Divorce rates are high wherever you look in the world and the UAE is no exception, but being in an expat marriage can have its own issues, challenges and pressures that we don’t always stop to think about. Anne Jackson, Relationship, Marriage and Divorce Coach, Co-founder of Leaves Dubai, explains how you can give your relationship the best possible chance.

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 behaviours that we wouldn’t normally take part in in our own home countries, especially if there is no trusted support network for us to fall back onto or to help moderate our more “out there” behaviours. In the short-term these behaviours 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 upon a time a wonderful union between two people.

Take the example of John and his family who recently moved to Dubai. John, the main breadwinner starting a new job, has huge levels of pressures to navigate at work, from long working hours to cultural differences. In order to cope, John needs to come home to a supportive family environment and a supportive wife. Had he started his new job while 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.

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Mary, 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 the new house, let alone how to put her life back on track and get on with her career. She has tried to make friends in order to grow her own 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 Skyping with her family back home, but they don’t have a real grasp of where she is living. She needs John to leave his work at work so that she can lean on him when he gets back. Had she just lost her job back home and John remained in the same job and carried on their lives in their same home, she would have had this support.

David and Elizabeth, who are their two children of 8 and 12, have just started new schools. They are trying to make friends and fit in. They find this fun but challenging, as everything is so different from teacher expectations, right down to their English 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 old schools, but had they been forced to move to another school in the area at least they would have kept their friends and come home to the same house, the same bedroom, the same beds, even the same, familiar routines. This is all new and it doesn’t seem very fair.

To escape this new pressure from his family, John stops at the bar on the way home, coming back later and later. This further frustrates Mary and leaves her feeling lonely. To counter act this, Mary encourages John 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.

Realising the pitfalls that are out there and finding ways to avoid them, jump over them or even climb out of them, if you do happen to fall in, can lead to a happier, more blissful expat marriage.

7 ways to future-proof your marriage


Share your vision and your goals before you set off to a new country 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. It’s only later, when we have moved, that we find that we were actually on different pages all along, and that can set the rift in motion. Have short-term as well as long-term goals in order to stay on track. 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 whatever anyone else is doing. It takes away the pressure of having to “compete with the Joneses.”

Share the planning and setting up of the family home. 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 wallpaper, 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 John was working so hard and arrived home exhausted, he let Mary make all the decisions about how the house would look. On the weekends he felt like he had to play golf with his work colleagues in order to fit in; this left no time for home. Mary was free all day so it made sense for her to do all this. Practically, yes it did make sense, but it resulted in John never being invested emotionally in the family home and as a result happy to stay away for longer periods of time. In turn it made Mary even more resentful, feeling like she had been forced to turn into some type of amateur interior decorator, rather than having time to put her marketing career back on the map.

Share the adversity of home life. 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 but 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 family. The little things like washing and drying together, sharing children’s bedtimes, collapsing on the sofa at the end of the day 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 role.

Share your positives. 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.

Share the negatives and the frustrations with someone else who is non-judgmental and supportive. Find a trusted mentor – though this can be difficult if you have only recently arrived off the plane!

Alternatively, employ a coach who will help you through the first few months so that you do not need to lean on each other quite so much. Had Mary employed a life coach straight away she would have been planning her own career, every day following small steps that would eventually have led to large strides. She would have had someone safe and non judgmental to unload her frustrations on and this would have left her feeling stronger emotionally to support John and the kids when they came home. Had John employed a coach he would have had similar results, recognising Mary’s needs and feeling equipped with the necessary skills to support Mary and the kids when he arrived home.

Have one activity just for you in order to unwind and recharge your batteries. 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 it 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.

Share the fun. Plan family weekend activities. 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.

What to do when it all goes wrong


Nita Maru, British-qualified solicitor and Managing Partner of TWS Legal Consultants, talks to Good about what to do and how to navigate the UAE divorce laws.

When a couple decide to divorce, the issue can be further complicated when you are residing in a foreign country where you are not aware of the local laws and procedures that are applicable in the country of residence. The laws governing divorce here are very different to the UK for example, and are more complicated if there are children and assets involved. Below are some frequently asked questions by expatriates that are thinking of getting divorced.

Where can I divorce and which law prevails?

Expats have a choice of jurisdiction as to divorce proceedings through their domicile, residence or nationality. Foreign nationals can file for divorce in their home country or in the UAE. They can even divorce under their home country’s laws in the UAE so long as they are both citizens from the same foreign country. The issue becomes complicated when both parties have different nationalities. Where the husband is a national of one country and the wife another, the law of the husband would be upheld as per UAE law. In situations where the home country laws do not fully cover certain aspects of the divorce procedure the courts here would have discretion to apply UAE law in that case.

However, when choosing jurisdiction it is very important to seek legal advice from a licensed lawyer from the outset, as the jurisdiction in which you decide to divorce in can have a huge impact on your financial settlement, maintenance and custody of your children going forward.

Where do I initiate proceedings?

Once proper legal advice is sought, either party can open a file to divorce at the court stipulating their decision to dissolve the marriage. This is followed by a meeting with a conciliator at the court to ascertain if an amicable agreement can be reached or not between the parties. This is mandatory for divorce proceedings in the UAE. If a resolution cannot be reached then the matter proceeds before the courts to conclude the divorce.

Is the divorce process very long in the UAE?

A divorce can be concluded in approximately three months if both parties are able to reach an amicable agreement with regards to finances and arrangements for children. If there are disputes regarding financial settlements and children for example then the proceedings would take longer to conclude.

Who will get custody of my children?

It is important to note that in the UAE parents do not share equal parental responsibility like they would for example in England. However the court here will always act in the best interests of the child, and unless they are given a reason to believe otherwise, in this jurisdiction following a divorce the mother will become the ‘custodian’ and the father the ‘guardian’. Usually the custody of the children remains with the mother until the children reach the age of puberty. If the transfer of custody to the father is disputed after that point the court will make a decision based on the facts of the individual case. The mother is responsible for the day-to-day care of the children. The father as guardian is responsible for the child’s education, medical treatment, accommodation and guiding them in terms of morals and religion.

As a guardian can I visit my children?

Following a divorce a guardian can make an application to the court so that he (usually the father) can obtain visitation rights to visit his children. The guardian is entitled to visit his children regularly. Therefore the mother as custodian of the children cannot permanently move to another country in order to deliberately prevent such contact by the father.

Am I able to leave the country with my children ?

Leaving and removing a child without the consent of the other party amounts to child abduction. This is a very sensitive situation, particularly when a mother wishes to flee this jurisdiction to avoid the application of the local UAE law. Even your home country are likely to return abducted children to their country of residence. If either parent has concerns that their permission will not be sought for travel they can obtain a ‘travel ban’ preventing the child leaving the airport. In such situations it is prudent to speak to a lawyer about the arrangements and safeguards that can be put in place if you feel there is a potential risk of child abduction arising.

Custody v Guardianship


Custody and guardianship is an often-repeated concern for those expats considering a divorce in the UAE. These concerns are further compounded when the parties are not aware that the laws of the UAE differ to that from the country of their nationality.

When considering a divorce, the husband and wife must note that Custody and Guardianship are two separate issues, which must be addressed separately, as parents do not share joint parental responsibility for a child in the UAE, as is the case in England and Wales.

Usually in Dubai following a divorce, the default position is that the mother will be the ‘Custodian’ until the age of puberty, after which custody reverts back to the father. The father shall be the ‘Guardian’ of the children until the age of majority (21 years old). The local courts here will always act in the best interests of a child.

The Custodian (the mother until the age of puberty) is responsible for the physical possession of the child and their nurturing which includes their daily care within their home. Even though the mother of her children has custody, she is restricted to specific duties and is unable to make decisions on behalf of the children without the father’s consent. The Guardian’s role (father’s role) includes supervising, protecting, educating, providing medical care, and retaining their passport. It also involves guiding the child in terms of morals, discipline and religion.

As set out in Article 143 and 144 of the Federal Law 28 of 2005 (Personal Status Law, a custodian must be:

– Rational
– Mature enough and have attained the age of puberty
– Honest
– Able to bring up and take care of a child
– Free from infectious disease
– Not have been sentenced for a crime of ‘honour.’

If the custodian is the mother, she must:

a) Not re-marry unless the court decides it’s in the best interests
of the child.
b) Share the same religion as the child.

If the custodian is the father, he must:

a) Have a suitable woman living within his home to care for the child (such as a female relative).
b) Share the same religion as the child.

The mother will usually have Custody of her children provided she is able to fulfill the aforementioned criteria.

However, once the child reaches the age of puberty, which is defined as being 13 for a girl and 11 for a boy, the father can make an application for transfer of Custody to himself. The judge shall then consider this application and the judge shall provide his directions based on the merits of the application and whether the father is deemed to be competent enough to have custody of the children. The Guardianship of the children will remain with the father from birth until the age of majority (21 years old) The mother shall never have the right of guardianship without the Courts directions.

The Court can transfer Custody to the father if it is determined that the mother does not fulfill the criteria for a Custodian as per the UAE law mentioned above. If this transition is disputed the court will make a final decision based on the facts of each case and ensuring the welfare of the child is of paramount importance and is made the priority. The courts can use their discretion in respect of the criteria for Custody to ensure that the child’s best interests are fully met.

In order to deviate from the default position of custody and guardianship, both the husband and wife can draft a settlement agreement and amicably agree to the terms. The parties are able to confirm how the custody would be shared and insert specific provisions and conditions in the agreement should they wish. This agreement shall then be filed with the local courts along side the divorce application and this settlement agreement shall be endorsed by the courts as a legally binding contract for both parties.

In an amicable agreement, typically the mother would have Custody and the father would define when he can visit the children, on what days and his responsibilities. This route ultimately saves time, money and ongoing disputes. If an amicable agreement is not reached, then the matter would proceed as a contested divorce through the courts. This route can be time consuming, expensive and the outcome of the divorce is ultimately at the mercy of the judges at the Court.

Nita Maru specialises in private client matters including family and divorce in the UAE. Tel: (04) 4484284. twslegal.ae

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