Divorce rates are high wherever you look, and the UAE is no exception. Being in an expat marriage can be very rewarding but it can also have its own issues, challenges and pressures that we don’t always stop to think about.
When we leave our home countries to follow wonderful career opportunities – or to support our partner in their new role – we are leaving our comfort zones behind. This results in all members of the family needing quite high levels of support all at once. Sometimes this is just not sustainable and cracks begin to show. To avoid the cracks appearing we might take up behaviors that we wouldn’t normally take part in back home in our own countries, especially if there is no trusted support network for us to fall back onto or to help moderate our more “out there” behaviors. In the short term, these behaviors might make us feel good and forget the pressures we have at home or in our marriage. In the long term and left unchecked, they might just erode what was once thought of as a wonderful union between two people.
Take the example of David and his family who recently moved to Dubai. David, the main breadwinner, is starting a new job. He has huge levels of pressure to navigate at work, from long working hours to cultural differences. To cope, David needs to come home to a supportive family environment and a supportive wife. Had he started his new job whilst back home, living in the same house and his wife still doing her same job, he would have had this. Regardless, he still expects this to a certain level – she should understand. Emma, his wife, who gave up a successful career in marketing to come over with him, is feeling frustrated, as she has no idea how to go about setting up the electricity for her new house, let alone how to put her life back on track and get on with her career. She has tried to make friends to grow her network but finds coffee mornings unsupportive. She feels like she has to pretend all is fine, rather than being able to talk about her current frustrations safely and with no judgement. She has tried video calling the family back home but they don’t have a real grasp of where she is living and she feels like she just ends up sounding ungrateful for living in this city full of bright lights and glamour. She needs David to leave his work at work so that she can lean on him when he gets back. Had she just lost her job at home and David remained in the same job and carried on their lives in their same home, she would have had this support.
Michael and Chloe, their two children aged 8 and 13, have just started new schools. They are trying to make friends and fit in. They find this challenging as everything is so different from teacher expectations to their local accents. They need mum and dad to be okay with each other so that they can receive their undivided attention. They never wanted to leave their schools. Had they been forced to move to another school in the same area at least they would have had their friends around them, their routines, their toys, even their beds. This is all new and it doesn’t seem very fair.
To escape this new pressure from his family, David stops at the bar on the way home, coming back later and later, saying he has to work. This further frustrates Emma and leaves her feeling even more lonely than she already feels. To counter act this, Emma encourages David to go to brunches on the weekend so that she can dress up, look and feel good for a while, eat, drink and forget her week. The two children are left with the newly found nanny, not quite knowing why mum and dad are suddenly out all the time. Amongst everyone resentments build up.
Understanding the pitfalls that are out there, finding ways to avoid them, jump over them, or even climb out of them, can lead to a happier, more peaceful expat marriage.
Here are 7 ways we recommend to future proof your marriage
- Share your vision and your goals before you set off to a new country
- Share the planning and the setting up of the family home
- Share the adversity of home life
- Share your positives
- Share the negatives
- Have one activity just for you to unwind and recharge your batteries
- Share the fun
…Or before you get married in an expat environment. If they don’t fully match set a new vision and new goals for what you both want as a couple. We sometimes forget to communicate what exactly it is that we want to achieve by moving abroad or, worse still, we presume the other person wants the same as us. Its only later, when we have moved, that we find that we were on different pages all along. This can set the rift in motion. To stay on track, have short-term as well as long term goals. This is especially important in Dubai where our heads might be turned by the glitz and glamour of such a successful city. A joint vision and shared goals will bind us, enabling us to work together as a couple and feel like “Team Success” regardless of what anyone else is doing. It takes away the pressure of having to “compete with the Jones’s”
Do some, if not all, of the DIY yourselves so that you are working on projects together and investing in the family space. Get the kids involved as much as possible. Back home we build extensions together, put up wall paper, paint the spare room together. These are all bonding exercises to enable us to invest emotionally in our relationship as well as in our environment. As David was working so hard and arrived home exhausted, Emma made all the decisions about how the house would look. Come weekends David felt like he had to socialize with his work colleagues in order to fit in; this left no time for home. Emma was free all day so it made sense for her to do it all. Practically, yes it did make sense, but it resulted in David never being invested emotionally in the family home and as a result happy to stay away for longer and longer. This in turn made Emma more resentful, feeling forced to turn into some type of interior decorator rather than having the time to put her marketing career back on track.
Ask your nanny or housemaid to clock-off as soon as you are both there. For cultures that grew up with nannies or housemaids this isn’t always an issue bur for those that haven’t the fact that someone else is doing all that work may feel liberating. What we forget is that with liberty comes responsibility to take ownership of our marriage and our family. The little things, like washing the dishes together, sharing children’s bedtime, collapsing on the sofa exhausted at the end of the evening when you’ve worked as a team is what may well help keep us together. By all means use your nanny to help you but don’t allow her to take over your roles.
When you walk through the door after work, school, or play, spend the first ten minutes talking only about the positives of that day. That will set the mood for the rest of the afternoon/evening and will leave your partner and your kids with a good impression of you as someone who is positive and smiley, not someone who only ever wants to complain. After you’ve shared your positives you will have a supportive space to share your frustrations without the other person taking it personally.
…and the frustrations with someone else who is non-judgmental and supportive. Find a trusted mentor, although, granted this can be difficult if you’ve only recently stepped off the plane! Alternatively, employ a life coach who will help you through the first few months so that you do not need to feel as responsible for each other in those difficult early stages. Had Emma employed a life coach straight away she would have been planning her own career, every day following small steps that would have eventually led to large strides. She would have had someone safe and non-judgmental to unload her frustrations on and this would have left her stronger emotionally to support David, Michael and Chloe. Had David employed a coach he would have had similar results, recognizing Emma’s needs and feeling equipped with the necessary skills to support Emma and the kids when he arrived home.
Make the time you spend in this activity all about you but make sure you also set a time limit to do this. Say one or two hours a week. Rather than becoming a guilty pleasure, that you enjoy more and more because it is prohibited, it becomes an honest part of respecting who you are by yourself and by your spouse.
Plan family weekend activities and short breaks where possible. Staycations are great for this. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the moment and forget just who you are and what you stand for. Join meet-ups that match with your family pleasures such as camping, climbing, water sports etc. and practice these as a family. Share adversity and share fun!