Competitive salaries, access to childcare and home help, the so-called ‘dream life in the desert’ – from the outside, it’s easy to assume that married life in the UAE is a bit of a breeze compared to the rest of the world. The statistics, however, say otherwise. Figures from the UAE’s national statistics centre show that over 12,000 couples filed for divorce during 2011-2013 (that’s 11 per day), one of the highest separation rates in the world. In Dubai alone, divorce cases between expat couples grew by over 61 per cent between 2011 and 2013, a number that continues to rise. So what’s going wrong?

“I’m shocked at the sheer amount of divorce enquiries coming through our doors on a weekly basis,” says Madeleine Mendy, a solicitor and legal consultant specialising in family law at James Berry and Associates in Dubai. “We have on average three enquiries per week, which is a lot in a country where people aren’t always aware that they can divorce easily.”

The freedom to leave

Times have changed, and divorce no longer carries the social stigma it did two or three decades ago, even in a conservative region such as the Middle East. “Divorce is no longer seen as shocking, a failure, or as unconventional as it once was,” explains Helen Williams, owner and director of MindfulME in Dubai. “Women in particular have the freedom to make choices based on their own need for happiness rather than being financially dependent on their partners.”

“That was certainly the case for me,” says Lola Walker from Dubai, who recently divorced her husband of over a decade. “My family were incredibly supportive and just wanted me to be happy. However, the uncertainty is very daunting. We didn’t have children, so for me there wasn’t that emotion or complication, for want of a better word.”

Anne Jackson, a former teacher and mother of two, split from her husband after 23 years of marriage. Along with fellow teacher and divorcee Fiona Cameron, she co-founded the Dubai-based support group Leaves Dubai to offer help to those who find themselves in a similar situation. “Unofficially, I think the divorce rate among expats here is around 65 per cent,” she says. “But I don’t think we should say that it has rocketed. Rather, more women are having the courage to stand up for themselves and not put up with second-rate treatment.

“I think the figures reflect that Dubai is now a more permanent place than it’s ever been, which in turn means less people are returning to their home countries to get divorced. My children were both born here and are now aged 12 and nine. This is their country, it’s all they’ve known and I didn’t want to take them away from that – their routine, their familiar environment, their school, their friends.”

Read more: Why being a better spouse makes you a better parent

Too much too soon?

The UAE’s laws and customs dictate that couples must be married before they can legally cohabit or have children, with those who are caught risking punishment under strict adultery laws. Does that mean that expat partners are settling down to married life earlier than they would in their home country, or even marrying when they would usually simply cohabit?

“On the whole, I don’t think so,” says Madeleine. “Most of my clients have been married for at least three or four years, and most of them have children. I tend to deal with established businessmen and women who have been married for some time.”

“The average age that people first get married is rising all the time,” adds Helen. “However, regardless of chronological age, are we too young in terms of emotional maturity? Yes, it does appear so!”

Heather Mitchell, a married mum of two who lives in Sharjah, agrees. “This might sound controversial, but I have lots of friends who never thought marriage would happen. They loved their careers and their lifestyles, then suddenly thought, ‘I’m nearly 40 and haven’t ticked the family box.’ It’s really tough to meet people and develop meaningful relationships as a single expat. I think a combination of panic and lack of options leaves people making hasty decisions when it comes to getting married.”

The pressures of expat life

As much as living abroad can strengthen a relationship, it can also be a time of great stress. Cracks can begin to show as marital roles evolve or priorities change. “It’s well documented that marriage tends to be under more pressure in an expat environment,” says Georgia Vaitl, a married mum of five and life coach and mentor at Vaitl Coaching. “There’s a fast-paced lifestyle with a lack of support networks, more pressures at work, less people you can confide in. Dubai is almost like a commuter town, where many families see the husband or wife using the city as a base to travel around the region and beyond for work.

“Couples aren’t spending quality time with each other – even when they’re relaxing, it tends to be with other people, which often forces you to compare yourselves and your relationships to them.”

"I know a woman who told everyone her husband was working abroad, when in fact they’d been separated for two years"

The UAE is seen as a country of opportunities, says Madeleine, a place where you strive to improve all areas of your life, when once you might have been more content with your lot back home. “The powers shift in terms of work and family roles, especially when the part-time opportunities aren’t available that you might find in your home country.”

Read more: 'Essential expat knowledge: Are you the guardian of your children?'

It’s also a land of reinvention, says Anne. “Some people come over looking to run away from something in their home country, or wanting to create a whole new persona for themselves. And in doing that, they feel that they can step over boundaries when they don’t have family or a community watching them. They start feeling that they can do anything, and it can sometimes go to their head – they feel invincible, and can pretend to be who they’re not and they won’t get caught.”

“You can’t sugar-coat it, the common denominator for most of the divorces we see has been infidelity,” adds Madeleine. “Let’s put it this way – you arrive here and there are an array of people who are happy to indulge your fantasy. It feels like a brand-new world, where you can have it all, including the mistress or the affair.”

Keeping up appearances only adds to the pressure, especially in a society where family is so often far away and friendships tend to be more fleeting and less close-knit. “It’s not as bad as it used to be, but there was this ‘Dubai bubble’ that you had to pretend to be in, having this perfect, happy, wonderful life,” says Anne. “People are afraid to admit when things aren’t going well and they aren’t having a good time. They’re worried they will be judged.

“I know a woman who told everyone, including her children, that her husband was working abroad, when in fact they’d been separated for two years.”

While there are many well-qualified and supportive coaches, marriage guidance counsellors and family therapists on hand in the UAE, the reticence to admit something has gone wrong can mean couples are seeking professional help too late. “People deal with things more privately here, they wait until the relationship is almost dead before they try to revive it,” says Georgia. “By that point, both parties are no longer invested in the relationship and have switched off. 
But if they get help sooner, as long as they have some interest in trying to rebuild things, there is always hope.”

Changing expectations

Just as attitudes to divorce have changed over the past few decades, so have attitudes towards marriage itself, and the notion of personal contentment.

“With the advent of psychology, the predominance of self-help books, psychotherapy and marriage counselling now being the norm, the idea that personal happiness is important has changed how relationships are experienced,” says Helen, with couples more likely to bail on relationships once the first flush of enthusiasm wanes. “The impact is that separations, affairs and divorce happen often because people are looking to others to fulfil their emotional needs. In our society of instant gratification, people no longer put up with average or difficult relationships as they once did.

“In my experience, couples also appear to give up quickly, rather than acknowledging the changes relationships must go through for intimacy to mature. Many couples appear to want their relationships to reflect a fairy-tale-style of love, as seen in the movies, and seem unaware that real love is not about chemical highs or raging hormones, but solid hard work and commitment to growth and emotional maturity.”

In a society that places a high value on consumerism, where most needs can be met with a quick fix, perhaps that sentiment rings true for marriage and relationships, too.

“We are becoming very impatient, and maybe that does have a knock-on effect in the way we view our partners,” says Georgia. “Relationships seem to be more disposable; you can ‘throw it away and start again’. People seem to think it’s easier to move on rather than own their part of a relationship and the responsibilities that come with that. Except it is not easy to start a new relationship – it can be exhausting, especially if children are involved.”

“It’s easy to get cynical, but the main issue here is that people alter their values – even if they don’t set out to do so when they arrive,” agrees Madeleine. “The UAE is such an amazing place to live, everything feels within reach.

“It doesn’t always feel real, which is why people don’t seem to work as hard at marriages here, especially without the involvement of family or friends. Sometimes I think, ‘How on earth did these people once lie down in the same bed and have a child together?’ and some of the cases I hear, I think, ‘Really, you could work at this a bit harder.’”

So, is long-term wedded bliss still a realistic prospect? Or have our high expectations left us too jaded?

“Expectations have changed, yes, but people will always want to commit to each other in marriage, regardless of the times,” says Helen.

“For many it is a strong part of their cultural, spiritual, and family beliefs, for others it represents the greatest form of belonging and safety, especially when raising children.”

Read more: 'Even with all the joy, motherhood can be lonely and isolating'

Who gets custody of the children after a divorce in the UAE?

According the Dubai government's information on divorce, the biological mother of the child is the custodian and the father is the guardian. Custody involves day-to-day care of the child, which is usually granted to the mother without interfering with the right of guardianship awarded to the father.

At all times, the father is responsible for providing for the child financially. He is responsible for providing shelter, expenses for food, medical care, education and other necessities.

Custody and guardianship are two separate issues that must be addressed individually as parents do not share equal responsibilities for a child in the UAE. 

The courts always act in the best interests of the child and therefore, unless given reason to believe otherwise, they keep him in the physical custody of the mother, whilst being under the guardian's (father's) supervision.

Article 156 of Federal Law No 28 of 2005 for Personal Affairs provides that a child's custody under the mother ends when their son reaches the age of 11 and when their daughter reaches the age of 13. The father being the guardian can claim the custody thereafter.