthy.

Couples with this mentality tend to make decisions together, and weigh up all the pros and cons of making a move.

In this case, “normally, their marriage doesn’t break down,” she adds.

“Because they come to Dubai with pros and cons [in their mind].”

But for couples whose marriages are already suffering in their own country, a move to Dubai will likely weaken it more.

“If the [relationship] dynamic is unhealthy, they choose a geographical cure to their problems,” she adds.

In other words, couples who move to Dubai for the “sunshine, the sea and the nanny looking after the children” are in for a shock.

Many couples feel that a change in their environment will either stimulate their marriage or resolve problems they have encountered in their home country, notes Carol Alderson, a divorce lawyer at her Ras Al Khaimah-based firm, Alderson & Associates.

“Sometimes, problems arise from lack of money or where one party has had an extra marital affair and the two are trying to put it behind them,” she says.

At first, moving to the UAE always seems to solve the problems — especially in terms of financial felicity.

“Sadly, however, it seems that the lifestyle and temptations in the UAE subsequently generate fresh problems and all too often result in divorce.”

“Many men and women who come to me admit that the initial problems in their marriage have never been properly resolved.

“They realise that the move to the UAE has simply worsened an already troubled marriage.”

So what if you’re having problems with your marriage?

The answer is to seek help – before it’s too late.

“I have noticed that married couples stay in denial not addressing the issues sooner and only seeking help once water has risen beyond the flood line,” says Gupte.

Tragically, by the time many couples seek help, there’s simply no way to save their marriages, adds Dr. McCarthy.

“Sometimes, when they come to see us, they know that are afraid of breaking of the marriage. But their marriage is already dead.”

What each counsellor thinks — in a nutshell:

“It seems to me there are three reasons for people want to relocate.

“Wishing to move away from taxes.

“Wanting to move away from strife and all the things that are happening around them; they are looking for safety.

“The third kind, they run away from themselves. But many of these expats [when they move here] they are bringing themselves to themselves.”

— Dr Roghy McCarthy, clinical psychologist at the Counselling & Development Clinic Dubai

 

“Many couples do not share their vision or goals for the short-, long- or medium-term when moving to Dubai.

“It’s only later, when they’ve moved, that they find that they were actually on different pages and the rifts then begin to set in.

“This is especially important in Dubai where your head can get turned so quickly by the glitz and the glamour.”

— Anne Jackson, consultant life coach at the Dubai-based Breath & Health Alternative Medical Centre

 

“My advice to new and already residing couples here would be: have an open communication and address issues and seek help early to make your marriage a lasting partnership.”

— Dr Sonia Gupte, doctor and clinical hypnotherapist, Illuminations, Dubai

 

“Many men and women who come to me admit that the initial problems in their marriage have never been properly resolved and they realise that the move to the UAE has simply worsened an already troubled marriage.”

Carol Alderson, divorce lawyer at Ras Al Khaimah-based firm Alderson & Associates

 

“One of the biggest and most difficult problems that I see in treatment is the ‘should we stay or should we go’ question.

Husbands often have found their dream jobs, [which are] challenging and rewarding; wives on the other hand can’t wait to return to a community with more connection [they previously had]. It’s a big problem when this one comes up.”

Dr Kennon Rider, marriage and family therapy practitioner with the German Neuroscience Centre

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