For any man available in the Pakistani marriage market, a well-paying job in a foreign country is usually the equivalent of a gold star. With rising inflation and an often unbearable cost of living a stable life, women are married off to men raking in foreign currency by their families without much consideration for anything else, especially emotions and mental health. Financial stability reigns supreme. However, the trials and tribulations of long-distance relationships (LDRs) are a heavy burden, often tipping the scales towards emotional distress and an incomplete, unsatisfying life. While, on the surface level, the perks of a foreign salary seemingly obliterate any chance of unhappiness, the reality in most cases is far from luxurious and pierced by loneliness.
For women married to men with foreign commitments that often keep them away for months, if not years, at a time, the issue goes beyond just yearning. With the responsibility of caring for children, and often the in-laws, LDRs impact their independence. In many cases, women are not even aware of the fact that they are signing up for an LDR, and if they are, they do not fully understand the ramifications of it. With the promise of a visa on the horizon, newly-wed couples spend a few days together before the husband jets back to his job in another country, all the while the wife waits, suspended in a state of limbo, waiting perpetually for a honeymoon phase that never was.
Maham*, who married her husband in 2018, continues to wait for the visa process to come to fruition. “You get married and begin the most important relationship of your life, and then the man you married leaves in a few days and there is nothing you can do to end the perpetual suffering.” She continues, highlighting the lack of certainty involved in such situations, “You can’t really work, because it wouldn’t make sense to just suddenly quit midway if the visa comes through. You can’t even pursue a degree until you are finally settled in one place with your husband. All you truly do is wait. You hang out at your mother’s home or with your in-laws, while everyone else just moves on with their lives.”
For Saira, the difficulties of living with in-laws make an already exhausting situation much worse. Married to a seafarer for ten years now, she highlights the pitfalls of living with extended family while in an LDR. “When you live independently with your husband and kids, you have a life of your own. But, when you live with your in-laws, you do nothing other than care for the needs of others and just stay in the kitchen. The only roles I played while I lived in a joint family were of a mother and daughter-in-law. After we separated from my in-laws, even though my husband is still away for long periods of time, my career and social life have really flourished.”
On how most women do not grasp the gravity of the situation when settling for an LDR, Saira added, “I don’t think women are aware of what they’re getting into. In fact, I don’t think her parents are even aware of what’s exactly going on, or maybe they don’t care to put in the effort to find out. I was the first woman in my family to marry a seafarer and to get into an LDR. My parents never prepared me for this life, since, for whatever reason, such matters aren’t deemed necessary.”
The fact that the emotional effects of an LDR are often left unacknowledged or outright brushed off does not make things easier for the women waiting at home. She explained, “When it comes to the emotional toll LDRs take on you, the fact that people refuse to acknowledge the stress you’re under and the sadness you are feeling really makes things worse. Your in-laws think of it as something you have to do because that’s how they lived in the past. It’s a cycle.”
However, when it comes to breaking cycles, Sana, an LDR veteran now settled in the UAE with her husband, shared that she was determined to avoid marrying a man living in another country. “I actually specified that I don’t want to get married to someone who lives abroad. My father had lived away from us for a brief period of time, so I was aware of how difficult it was for us and our mother,” she explained.
Sana encountered visa issues while travelling to Pakistan from the UAE, where the couple resided due to the better standard of care provided to their special needs son. Forced into an LDR by circumstance, she elaborated on the uncomfortable experience of living without her husband in a joint family. “You’re incredibly independent, but at the same time not independent at all. We decided it would be best for my kids and me to live with our family due to all the support they offered with our son,” she explained, adding, “It’s very strange. Everyone sort of owns you in a very sweet and supportive way. It’s suffocating. You have to ask for permission because even though you’re an adult with kids of your own, if you live with your parents, you’re still their child. When you live with just your husband, he’s the only one you have to ask for permission from or keep in the loop.”
A third party in the relationship, often most deeply affected, are the children. “A couple’s LDR is never good for their children,” asserted Sana. She added, elaborating on the impact the distance has had on her son, “I don’t know if you’d call it abandonment issues, but my six year old became so clingy with his father now that we all live together. When we were in the LDR, he was two and didn’t know how to express himself. Now that he’s older and he can say what he’s feeling, he doesn’t want to leave his dad for a second.”
Highlighting the lack of a healthy relationship between her husband and their children due to the distance, Saira said, “We can’t go out whenever we want or go get ice cream for fun randomly like a normal family, so these are experiences that the kids realise they are missing out on. There’s also the lack of a friendship in the relationship my children have with their father, due to the long periods he is away.”
On the impact of an LDR on emotional intimacy between the couple, Fatima, who lives in Karachi to care for her ageing in-laws, shared, “Over time, the distance between the two spouses grows not only physically, but also emotionally. At first, you send thousands of texts saying, ‘I love you,’ and telling them how much you miss them, sending pictures of your children, but with each passing day, you grow a little bit more unavailable. You only mention the most important things, forgetting to say, ‘I love you,’ unless you are reminded of a birthday or anniversary.”
For some couples, intimacy is avoided as an act of survival. Sharing her strategy to avoid heartache, Saira explains, “My husband and I try not to get used to each other since that just makes the separation all the more difficult. No cute pictures or romantic comments. We know we’ll end up missing each other too much.”
While some women find beauty in the yearning, others turn to faith as a balm to their bruises. In any case, the loneliness remains uniform and the gap in communication palpable as women bide their time, trapped in a perpetual state of waiting for hellos, as well as goodbyes.
Additional reporting by Rajaa Moini
*Names have been changed to protect identities
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