‘I could spend only 17 days with my wife’: How COVID-19 worsens separation anxiety for 'married bachelors' in the UAE

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“I could spend only 17 days with my wife,” said Asad Parvez, an expatriate in Dubai since 2009, while recounting the early years of his marriage and life away from family. Asad is among thousands of ‘married bachelors’ around the world who choose to live alone in a different country to make a living.

‘Married bachelors’ are everywhere, but more so in developed countries, moving in from developing nations due to financial constraints.

Staying away from family to eke out a living got more frustrating with the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many to rely on the only option to stay connected: Video calling.

We at Gulf News look at the troubles and turbulences in the lives of married bachelors and their quest for happiness away from family.

When the pandemic hit, the loneliness was worse: An Indian expat in UAE for 24 years

Rajeev Pillai has lived in the UAE for 24 years and had enjoyed living with his wife and two children for 15 years after his marriage. For the past three years, though, he has had to go back to his bachelorhood, but this time as a ‘married bachelor’.

“We had enjoyed a happy family life for 15 years,” recollects Rajeev. “We were living in a two-bedroom apartment. My children were going to school and doing extra-curricular activities here. But, everything changed when my company, which is in the diamond import and export business, faced a financial crisis three years back,” he said.

Rajeev started feeling the pinch when the company cut 25 per cent of his salary. “I had credit cards and personal loan like most of the expats here. When I realised it would be difficult to maintain my family here, I was forced to send them back.”

Rajeev Pillai with his family.
Image Credit: Rajeev Pillai

The mental impact has been huge. “You are alone when you come back home. When I ask children what I should get for them, all they say is that they want me! Being away from your life partner is also not easy.”

Having enjoyed a vibrant community life earlier, Rajeev says he misses attending the community events with his family. “When I go to any function, I have to sit with the other bachelors. When my wife was here, I never had to cook regularly, though cooking was a passion for me. When I restarted full-fledged cooking, my wife became my virtual guide.”

Notwithstanding the loneliness, Rajeev says there are some practical benefits also of a forced ‘bachelor’ status. “It took some time for the children to adjust to the new lifestyle back home. However, they have become more independent and self-reliant now. Also, our house was lying empty back in India. When my family went back, it helped in the upkeep of the house.”

When the pandemic hit, the loneliness got worse. Rajeev says he overcame it by getting involved in the community service. “I invited one of my friends to stay with me. Both of us worked as part of a community helpdesk during the peak of the pandemic. And I could be in touch with my family on video calls all through.”

The pandemic has taught us many things and Rajeev says he feels for the blue-collar workers who can go home only once in two years. “But we need to adjust to the situations and tide over the difficulties.”

Rajeev met with an accident last month and missed his wife’s care the most. “My relatives and friends were there to support me, but it is when you feel sick that you want to be with your family all the more, right? So, I flew home for a couple of weeks.”

Why are they called ‘married bachelors’?

‘Married bachelors’ is a strange nomenclature. Who coined the term, no one seems to know, but there are thousands of ‘married bachelors’ in the UAE.

Who are these ‘married bachelors’? They are normal people staying away from their wife and children due to financial constraints or certain family commitments. Read more

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal, Assistant Product Manager

My decision gave my children a better life: Filipina expat in UAE

“When I first came to the UAE in 2003, I hadn’t planned to stay on. I had left behind my five-month-old daughter and seven-year-old son and I just came to take a look at the prospects here. At the time, I had left behind a job as a licensed stockbroker because I was looking for a change. I thought I would stay for two years, send some money back home. But then I got a position as a financial consultant, with room for growth. I liked the lifestyle and just ended up staying on,” said Cristina Dagaz, 50, a Filipina manager at a recruitment firm in the UAE.

In the end, my decision gave my children a better life. My 25-year-old son is now an advertising executive. If I could have another go at it, I would definitely try harder to sponsor my children.

Cristina Dagaz, 50, a Filipina manager

“I am a single mother, so I had left my children in the care of my parents. I was especially close to my son, Paulo, who had been my companion since his birth. So I missed my children very much. In fact, I was afraid my daughter, Kaya, would not know me, so I kept asking my parents and my son to keep pointing at a picture of myself with my children and keep telling Kaya that I was her mother.

“It was hard, because back in those days, I could only afford to make an international call twice a week, during the afternoon discount period. At times, it was heartbreaking. I missed being a mum. So, I did all I could to spend time with my children. I would bring them down to the UAE during their summer break, even though this gave me just three months at a time. And I kept trying to sponsor my children, but I couldn’t.

“In the end, my decision gave my children a better life. My 25-year-old son is now an advertising executive. If I could have another go at it, I would definitely try harder to sponsor my children. I came up against multiple roadblocks because I was a single mother, but I would continue trying.

“And for others looking to go down the same path, I would definitely tell them that they should be prepared for the mental toll and homesickness. It is a big challenge and not at all easy. There is also a big cultural shock that one must be prepared for.”

What are the mental issues faced by married people who have left their families back home due to financial difficulties or COVID-19 pandemic?

The process of getting used to new cultures and routines living abroad is often part of the adventure, but the pandemic and its repercussions on travel has hit even the most seasoned members of the expat community hard, says Tooba Siddiqui, M.A. Clinical Psychology, Medcare Camali Mental Health Clinic.

Parents and children alike can cope more easily with being apart when there is some level of predictability, some sense of routine or pattern or creation of a new routine or patterns.

Tooba Siddiqui, Clinical Psychology

“It’s natural to be experiencing a range of emotions — missing your network of friends and family … It’s common to feel guilty about not being physically able to support people you care about those who are more at risk. Staying away from family do impact your mental and physical health gravely. No matter how much you deny, it directly or indirectly shows up in different ways, especially if you’ve been brought up in a collectivist society.

“Having said that, parents and children alike can cope more easily with being apart when there is some level of predictability, some sense of routine or pattern or creation of a new routine or patterns.”

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal, Assistant Product Manager

Staying away from family was really difficult: A Pakistani expatriate in Dubai

When Pakistani national Asad Parvez came over to Dubai in 2009, he was unmarried. He had to leave behind his parents to get a job here. He got married when he went home for his first annual leave a year later.

“I could spend only 17 days with my wife,” recollects Asad who still continues to live as a ‘married bachelor’ in Dubai. “There was no video call in those days. Mobile calls were expensive. Staying away from the family was really difficult.”

A father of two girls, Asad regrets not being there with his wife during their births. “I couldn’t be there due to my job requirements. I have always felt guilty about it. [A] husband should be there when [his] wife delivers. I couldn’t.”

But Asad is aware of the practical side. He says: “If you bring over your family, you can’t support them well. It is very expensive to maintain them here with school fees, health insurance and so on.”

Asad Parvez came to Dubai in 2009.
Image Credit: Asad Parvez

Apart from financial stability, Asad says he has some other reasons also for not bringing over his family to live with him in Dubai. “My children are very attached to my parents. I have two younger brothers too, who are married. They don’t have children yet. All of their emotional attachment with my children is a barrier [for bringing them here] today. Also, we are more comfortable with sending them to schools back in Pakistan.”

After he changed his company and got a promotion, Asad has been able to visit them more frequently. “They had come here twice on visit as well.”

Video calling has been a big solace since last year, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Asad.

“Earlier, I missed being there so badly for all family gatherings and functions. Now, we are able to join them virtually at least. You feel like you are sitting next to them. But being physically present still makes a big difference. Children are growing up, they need you to be with them.”

Because of the flight restrictions during the pandemic, he said he could not fly home for eight months. “Since I have more flexibility in my current company, I used to fly home every four or five months. Somehow I managed to go home for my sister’s engagement ceremony after an eight-month gap.”

Of turning the chops and food court samosas: Gulf News staff member

As I settled down at the workstation in office, an SMS flashed on my mobile screen. The Air India flight from Dubai had landed just a shade behind schedule in New Delhi. I breathed a sigh of relief that my wife and son were on home turf, literally. Immediately, my attention was drawn to the desk phone — the office landline and it suddenly struck me like a sharp jab from a knife or razor: That the Avaya phone will never again ring, showing my Dubai home landline number on its display screen. It was the first and rather crude realisation of a truth, a reality that was waiting to knock me out right from the day we decided that wife and son would return to India for son’s studies and to attend to my ailing mother. I had often tried to prepare myself mentally for the inevitable, but kept pushing all thoughts of being a ‘married bachelor’ to the back burner as I kept telling myself: ‘I’ll think about crossing the bridge only when I come to it.’ And there I was, staring at the phone and fighting hard to make sure my eyes didn’t get any more moist than they already were!

Months later, as I put the first round of what was mentioned on the biryani masala pack as ‘3/4th boiled rice’ into the pan and got ready to get the marinated chicken pieces out of the fridge, there was just a hint of a smile on my wife’s face who was keeping a keen eye, through the Skype camera, on my maiden attempt at chicken biryani. “So you’ve taken the first step towards making sure that you no longer have to depend on takeouts and Maggie noodles,” she said, even as I told myself: ‘I’ve come to the bridge and crossed it too!’

Sanjib Kumar Das

Almost five years have passed since I opted to be a part of the ‘married bachelors’ club’ in the UAE. And I must say that every crisis indeed presents an opportunity. In my case, it helped add a vital skill to my repertoire of self-help living. Culinary delights that were once the exclusive domain of printed menu cards and food-on-phone were gradually being rustled up in the open-plan kitchen at my rented Dubai apartment — one humble dish at a time; doing the groceries, I found out, wasn’t really a pain; keeping track of the laundry bag was no rocket science really; and an occasional movie can certainly be watched in complete silence with zero verbal interaction with the person on the next seat at the theatre … Wonders never cease, I told myself.

And as the days and weeks of ‘married bachelorhood’ made way for months and years of a solitary life in Dubai, I realised what exactly a senior colleague had meant when he once said: “Here, you are only as wanted as a social being as your family is. Without them, you won’t be considered a part of the ‘inner circle’.” How true those words turned out to be, as Diwali, Eid, Christmas and New Year passed by, year on year, without a single call or word from what I had once construed to be a close-knit group of ‘friends’ in Dubai!

But no regrets. The Mall of the Emirates ground-floor food court and the Festival City promenade still rank among my favourite weekend haunts where many an opinion piece has been crafted over piping hot tea and samosas from Bombay Chowpatty; Amazon Prime and Netflix are reason enough to make the sofa the most sought-after place at home; I can still catch up with family on video calls and lest I forget — turning the chops on the stove can still keep me busy. And fortunately for me, I managed to visit family and home just before WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

Life’s good.

I haven’t seen my family in 14 months now: Sri Lankan expat in UAE

“Looking back, I would probably choose to live with my family and look for options back home. This life has allowed me to provide for them, but it has also been extremely difficult,” said Ilanko Sithamparam, 56, a Sri Lankan housekeeping manager at a hospital.

“I first arrived in the UAE in 2000. My son was then three years old and I was finding it hard to make ends meet as a building contractor. So I took up a job as a sales executive, then proceeded through the ranks until I joined the hospital as a housekeeping manager.

Ilanko Sithamparam with his family.
Image Credit: Ilanko Sithamparam

“For a while, I brought my family over to the UAE. They were with me for five years, until my son turned 15 years. Then, it became too difficult for me to provide for my son’s education. So my wife and son returned home while I stayed on. I miss them very much, so I visit them at regular intervals — say every six months or so. But the COVID-19 restrictions put a brake on those, especially given the need to quarantine. I haven’t seen my family for 14 months now, and it isn’t easy,” he said.

“Every day, as soon as I get back home from work, I am on a video call with my wife. In fact, that is my ‘job’ when I get home every day. I would have preferred to live with my family all this while, but it may have stopped me from being able to support my family. In fact, my son is now studying medicine in Russia and my earnings have enabled that. As for my wife, she holds the sole responsibility of taking care of my elderly mother and my mother-in-law at home,” Ilanko said. 

“To be honest, I only planned to be in the UAE for a year or two. But time went by and now I’ve been here for two decades. I do feel sad because I feel like I’ve missed it all — the happiness, the milestones, the difficult moments. But this is the only way I have been able to give my family the life they have,” Ilanko said. 

Sadness and despondency

Regardless of perceived levels of control, a grief response — sadness and despondency, problems sleeping, conflicts with others, social isolation, tearfulness, changes in energy, headaches, muscle tension, problems keeping up with a daily routine — is to be expected after such a separation from family, said Tooba Siddiqui, a psychologist.

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal, Assistant Product Manager

So what steps should ‘married bachelors’ take to keep their families and themselves in a stable and happy state?

A system created around healthy eating, exercising regularly, sleeping sufficiently and indulging in productive activities such as cooking or painting can help create a semblance of a routine that can be used as the initial groundwork for coping up with anxiety that comes with isolation, said Siddiqui.

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal, Assistant Product Manager

Anxiety of the pandemic months was like a silent killer: Gulf News staff member

‘Married bachelors’? I wouldn’t have known that such a term ever existed if I hadn’t spent more than 17 years in Dubai.

Me and my colleagues had, of course, got accustomed to being the ‘summer bachelors’ over the years. This, in other words, meant just an extra sense of freedom over the months of July-August when most families would normally head back to India for the two months of summer vacation at schools.

The ritual went something like this — the man of the house would eventually join the wife and children for the second half of the vacation — till it was time for all to again get back to the grind.

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Then at some point, you arrive at the crossroads. It’s time for you to take a call on whether the son or daughter — who has suddenly turned out to be a strapping young man or a lady — would take the next leap in their education in the UAE or is it time they relocate to India or move to any other part of the world.

It was in early 2019 when I decided to send my wife and daughter back to Kolkata. Given we were a four hours’ flight away, it wasn’t such a bad deal as I gloated about taking the “right decision”.

Those, of course, were the pre-COVID days. As the pandemic was kicking in and the flights were on the verge of shutdown globally, I had to pack them off on a short notice from Dubai — only to meet them a good nine months later.

The so-called resilience that I had prided myself on was slowly broken. The silent anxiety about the welfare of your near and dear ones eating into you could be a killer. While my colleagues delved into some painstaking research to bring insight for the readers about the pandemic and how it affected lives, I was often more concerned about the brass tacks back home.

How is India faring in terms of cases? Where is West Bengal now in terms of active cases? Is the state equipped enough to handle the rising cases? Or is the internet connection at home stable enough for my daughter to handle her online classes?

Being a ‘married bachelor’ is not really fun … certainly not for men at my age!

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