Dating in Dubai: How childhood experiences impact perception of love and relationships

UAE-based psychologist and content creator Sadia Khan on healthy attachment styles and how to bring your authentic self into a relationship

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Somya Mehta

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Photo: Rahul Gajjar/Khaleej Times
Photo: Rahul Gajjar/Khaleej Times

Published: Thu 14 Dec 2023, 7:09 PM

Last updated: Thu 14 Dec 2023, 11:38 PM

Modern dating can be a tough nut to crack. With so much information floating around the web and social media about childhood trauma, green flags, red flags, toxicity, attachment styles, set amid the backdrop of hyper-consumerist, hypersexualised societies, one can easily get jaded when setting out to find an ‘ideal’ partner for themselves. More so in a country like the UAE, where conservatism meets modernity, creating a unique blend of culture, spread across various expat and local communities.

Amidst the surge in online dating, Sadia Khan, a dedicated relationship coach and psychologist based in the UAE, is harnessing the power of social media and her online presence to assist individuals and couples in navigating the intricacies of their relationships. In a conversation with Khaleej Times, the relationship coach talks about the challenges of dating in this part of the world and how to bring your authentic self into a relationship. Edited excerpts from an interview.

Q: You’ve evolved into an ‘online’ expert in modern dating, with your reels and podcasts garnering hundreds and thousands of views. What prompted you to delve into creating online content, and what are the advantages and disadvantages compared to offering professional in-person counselling/therapy?

Sadia Khan: I believe my motivation stemmed from observing people seeking relationship advice, often from sources lacking a psychological background. Many were turning to trendy podcasts or advice from younger individuals, or ‘dank memes’ which are often very toxic in its messaging. Recommendations such as playing hard to get, avoiding replies, blocking/ghosting contacts, and engaging in multiple conversations on platforms like Tinder simultaneously, could lead to repeated emotional trauma and pose serious challenges for future generations.

This fuelled my mission to bring a psychological perspective to the forefront, unravelling the implications of seemingly harmless and unsolicited advice floating around on social media. Playing the field and dating multiple people simultaneously might seem acceptable, but what does it lead to in the grand scheme of things? My goal has been to add a psychological spin to dispel advice given by non-psychologists and contribute to the creation of healthier relationships.

Q: According to you, what's the biggest hurdle to finding love in today's day and age?

SK: People who look at relationships quite frivolously, with a preference for short-term relationships without commitment or effort, are the people who are enjoying this new hookup culture we've created. People who are struggling the most are individuals with good intentions. They struggle to connect because they have been traumatised by the majority of the people in their past, who tend to keep their options open, play hard to get, or date multiple people simultaneously. Unfortunately, what's happening is we’re getting bombarded with consumerism and flooded with alternatives, making it difficult for those who genuinely desire a simple, meaningful connection, to find each other.

Q: As a society, are we seeing a surge in people experiencing commitment issues?

SK: Definitely and the reason I believe this is happens is that in today’s day and age, when you do find someone, you are overly conscious of alternatives. You’re too aware that you could meet someone else. There’s also a fear of monogamy, which probably stems from the Internet, where the idea of there being so many people in the world is perpetuated. While not entirely accurate, platforms like Instagram, Tinder, or Facebook expose us to a seemingly endless pool of around seven billion people.

The concept of committing to one person for life, who may be flawed or have issues, becomes daunting when there's a perceived abundance of alternatives. In contrast, in our parents' generation, we were limited to the people around us, so the idea was more about choosing from the available options.

Monogamy, despite being a beautiful experience, is now being perceived as scary and difficult and commitment is becoming a daunting prospect, particularly in the context of the ‘You Only Live Once’ (YOLO) lifestyle. Unfortunately, these factors contribute to a fear of commitment.

Q: How does one figure out how to choose the ‘right’ partner?

SK: You must know what your values are. What I mean by that is know who you're jealous of. Some women are jealous of the most beautiful girl in the room, some get jealous of the most intelligent person in the room. If you're just somebody who gets jealous of someone with a designer bag, you can easily find a wealthy man and you'll be fine. I'm not disputing anything. If that's what you value most in life, make that your pursuit. But if you don't know what your values are, you will be all over the place.

The other thing I ask my clients is when do they like themselves the most? For instance, I'm somebody who's very family-oriented, I'm happy to be home with my husband. That's not a problem. But when I'm not working and I'm not stimulated, I tend to become more negative. I don't like the person I am when I'm not using my brain a lot. So, figure out when you like yourself the most because that's probably what lights you up in life and that's probably what your values are.

Q: Does knowing yourself well also make you a better partner?

SK: When you don’t know what your values are, you’re not going to like yourself very much. And when you don't like yourself, it's easy to hate your partner. Our interactions are a projection of how we feel about ourselves. So the more you can know and like yourself, the more you can fulfil your potential as a partner, the more you can live a life that's in line with your values and the more love you will have, to give to people.

Q: What role does your childhood play in the kind of partner you grow up to become?

SK: It depends on your upbringing—good or bad. If you didn't like yourself growing up, you might find it suspicious when people attach to you. It could be due to feeling unattractive or thinking your parents didn't love you. Childhood experiences can completely skew our perception of love. If you received little love and affection, you might be suspicious when someone shows it, thinking it's not true. Those who didn't receive much love may work harder for someone who doesn't show affection, as it's what they're used to.

When working with clients, I often ask if their parents are together and if they have maintained a connection, which usually brings up strong emotions tied to their childhood. Unfortunately, we tend to attach not to the person we love the most, but to someone that feels like the people we wanted to love as a child — whether it was an abusive or loving parent. We seek familiar feelings, repeating patterns from our past in our adult relationships.

Q: What are attachment styles and what is a healthy attachment style?

SK: Attachment styles stem from early childhood experiences, shaping future relationships. A loving upbringing fosters commitment, the emotional quotient of resolving conflicts, and stable relationships. For those with inconsistent or neglectful parents, attachment styles can vary. The clingy attachment style becomes obsessed, anxious, and struggles with independence from their partner. They experience intense emotions and are always fixated on thinking about their partners.

The avoidant attachment style seeks hyper-independence, avoiding any form of emotional openness. They run away from any form of consistency as they see that as a way of being controlled. In both these attachment styles, communication becomes challenging due to embedded trauma and conflict in the relationship.

Effective communication is very important to transform the relationship dynamics in these cases, for it to survive. Ideally, a secure attachment is something we should seek out. A securely attached partner can make an insecure person very calm because of their communication. They can also make the avoidant feel calm because they’d be happy to give them space.

Q: How is dating in Dubai different from other countries around the world?

SK: Childhood in Dubai is very different. Growing up here can involve a unique type of trauma — disconnected parenting. While this may sound like a first-world problem, the trauma stems from parents neglecting their kids to the point that all of their children’s responsibilities are delegated to their house help, whether it’s cooking for them, shopping, driving them to school. Consequently, children may exhibit avoidant or anxious tendencies due to limited contact with their parents.

Similarly, when it comes to forming marriages, the main problem I find in UAE couples is that even though their lives are fantastic and most men can provide their wives with a nanny, driver, chef etc., at the end of the day, men still like being looked after by their women. So, what happens when the woman forgets to do anything at all for their husband? The husband starts to lose respect for his wife because he doesn’t see an active effort and can very well imagine a life without her. On the flip side, women here may feel neglected as men prioritise prolonged hours of work over connection. So, divorce tends to be more common, particularly amongst expats.

Q: What are some other challenges of finding love in the city?

SK: Another aspect that's unique about Dubai is many people come here without their families, and family plays a crucial role in partner selection. The duration and strength of relationships often hinge on upbringing, with shared norms and values increasing the chances of survival. However, Dubai's diverse population brings together individuals with vastly different cultural backgrounds, making shared values less common.

Relying on superficial aspects such as looks or wealth when forming a relationship creates a fragile foundation for connection. Your wealth can go down and looks can fade. Solely based on these aspects, the glue in the relationship would be very weak, it’s a temporary fix.

Q: Lastly, what's your top dating advice for Gen-Z?

SK: There will always be numerous alternatives available, when you’re searching for a partner. With emerging tech and AI, men will soon have robot girlfriends. However, I assure you that relying on these alternatives will leave you in a profoundly lonely state. Your life's success won't be determined solely by wealth or possessions on your deathbed. So, consider the wiser choice of committing to one person and giving them your all. By thinly attaching yourself to various options, you risk ending up even lonelier. Engaging in transient dating patterns, being in and out of relationships, is likely to lead you down a lonely and empty path.

somya@khaleejtimes.com


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