We’ve all heard of marriage counselling, but what about pre-marriage counselling? You could be forgiven for suggesting that if a couple needs to see a therapist before they even make it down the aisle, perhaps they should cut their losses before they cut the cake. But that has not stopped the General Women’s Union (GWU) from offering premarital classes to young couples in Abu Dhabi. The GWU blames a lack of seriousness about marriage among the young for growing rates of divorce in the UAE, which is why it is trying to educate them.
While there are no official figures to show just how many marriages are biting the dust – the Judicial Department is currently working on it – UN statistics suggest UAE divorce rates rose 13 per cent between 2002 and 2004. And according to Dr Roghy McCarthy, a psychologist who has worked both in France and the Middle East and now runs the Counselling and Development Clinic in Jumeirah, the rates are increasing. ‘It’s a huge problem in this part of the world,’ she tells Time Out.
But Dr McCarthy has some good news, too. She says that Emirati couples in Dubai are coming to her of their own accord to discuss relationship problems before marrying. It is not clear whether the GWU will be holding similar classes in Dubai to those in Abu Dhabi, so this is encouraging. ‘These are couples that have been together for two or three years,’ Dr McCarthy explains. ‘They’re already fighting, but they want to solve the problem.’ But Dr McCarthy admits she fears for the future of marriage in the UAE. ‘There is too much mixture here,’ she says. ‘People want to keep traditions and enjoy modern society.’ This, she says, has produced a particular set of pressures for Emiratis.
Imagine a home where three generations of Emirati women live together. ‘The grandmother could be one of two or three wives,’ points out Dr McCarthy. ‘The mother may be in a marriage where she knows something is wrong, but she wants to be accepted in society, so she turns to religion or family and finds happiness a different way. But the new generation don’t want their mother’s or their grandmother’s life. These are intelligent young ladies who go to college. They want to succeed in family, but they want to succeed in society as well.’
These differences can make discussing marital problems between generations nearly impossible, leaving young women who are looking for advice with nobody to turn to. Modern marriage is not easy for Emirati men, either. Traditionally, material expectations of the bride’s family are high, and young men are often compelled to work multiple jobs to provide for their family. If the man already feels he is not measuring up, and then his wife starts to succeed professionally herself, this puts the marriage under strain. So why marry when there are so many potential problems? ‘There is pressure in Emirati tradition to be married and have a family,’ Dr McCarthy says. ‘People would look at young men and women strangely if they did not.’
Tony Maalouli, managing director and practising divorce lawyer at ProConsult Advocates in Dubai, says the age of many UAE nationals when they marry is also a consideration. ‘They tend to marry very, very young,’ he says, adding that the Marriage Fund – a grant awarded to Emirati males who marry a UAE national – often encourages them to do so. Rules state that males applying for the grant should be at least 21 years old, while his bride should be at least 18. However, the Marriage Fund does offer lectures on married life for those who apply for bursaries.
Another problem, Maalouli says, is how easy it is to divorce under Sharia law. If a man says ‘I divorce thee’ to his wife once, there is a period of three months in which he can change his mind and the couple can reconcile. But if he says it three times, the divorce is final. Should he change his mind after these three months, he cannot re-marry his ex until after she has married and divorced someone else. It is not a phrase to be uttered lightly – the effects are very serious – but it does make the business of divorce particularly straightforward and fast. ‘The Western divorce is a civil contract, and you need a reason to terminate that contract,’ explains Maalouli. ‘Divorce under Sharia law is quite different.’
Talking of Western divorce, what about expats living in Dubai? Are they separating as frequently? Maalouli says that while divorce among UAE nationals is undeniably high, he handles more Western separations than Emirati. Dr McCarthy thinks this is another Dubai-specific issue. ‘Dubai attracts people who are unsettled within themselves,’ she argues. ‘They move from one job to another, one country to another. They are not connected to anything. If you’re not settled in yourself, you’re unable to settle in marriage.’ So maybe all couples should try pre-marriage counselling? Maalouli agrees. ‘It’s good to have an education, whether you are a Westerner or a UAE national.’
Think you might need couples counselling? The Counselling & Development Clinic (04 394 6122) www.drmccarthypsychologyclinic.com. The clinic is on Jumeirah Beach Road.