ABU DHABI // A new survey reveals a widespread belief in the UAE that a shared faith and family approval are central to a successful marriage.
Of 754 residents surveyed for Al Aan TV's Nabd al Arab ("Arabs' Pulse") by YouGov Siraj, the overwhelming majority (82 per cent) said a couple should share the same religion, with almost as many (71 per cent) also saying it was important for a couple to be of the same sect.
Experts said the concerns were hardly surprising given the prominent role of religion in daily life. "It may not be the case in other communities because the culture doesn't emphasise religion as a main component of their lives," said Yousef Abou Allaban, a consultant psychiatrist with the American Centre of Psychology and Neurology in Abu Dhabi. "But in our culture it affects our daily decisions. Some may be more tolerant than others; it really depends on the person's background. It is important that the couple addresses it early on so they know what to expect and how to handle situations."
The survey also showed that the most desirable traits for Emiratis were manners (84 per cent), looks (54 per cent) and intelligence (41 per cent), while for Arab expatriates education came third (46 per cent).
Cited less often by Emiratis were family background (10 per cent) and family name (7 per cent); and financial stability (13 per cent) and family name (5 per cent) for Arab expatriates.
Wedad Lootah, a family and marriage counsellor with the Dubai Courts, said the results of the survey reflect a change in expectations, which have evolved as society itself has.
"Women are not looking for money or social status as much as they used to," she said. "They don't mind marrying someone from a lower status as long as they have the desired personal qualities."
Yet an education gap between a couple could result in serious conflicts in the course of time, Dr Allaban said.
"There were many cases where I treated Emirati couples that were married based on social status or family name," he said, "but then they experience problems because of contradictions in educational status."
Dana Shadid, brand and business development manager at Al Aan Television, said that marriage should not be taken lightly. "Choosing a life partner is a significant step," she said.
"The expectations for marriage are not what they were 20 or 50 years ago. For example, women have a bigger role in society and should not just get married for the sake of it. Life is much harder now, and therefore more investment needs to be made in the marriage."
Maria Nour, a Lebanese-American resident of Dubai who recently graduated with a degree in liberal arts and a minor in psychology, defined what marriage meant to her.
"The meaning of marriage has changed. It is not just to serve your partner and meet their physical or financial needs," Ms Nour, 24, said.
"It's companionship, engaging in intelligent conversation, having someone by your side who will listen, understand you and respond."
Ms Lootah said the change in expectations was also a result of parents who are not putting as much pressure on their children as they once did. "Kids are more educated and know what they want. They have the opportunity to socialise more and can make their own life decisions."
The survey suggests otherwise, however. More than half (55 per cent) of all respondents said they felt pressure by their families to get married and almost as many (52 per cent) said the pressure came from themselves. Either way, the pressure is there for many.
Maryam, a 29-year-old Emirati from Ajman, said that from as young as 16, mothers prepare their daughters to be the perfect bride.
"I was 16 years old when they started talking to me about marriage," said Maryam, who preferred not to provide her surname.
"At 18 you have to get married. For me, it was my deadline. When I was 18 someone proposed, but I hadn't finished high school and he didn't want to wait.
"My dad couldn't compromise my education to marriage, although it was also essential, but the groom-to-be refused to wait until I finished high school."
At 25, she was persuaded to marry a man she had never seen before, for fear of being labelled an "anisa", a spinster.
Four months later - after signing the marriage contract but before her wedding - Maryam realised he was the wrong life companion, and filed for divorce.
"My mum was weeping. I asked her why. She said 'you are divorced and no one will want you'," Maryam recalled.
"Imagine this coming from my own mum. I told her you left nothing for strangers."
In addition to internalising cultural and social aspects, Dr Allaban attributed the self-pressure to a natural human instinct.
"The Quran says we have created you male and female. There is a lot of debate about equality, but what we do know is that we complement each other. We cannot survive naturally without the other.
"In the US, for example, 80 per cent prefer to get married despite the 50 per cent divorce rate.
"Even those who do divorce will remarry a few years later - why is that? It is because it is in our human nature that we need to be with someone."
* With additional reporting by Ola Salem