Becoming an expat is one of the biggest decisions you'll ever make. Could there be a bigger upheaval than moving away from everything and everyone you hold dear? Yes, actually. If you're like one of the many UAE-based expat families who are now choosing to live apart, with one parent returning to their home country with the children and the other staying in the UAE to bring in the bucks.
Of course this is no new phenomenon in expat circles. The Philippines for example has been sending English-speaking workers overseas for decades, with many living separately from partners and children, sometimes for years at a time. But western families choosing this way of life is a recent shift. "There have always been couples who choose to live this way," says financial advisor Keren Bobker. "But I believe there has been an increase for western couples in recent years. I have certainly come across many cases where couples have made the decision to live separately and in most cases cost of living is the cause."
A quick scroll through some social media communities confirms Keren's account. Facebook pages such as Expats On The Move and Repat Mums with Expat Husbands are inundated with posts giving and seeking advice about couples choosing to live apart. Obviously with no official statistics it's impossible to know how many families are choosing this option, but according to one well-known UAE-based removal company, double the amount of containers are being shipped out of the UAE, compared to last summer. One can only assume that a relatively high proportion of these containers are for families choosing to live apart.
But what has caused this sudden shift that sees so many people unable to cope with their expenses? "I think the introduction of VAT has been a factor," says Keren. "That coupled with the general increase in living costs, reduced salary packages and rising school fees has put pressure on families. You have to remember, many people have not seen any pay rises, or have even had to accept cuts."
"VAT, coupled with the general increase in living costs, reduced salary packages and high school fees has put pressure on families"
But can a family ever really function properly when one party is living in another country? According to Tara Wynn, clinical psychologist & clinical director at The Lighthouse Arabia, this kind of separation can have a negative impact. "Families who have to live apart to achieve their dreams lose a great deal in the process," says Tara. "Perhaps they should question why they want to shortcut normal processes and expectations, because looking for financial freedom and flexibility doesn't always have a happy ending if the family suffers from the experience and cannot stay together to relish the result."
Likewise Tara believes prolonged separations can have a detrimental impact on all relationships concerned. "Our attachment to our partners is based on being there for each other and knowing that when you are in need, happy or sad, your partner can and will respond to you. When you can no longer rely on your partner to meet your needs, you can feel disconnected and vulnerable. Children are also susceptible to being negatively affected. If they have inconsistent contact with a parent, they can feel less secure and less happy."
Tara also believes that issues can arise when the absent parent returns to the fold after a lengthy absence. "Children may blame parents for the loss of their family unit. They may find it difficult to rebuild the close attachment they once felt, and can feel resentful towards adults for bringing unnecessary struggle into their lives."
This begs the question, why not all return home together? "The fact is that for many occupations the salaries in Dubai are far higher than elsewhere and no income tax being deducted makes a big difference to your overall earnings. If the mother and children return home while the husband stays here, a family can reduce their overheads drastically," explains Keren. "Also, in some professions, such as oil and gas or construction, jobs may be fewer elsewhere, so there is little option but to be in the Middle East, at least for the main earner."
It seems for some at least, the option to remain as a family unit isn't as clear-cut as it once was. But, with the right planning, attitude and a lot of hard work, can this type of family set up thrive? We chatted to three mothers who have taken this step. Here's what they had to say...
Brit Joanna Hood moved to Dubai 10 years ago. She and husband Neil have three children aged four, three and one. She has recently moved to Scotland with the children, while Neil remains in Dubai.
"For us the big issue with Dubai was always the cost of living. As a mother with three young children I made a decision early on that I didn't want to compromise on our standard of living. Things like eating good-quality food and the children going to nice schools was very important to me, but it all comes with a hefty price tag and as our family grew it became clear that I would need to return to the UK.
"When we first discussed the prospect of living apart, I was against it. We always thought we would stay together and living in separate countries was not on our agenda. I felt bad for Neil because the children are so young and changing so quickly. I worried that he was going to miss out.
"Luckily Neil's job allows for him to fly back to the UK once a month so we never go more than about four weeks without seeing each other. We would never have made this move if the separations were going to be longer because it's so important that we spend time together as a family.
"In terms of making it work, it's quite full on as I'm now a single mum of three most of the time, but because we didn't have a nanny in Dubai I was caring for the children and doing the day-to-day running of the house anyway, so that hasn't changed. The hard part is not having Neil here, but we make a point to speak every day and the children know that daddy is going to call every day after tea for a catch up. Whatsapp is also great because I can send Neil videos and show him how the children are doing.
"As for our life in the UK, I have no regrets and I can't say I miss Dubai. We've rented a beautiful house in Glasgow, Scotland and the lifestyle here is a lot better for the children than it was in Dubai. Ultimately, if you're thinking of doing this try not to stress out about it. A lot of people choose to live this way and it's really not the end of the world. Also, remember that children are incredibly adaptable and while they miss their dad, they take it in their stride."
Canadian Grace Paras moved to the UAE in 2008. Three months ago she and her husband Logan made the decision to live separately. She now lives in Malta with their two children, Ava, three and Haydn, 15 months.
"Our decision to live separately was purely about loss of income. I was made redundant in 2017 and living on a single salary wasn't a possibility. Initially I started a business and, while I knew the first year was going to be hard, I had no idea how costs were going to mount up. In the end we were running on savings and we worked out we had enough to continue that way for a year, and then we'd be left with nothing. After much soul searching we decided to cut our losses and start over somewhere new.
"We are originally from Canada but decided on Malta because we own a property there. Geographically it was also the obvious choice because it's eight hours door-to-door from Dubai, as oppose to 24 hours from Canada.
"When we first made the decision to live apart I had mixed emotions. I'm an expat kid and I've never really grown up in the same place, so initially I found the prospect of living somewhere new exciting. But I also felt daunted and sad because we were leaving Logan behind. In the end though it was our reality, so I had to put my big girl pants on and say, 'let's do this'.
“In some ways it was exciting to move to a new country, but I also felt daunted and sad leaving my husband behind. I had to put my big girl pants on and say ‘let’s do this’”
"Ultimately I think it's been harder for Logan. He misses the children and they miss him and it's very difficult to explain to a three-year-old and a 15-month-old that their dad is living in another country. That said, we try to make the best of the situation and every Saturday we have a video chat where Logan does puppet shows with the kids. We also try to speak to each other at least once a day. It's not easy because of the time difference but I always make the effort, even if it's late at night.
"At the moment we are working on a plan of Logan coming to see us every six months. It's a long time to be apart and certainly not ideal, but we don't want to spend too much on airfares so it's the only option we have. In terms of timeframes we will take it on an annual basis and as of now we will be doing this for the next two to three years.
"People sometimes ask me if I miss Dubai and the answer is - not yet. Dubai can be a very stressful place and the past year was hard for us. Without doubt my life is better here. I sleep better, I'm more relaxed and, while life is a lot slower paced, I'm incredibly grateful for that."
Neve Sharpe is a mum of two from the UK. After three years in the UAE, she relocated from Abu Dhabi back to the UK with her 12-year-old twin daughters. Her husband Jon continues to work in Abu Dhabi and comes home every eight to 12 weeks.
"It was about 18 months into living in Abu Dhabi that I began to think about relocating back to the UK with our daughters. For us there were three factors - the education, the cost of living and the medical. Even if one of those things isn't working, that's an issue, but in our case all three were a problem. The medical was a big one because one of our daughters has a condition and we weren't able to get the healthcare she needed. Along with this I was concerned about schooling. Teachers were being let go but then not being replaced, and classmates were constantly leaving which made it difficult for our daughters to form friendships. Finally, there was the cost of living, which seemed silly because the reason we moved to the UAE was to save for the future.
"After three years we decided to head home, but agreed Jon would stay on because he was happy in his job and financially it made sense. That said it wasn't a decision we took lightly. I certainly asked myself, 'Can our marriage withstand it?' because you're essentially saying to your partner, 'I don't need you' and if you can live apart, what's the point?
"We recognised early on that in order to make this work we would need to be conscious of the family relationship. For example, we settled in Edinburgh in Scotland because as well as having a good hospital and good schools, it's also a city that Etihad Airways flies to, so regular journeys home would be as smooth as possible for Jon. We also make sure the lines of communication are always open. The girls speak to their dad on video chat each night, so we've actually found that he's more involved than he was before. Likewise Jon and I make a point to speak to each other at least once a day when the kids aren't around so we can talk as a couple and not just parents. We also make an effort to both be involved in the twins' upbringing, so even though Jon is in Abu Dhabi, if there is a parents' evening at school, he'll be there on speakerphone during the session.
"Of course there are things I miss about living in Abu Dhabi, like my friends and my old job, and there are definitely days when I have doubts over our decision. But these feelings are never strong enough to make me act. My advice to anyone considering this type of move would be to be organised and have set times and plans about how you are going to communicate with each other. That's the key."
Is becoming an Expat LAT right for you? Ask yourself...
How will my children cope?
HINT: "Age 8 upwards children have enough maturity and ability to engage in a long distance relationship and meet their needs through it" - Tara
Does it make financial sense?
HINT: "Have you considered other ways to cut costs such as downsizing, keeping a proper budget, repaying any associate loans?" - Keren
Will my relationship survive?
HINT: "Are you able to keep close communication, regularly speak and make sure not too much time lapses between seeing each other? - Tara
Is now really the right time?
HINT: "When it comes to returning it is important to be aware of any tax implications. Not taking the right professional advice could lead to an unexpected bill" - Keren