Getting married, so the old adage goes, is the easy part. Making a marriage work – and making it enjoyable – is the real test.
Your wedding is not called the biggest day of your life for no reason. Afterwards, everything changes – and, while those changes will (hopefully) be both wonderful and life-affirming, they are very rarely easy. A new home, a new extended family and a new commitment to someone until death do part are just some of the challenges that follow those two simple words: I do.
And in the UAE such challenges can be especially acute. Expats living here rarely have the informal support networks of family and friends that come with living in one’s home country, while the sheer ambition of many people who move here often means they work long hours to progress professionally – putting potential pressures on a marriage.
‘This is something we have known for a long time,’ says Helen Williams, a mindfulness marriage coach with 40 years’ experience and the founder of Mindful Me consultancy in Barsha Heights. ‘The UAE is a wonderful country full of opportunities but there’s no doubt living here can place an extra strain on couples if they fail to work diligently at their relationships.’
In 2016 – the last year for which figures are available – some 1,383 divorce certificates were granted by courts in Dubai alone. This is thought to be only a fragment of real separation rates here as many couples go back home to officially end their marriage.
Worldwide divorce figures vary but in the UK, where an Office for National Statistics monitors such trends, some 42 per cent of all marriages end in separation. Around half of those occur in the first 10 years. In Belgium, the figure is as high as 70 per cent.
All of which raises the key question: how can a new bride – or groom – give themselves the best chance of embarking on a partnership that truly stands the test of time? What can a couple do to make it last for ever?
Friday Bride loves a fairy-tale ending as much as the next romantic; and, so, as part of our bridal special, we spoke to marriage counsellors, therapists and one Dubai couple who have truly gone the distance – 25 years and counting – to provide anyone considering a lifetime together with five key questions they should ask before they say they do…
1. Does your relationship already have a strong foundation of equal respect?
It is a cliché perhaps but it is also a truism that couples who reach their golden wedding anniversary regularly tell local newspaper interviewers that the key to success is down to a single word: compromise.
‘But good compromise does not mean sacrifice,’ says Roghy McCarthy, clinical psychologist and founder of the Counselling and Development Clinic in Jumeirah. ‘It is not about one person always giving and the other always taking. That will only lead to unhappiness and resentment. Rather, it is about both people understanding that it is important their partner’s needs – as well as their own – are nourished and valued.’
That can mean emotionally, physically or spiritually, of course. But it can also mean something as mundane as, for instance, who gets to take the car on an especially busy Friday. If your fiancé had it last time you both wanted it and he’s insisting on taking it again, is he considering your needs as much as a good partner should?
2. Would you be happy in yourself outside the relationship?
In many ways this question might seem counter-intuitive. After all, if you’d be totally fine without the person you’re about to marry, they’re probably not the person you should be spending the rest of your life with.
But the point goes a little deeper than this. ‘Your marriage cannot be the only source of happiness in your life,’ says Helen Williams. ‘In healthy relationships both partners have outside interests, outside friends, outside professional ambitions.’
There should be three considerations in marriage, according to Helen.
‘There should be Me; there should be You; and there should be Us,’ she explains. ‘And if you’re only ever thinking about Us – if you no longer have a Me, if you no longer see friends or care about work – you risk becoming too reliant on the marriage. You make another person solely responsible for your own happiness, and that is not right. You must continue to make yourself happy outside the marriage. Doing that will lead to a far more fulfilling partnership.’
3. Do you both want the same things out of the marriage and out of life?
One of the main reasons given for getting divorced, according to a study published just this summer by the University of Exeter in the UK, was ‘unrealistic expectations’. That is to say, husband and wife each envisages something entirely different for the future.
‘With good communication – both before the wedding and after – this simply should not happen,’ says Cindy van de Kreke-Freens, a personal development coach with Kompass Consultancy, in JLT. ‘Good marriages are like good alliances. Both partners are on the same page and have the same ambitions for the relationship, and compatible individual goals which the other can support.’
An example: it’s no good getting wed only to find on the first night of your honeymoon that your partner does not want children while you hope for a full football team’s worth.
‘If one person wants something radically different, you’re going to argue about it,’ writes Rob Scuka, executive director of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement in the US.
In short: never make assumptions about what the other hopes for and expects – have that conversation before it’s too late.
4. Do you share common interests?
Husband and wife obviously don’t have to be passionate about all the same things. Just because he loves football doesn’t mean she has to pretend to have any interest in 22 blokes kicking a piece of leather around. ‘It is good to have separate interests,’ says Helen.
But it helps if there is some common ground and shared loves, whether that’s a passion for eating out, a love of music or even similar professional aspirations. Nuno and Marta Abreu perhaps know this as well as anyone in Dubai. The Portuguese couple celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in August, and their jointly-owned company – a Business Bay-based design consultancy called Slash – will also be 25 later this year. They have spent almost all their adult lives together as husband and wife, and as professional partners too. Outside of work, they are both fitness fanatics.
‘For me,’ says Nuno, who has two grown-up children with Marta, ‘the more time we spend together, the more fun we have and the more things we come to have in common.’
5. Are you willing to work hard at the relationship?
A marriage should be a fun and joyous, endlessly filled with moments where your betrothed continues to delight you. At its best, it is a union of two best friends who continue to grow to like each other even more.
But it is also monumentally hard work at times. ‘True love doesn’t happen by accident,’ as the American author Darlene Schacht noted. ‘It’s deliberate, it’s intentional, it’s purposeful – and in the end its worth it.’
Every marriage suffers hard times. And it’s then when you must be willing to roll up your sleeves and graft at it.
‘There will be a crisis or two in every relationship,’ says Dr McCarthy. ‘You cannot spend a lifetime with someone and not expect this to happen. The sign of a marriage that will succeed is where two people are willing to work hard, both together and separately, to overcome these challenges, and not to give up at the first sign of difficulty.’
Helen Williams even recommends having yearly ‘Ministry of Transport discussions’ – either with a professional or a trusted friend – where you talk about the relationship.
‘Lift up the bonnet every now and then and check everything is running smoothly.’
6. Have you listened to your gut instinct?
Your boyfriend is handsome, rich and has a personality so charming he could persuade a cat down from a tree. He has a wonderful family and, more importantly, your dad likes him. He is perfect marriage material.
‘But when he proposes, sometimes your gut just says ‘no’ or, at least, ‘not yet’,’ says Dr McCarthy. ‘And it is important you listen to that instinct. Your intuition is important. You can’t always rationalise why a person doesn’t feel like The One but if they don’t, you should pay attention to those nagging doubts. They nag at you for a reason.’
Even if you say yes to a proposal and then begin to feel it may not be right, it is not too late to call things off or postpone them. ‘A wedding is often a huge event and cancelling will cause a lot of people disappointment and maybe cost money if left too late,’ says Dr McCarthy. ‘But the alternative is a lifetime of regret or a divorce a few years later – and you don’t want either of those things. If you have serious doubts, do not go ahead with the marriage. Take your time. If the person you are with does turn out to the be the right one after all, he will understand if you ask for a little more time.’
And here’s another six you might want to consider…
Preparing for marriage is, of course, all about making sure the big questions have the right answers.
But possibly there are also a few smaller issues you might like to consider before saying I do…
1. Does your partner snore? And how happy will he feel about being turfed out into the spare room every now and then?
2. Does your partner understand that the loo roll should come up and over the holder – NEVER down and under?
3. Can a household chores deal be struck: he does the ironing if you take care of the pot plants, perhaps?
4. Do they understand that watching the latest Bruce Willis movie does not count as quality time? Ditto: any sort of rom-com.
5. Will you both promise not to pass comment when the other misses a turn-off from Shaikh Zayed Road?
6. How does he feel about changing a nappy?