Cinderella had it easy really. Sweeping a few floors, warding off two ugly sisters, losing a glass slipper – pah. We wager she walked Prince Charming down the aisle in a week. Nowadays though, there seem to be no end of obstacles to that fairy tale ending. From religious differences, cultural divides, age gaps and long distance love, today’s relationships really know no bounds or restrictions.
“Differences between individuals have definitely become more socially acceptable,” observes Lavina Ahuja, counselling psychologist at Lifeworks (www.counsellingdubai.com). “People are now more often exposed to individuals from different cultures, or individuals who are different from themselves, beginning from quite a young age.”
Of course, that trend is even more prevalent here in the cultural melting pot of the UAE, where even living on a different continent is no barrier to romance. “Separations have become easier to deal with thanks to the Internet and technological advances,” adds Ahuja, “so distances don’t seem so great anymore.”
But, despite being more commonplace than ever before, the reality of these relationships is certainly no Disney film. By casting our dating nets so wide, have we all set ourselves up for a rough ride? Not necessarily, argues Diana Parkinson, leading hypnotherapist and counsellor (www.dianaparkinson.co.uk). “Of course, trying to manage something such as a long distance relationship can be challenging,” she acknowledges, “but it can also be happily managed. Such a couple must look at ways to ensure they have plenty of contact: regular trips to see one another, using the Internet, maybe even going back to the old fashioned way of writing love letters.”
It may sound clichéd, but our experts agree that communication is key. “Couples from different cultural backgrounds need to talk clearly and respectfully about the differences in their cultures and cultural expectations regarding relationships.
We overcame… long distance separation
Lisa Szatsznajder and Matt Burn, both from Australia
When Aussies Lisa and Matt met, they didn’t expect to be oceans apart just four months later. But that’s exactly the position they found themselves in after PR girl Lisa landed her dream job in Dubai, leaving her new love, pro-football player Matt, behind in Melbourne. “It was a lot of pressure to put on such a young relationship,” admits Lisa, “but we knew that, if anything, it was a good test – if we could survive this, we could survive anything.”
With eight months left in Matt’s footie season, the love-struck pair hatched a plan for him to move to Dubai – albeit one year later. “As we’d only been together four months before the big move, undoubtedly there would have been a few people that questioned whether it would last or not,” says Lisa. “But my mum always said that when you meet ‘The One’ then you ‘just know’, and she was right – we just knew.”
So how do you keep that proverbial fire burning with more than 7,000 miles and a seven-hour time difference between you? A whole lot of instant messaging, emails and Friday night dates online, according to Lisa. “Not a day would go past that we did not communicate in some way,” she says. “The best thing we ever did was write daily emails – and I’m not exaggerating when I say that sometimes it was really annoying to have to take the time to write them!” Whether it was what time she got up, or the latest product from home to hit the supermarket shelves, Lisa insists all those little details count. “Never allow yourself to fall into the trap of ‘I can’t be bothered telling him/her about that, it’ll take too long and they won’t understand’,” she says. “Make sure you tell them things that matter to you!”
And Matt, for one, couldn’t agree more. “Communication is definitely key,” he says. As for long-distance relationship faux pas, he advises against a few of those too. “Don’t get jealous. There is no place for jealousy in a relationship, especially long distance. Don’t fight either. I know it’s easier said than done but small fights over a long distance can blow up into something much bigger.”
The big question is, was it all worth the effort? “Absolutely”, says Matt: “Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder, if done right!” about the third culture they would like to create, which would be their family culture,” says Ahuja.
Easier said than done? It’s worth it, says the ever-optimistic Parkinson. “Dealing with life’s difficulties together really enriches a relationship. And, if all else fails, give in to the fairy tales – and believe. “Where love is fragile, any obstacle can provide the excuse to part. But for those who believe, love can conquer all.”
We overcame… cultural challenges
Dana and Henry Williamson, Dutch-Indonesian and African-American
“Most of my family probably would’ve expected me to come home with an African-American girl,” admits Chicago man Henry. “I think my parents genuinely had no clue what to expect of a Dutch-Indonesian girl!”
“I don’t think anybody had an issue with us as a couple,” adds Dana on her relatives’ response, “but I do think a lot of my Asian family especially had a lot of questions. The way black American culture is portrayed in the media and film industry is often quite stereotypical and I don’t think many people realise that the black community in the USA is incredibly diverse.”
Luckily, the gorgeous pair weren’t put off. They’re now parents to two equally gorgeous boys and in fact, says Dana, hailing from different cultural backgrounds “has enriched all our lives”. Nowadays, the Williamsons “take the best of both worlds” – a philosophy Dana credits her mum for. “She always stressed for me to be aware of my different cultural influences and reminded me to make conscious decisions on which aspect of each culture to apply to my life. As such, I’ve taken my independence and open-mindedness from the Dutch, but the basic principles of family, respect and spirituality from Indonesia.”
For Henry, the differences took a little getting used to. “Dana’s Asian background has a much more formal approach to dating and meeting the parents than mine,” he says. “I’m much more casual and she considered the fact that I addressed her parents with ‘you guys’ as rude. There are a lot of unwritten rules to get your head around.”
Do they think their upbringings have affected their family life in Dubai? “It’s the practical things where we really see our differences,” says Dana. “We are also in discussion on schools for our boys – Henry is quite determined to send them to an American school, whereas I would prefer an international system.
“Also, I would have never thought of naming our eldest son Henry III, but in hindsight it is kind of cool that his name is tied to his father’s and grandfather’s.”
“A lot of our differences are only skin deep”, admits Henry – who describes himself as still being “just in awe” of Dana to this day.
His advice to other culturally-diverse couples? “First and foremost, you need to have strong love and respect for your partner – when you have that you can withstand any adversity that may come along."