Despite the increase in divorce rates among Emiratis and expats, relationship counselling remains a difficult subject for many people.
A tough one to tackle
In recent years there has been a significant increase in the rates of divorce among both Emirati and expatriate couples. Data from the Dubai Courts shows that between 2009 and 2011, the number of divorce cases increased by 40 per cent for expatriate couples and seven per cent for Emirati couples.
The financial downturn and the changing role of women in society are believed to have contributed to this increase. For some expatriates, the massive changes brought on by life in another country - away from the support networks of home - can prove too hard.
Although relationship counsellors are seeing increasing numbers of people, social stigma still blights couples who seek out counselling for their problems; seeking such help beyond the family has always been a sensitive subject, particularly for locals.
Though many of the problems that couples face are universal - whether that be arguing, a lack of emotional support or simply a relationship becoming stale - the relationship and life coach Evelyn Heffermehl says one issue is characteristic of her work in Dubai: arranged marriages. Not only does this affect Emiratis but many of her Indian clients as well.
"It's different when you help these couples because you're not working on going back to the place they were at before, like other couples," she says. "They don't have that base to go back to."
Her Emirati clients tend to come alone, she says, because of the taboo against sharing intimate issues such as family relationships with those outside the family. Many of those who come to her do so through recommendations: "There is an element of trust involved."
Keith Swan, a relationship counsellor at Lifeworks Dubai, says: "Everyone brings their own family or cultural background into a relationship." Whether the relationship involves people from different backgrounds or from the same culture, this plays a strong role. "Perhaps you're from a culture where you don't seek help until it's too late and you're just signing the divorce papers," he says. "Also, the involvement of the extended family in some cultures can put an added pressure, as the relationship is no longer private when the whole family is involved."
Heffermehl says that men are more willing to attend a coaching session than counselling. "They feel it seems less like they have something wrong with them than if they go to counselling," she explains. "Coaching is more about looking at and exploring the relationship. It's a process of discovery of the relationship and knowing what the couple wants to create together."
The act of moving to the UAE also has its impact on couples, says Swan. "For a lot of people, the move here can be a massive problem," he says. "They've left all their support, their friends and family. They come for the finance, the opportunity - and often it's the first time they've been away from home. Men think they're here for the family but while they're at work, the family is falling apart." He says the commitment to working through the problems can be far more challenging here than with the safety net of home.
"The toll of driving to Abu Dhabi every day or the fact they're expected to be in the office until 7pm or 8pm comes at a price. The two big things that take a toll here are relationships and health."
Bringing children up as expatriates also challenges some couples, says Swan. "People can get sucked into the Dubai way of doing things," he adds. "How to bring kids up can always be a big point of total disagreement but out here it's different again. A lot of parents have hired help, many say they have to do things which cost money because of the weather, rather than kids being able to simply play outside."
Ultimately, a counsellor can never fix a relationship, he says. "From the sessions, some people realise they just can't be with their partner. It's more about clarifying what the people want and need."