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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

How to cope when you live in a different country to your family

Economic pressures affect us all differently and, for some in the UAE, that means living in different countries to their families

Families living apart to secure a better future is a difficult but not uncommon situation in the UAE. Getty Images
Families living apart to secure a better future is a difficult but not uncommon situation in the UAE. Getty Images

Living apart together has become a thing. We’re not talking about couples like Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, who lived in adjoining houses for 13 years before their breakup. No, we’re talking about families that live in separate towns, areas, countries and even continents, often in order to ease financial burdens. In the UAE, it’s a domestic arrangement that is being turned to by more families, perhaps because of one spouse losing a job or having to return home to look after poorly relatives. It’s probably not what any family views as ideal, but sometimes needs must, and if you find yourself staring at the prospect of waving goodbye to your family while you stay behind to provide for them, it might be heartening to realise you’re far from the only one.

Relationship counsellor Lizzie Thomson says she has helped five married couples over the past few years deal with being together while living several thousand kilometres apart. “When I worked in Liverpool in the United Kingdom, [I observed] huge problems being faced by couples who were dealing with money problems and really horrible situations,” she says. “But this business of living in different countries never cropped up. In a way, though, it might have helped some of them because at least they’d be earning money to secure better futures for themselves. It’s never as straightforward as that when families living apart are concerned, though, even when the money is good.”

She does say, however, that with clarity, understanding and good levels of communication, it’s a storm that can be weathered. “Many families make the mistake of not properly analysing what their routines might be like when living apart. It’s vitally important to be able to manage expectations, and that’s the case for both sides. If you’re the one living alone, you’ll be wanting to know when the family will be together for a catch-up over the phone or video call. And if you’re running a home while your husband or wife is several time zones away, you’ll need assurances that there is an end game – that this is just ­temporary. And that means setting an end date you can work towards.”

Nick Pryor, a British expat who works as a recruitment manager at a Dubai public relations firm, has been living apart from his wife and three children since March 2015, after they moved back to England. The reasons for this temporary domestic development were, he says, purely economic.

“We were finding the cost of living too high in Dubai to save anything,” he says with a frown. “We were living cheaply, driving old cars, not going out a lot at all, and renting a comparatively low-rent house, but it wasn’t enough and we were going nowhere. We felt stuck in a rut.”

Pryor says he and his wife, Emma, had always wanted to buy a home in the UK and move back, but that it was impossible given the situation they were in. “We felt trapped,” he adds. “So, after the summer when we were asked to move out of our rental, we took the decision to pull the plug. Emma and the kids would move back, and I would stay on in Dubai, to work and save enough to be able to buy a place. I rented a cheap flat in Deira and lived frugally. And just over two years later, we bought our house.”

As for keeping in touch, he says it was daily online chats or phone calls. “Not perfect, but better than nothing.” Pryor admits that the three-and-a-half years apart have been especially tough for Emma. “She’s looking after three children on her own with family to help when they can. The kids need both of us around, as we’re a close family. They miss me, and I’m missing out on a lot of milestones at school. I feel bad living apart from them,” he says.

Fortunately for the family, Pryor works for a rather “forward-thinking multinational” that makes it possible for him to work from satellite offices from time to time. “It means I can spend more time with them than most people in my situation. Every three to four months I’ll spend a fortnight over there and can work in the London office, which is just an hour’s train ride from our place in [rural] Essex. In the summer I get to spend five weeks with them, thanks to my company’s policy – it makes a huge difference to our quality of life and I’m incredibly ­grateful for that.”

Anyone who has spent extended periods of time with family and friends, knowing it will have to end at some stage as they return to the countries they reside in, will be familiar with the misery of that journey to the airport and the tears when it comes to saying goodbye. “None of us should underestimate the power of the emotions that rise to the surface,” advises Thomson.

“It’s easy for resentment to set in if you let it – resentment on the part of those left behind, and on the part of the breadwinner who might harbour negative feelings toward the country of residence, or the job they’re going back to. Of course it’s silly to blame these things, but for many, there’s a need to dump that emotional burden onto something – anything – apart from themselves. The important thing is to keep that light burning at the end of the tunnel, knowing it’s just a means to an end.”

Pryor is no different. “Going through the airport to the plane for the flight back is ­miserable, and the first few days back in Dubai are horrible,” he says. “I still have friends here, so I’ve relied on them for mental support, and then I just throw myself back into work and try to ignore it.

He adds that expats can’t stay in the UAE forever, but many act as if they can. “The time comes, though, when you have to make some hard choices,” he says. “And this has been one I never expected to have to make.”

Have there been any positive aspects of the Pryor family’s separation? Happily, yes. They’ve bought a family house in a village where the children go to a quality state-run school. Nick’s downsizing and frugality while living here has paid dividends, especially coupled with the increased productivity he found was possible at work because of having fewer distractions. “It’s not manageable for everyone,” he admits, “but we’ve made it work and the family has a much more secure outlook now. One more year, I reckon. One more year and I’ll be back with them for good.”

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Read more:

Borders are no barriers: Meet the UAE couples crossing national and cultural divides

Do men and women react to stress differently?

The inspiring story of four migrants looking to create a better life in Dubai

How can we achieve true happiness?

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