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Couples in Motion: Travelling the World as Team

Hello and happy Spring everyone! This month's blog focuses on healthy couples living overseas. A version of it was originally shared with the AAFSW community over the holiday season. We have added content since then, inspired by our peers at the annual FIGT conference. Special thanks to all of you who went, who saw us present, and from whom we learned so much. You are inspiring! Thank you for subscribing and happy reading!

Couples in Motion: Travelling the World as Team

A Great Opportunity

Travelling the world as a expat couple can be an amazing adventure. You have the unique opportunity to share this journey around the world with the person you love, exploring foreign places and creating new experiences together. You have the ability to learn about new cultures, histories, and culinary delicacies that may not have been possible otherwise. You may be able to travel to Paris for a romantic weekend, go shark watching in South Africa, or go snorkeling together in the Great Barrier Reef. These opportunities enable you to potentially grow closer to your partner, as you see what the world has to offer together. However, they can also create a unique set of problems that need to be addressed in order to have a healthy relationship.

A Relationship Under Stress

We are going to start this conversation today with a statement we would like you to think about:

The expat journey begins with an end.

Wait... what did you just say? How does that make any sense? Well, you see, in order to start your life abroad, you have to leave something behind. The couple makes a conscious choice to leave friends and family in their home country in order to embark on a new type of life together. This is the end of a former life, identity, and possible life path. It is a big deal, and starts the change process in the relationship where by the partners begin to think about who they want to be, what they want their relationship to look like, and what their hopes and concerns are for their future.

For some couples, this is an old-hat situation. The couple may be used to moving every few years, so they essentially navigate new beginnings and goodbyes like clock work. It has become their norm, their routine, and the couple may appear to thrive living the nomadic lifestyle. For these couples, each individual shares common strengths. They may both do well under pressure, understand the fine art of preparing for a move, and go through the process in a seemingly easy and fluid manner. Don't worry if you are not these couples though, doing well under pressure does not mean stress free. Moving and cross-cultural adjustment is still a process, and stress is still present because, well, no one is a super human. And the rest, well the rest is teachable.

Specific Problems Couples Face Living Abroad

It is normal for couples to bicker, argue, and face some difficulties in their relationship. We all hold pet names for this process: a roller coaster, our “ups and downs,” something that’s just “the way it is.” Normal couple's problems at home are normal couple's problems overseas. This includes things like communication difficulties, emotional availability, differences in parenting styles, financial problems, coping with extended family, power struggles, religious differences, negotiating blended families, sexual dysfunction or dissatisfaction, etc.

For other expat couples, the relationship may undergo stress for a variety of different reasons, before, during, and long after a move. What we have found is that often times there are a couples of things underlying this problem, including unresolved moving expectations and a large change in relationship dynamics. Primarily, there is often a certain romanticism that is given to expat life. Many of us are pitched this opportunity as if it were a permanent vacation and as if it will solve all of our problems. It doesn't take very long before we figure out that this is simply not true, and we learn that it may not be the cake walk we had expected, hoped for, and planned on.

Expectations can also differ between the partners in the couple. It happens many times that couples will move for one person's career opportunity, with the idea that the other one will find employment upon arrival. However, this is usually very difficult, and may not be the kind of meaningful work that he/she is used to. Studies show that despite being more educated than the regular population, expat trailing partners tend to be either unemployed or working in an unrelated field just to fill time.

Of course, this leads to the next potential problem, a significant change in relationship dynamics. When you became serious with your partner, you hopefully discussed what you wanted out of life, and what your aspirations were together. Often times, giving up a career path is not on that list. So what happens is we get into this situation where one partner ends up busy with work and the other one gets stuck trying to figure out who they are and where they fit into this new life. In other words, there is a lack of role renegotiation. This role change problem often goes unnoticed, or at least unaddressed, making one partner ignore the issue out of frustration, while the other one feels isolated, unheard, and misunderstood. Both partners may experience resentment, anger, sadness, frustration or confusion.

Another potential problem for expat couples is the potential lack of resources available to them overseas. Where do you go to get couple's support? It may feel impossible to share intimate partner concerns with a new friend in country. There is also the obvious concern of privacy within the Foreign Service community. The community is quite small and could even be considered a micro-culture or rural community. Partners or couples can easily feel embarrassed or ashamed to seek support from friends on the ground because then everyone would know, or they do not feel comfortable with the embassy medical office. It also happens frequently that the couple does not get along well with someone from this office, and thus does not want to seek support from them. To make matters more complicated, local professional help can be limited due to language and cultural norms.

One last problem we want to revisit is the "moving will solve everything" idea. Many people believe that relocating will cure relationship problems that existed prior to the move. In other words, it will get better next tour. Let’s be honest, it’s a lot easier, perhaps, to deal with that ‘mother-in-law problem’ when there is a 15 hour plane trip separating the both of you! Besides our belongings, we bring with us our personalities, quirks, likes, and dislikes. These traits and preferences do not change simply because we move to a different location, so often times, previous relationship problems can resurface quickly.

As the stress in your external environment increases (i.e. international move), individual stress responses do too (i.e., increased anxiety, isolation, etc.), which may then trigger relationship stress and perhaps a re-emergence of ‘old’ patterns in the partnership (i.e. miscommunication, emotional withdrawal, etc.). So though the idea of a fresh start in a new place may be alluring though it may likely be untrue.

Building a Healthy Relationship Overseas

The foundation of any relationship is to ensure that we take care of ourselves and understand what we need. Sometimes, that may not seem easy given most of us have a very busy life. However, if we do not have our own needs met, we are unable to meet the needs of our partners. Think of it like an emotional gas tank. If your is not full, you cannot get to anyone else to help. And the more full you keep your tank, the more ability you have to share with others and the less stressed you will feel. So, prioritize your self-care time; go to the gym, take that bath, get enough sleep, or do whatever it is you need to support yourself and maximize your ability to support your partner.

Beyond self-care, the key to fostering a healthy relationship overseas is in the ability to openly communicate with each other. This does not mean that you only say positive things or listen constantly, but rather that you are able to say what you need to, feel heard by your partner, and to repay this favor in return. Name-calling, explosive hostility, and other toxic methods of communicating will not only wear-down the relationship, but build lasting resentment, sadness, and anger between partners. Similarly, withdrawal, emotional isolation, and shutting down can foster great distance and a vacuum within the relationship. This may lead to patterns of misunderstanding and feeling insecure, and perhaps a sense of extreme loneliness within the partnership.

One method of good, open communication is to use the “I feel ________ when you _________ because______” statements. An example of this would be to say “I feel upset when you come home angry from work because I’ve felt lonely most of the day, ” or, “I feel hurt when you say the move is all my fault because I thought we wanted to try something new together.” Another example would be “I feel supported when you do the dishes every other night because splitting the chores is important to me.”

Part of forging a positive relationship can be understanding where the power lies within the partnership. In many expat couples, the power dynamic can become offset given a role change in the partnership. Other sources of change in the power dynamic may be a new baby, the onset of a disability, changes in financial situation, job status, etc. Good communication fosters meaningful conversations so couples can express their thoughts and feelings regarding any perceived power-shifts in the relationship. Partners need to work to find a new equilibrium that both people are happy with which empowers each person and the couple to move forward in a healthy manner.

The pressure to be a “perfect couple” may seem common in the Foreign Service community for reasons already discussed (the small community, etc). The good news is that the literature suggests that perfection is not necessary for happiness or relationship longevity, nor is it attainable. John and Julie Gottman, prominent researchers in couples therapy, have demonstrated that for couples to remain together a specific ratio of 5 positive to 1 negative (5:1) interactions needs to exist. This means that for every 5 happy or neutral conversations or exchanges, 1 not so happy exchange can occur without significantly impacting the couple's relationship.

It is also important to note that building a healthy relationship overseas may seem easy at some points in time and feel overwhelming at others. Identifying your own needs to feel secure and taking care of yourself, communicating effectively with one another, examining the power structure in the relationship and empowering one another, and increasing positive interactions with one another is a good start to building a healthy relationship while overseas. It takes continuous effort and courage to examine oneself and the relationship in order to foster a fulfilling and meaningful partnership while living abroad.

A Collaborative Plan of Action

By this point, you may be a pro at developing a plan of action for an international move, or transitioning into a new country. Use your expat strength to your advantage! Create a collaborative plan of action solely focusing on your relationship. Sit down with your partner and develop a plan for your relationship during a re-location or integration into a new culture, which promotes love, respect, and security.

  • Generate a list of individual and relationship needs, understand each other’s perspective on the move and what stresses in the relationship may occur as a result.

  • Develop a plan to support one another’s needs even when a particular need may not seem like such a ‘big deal’ to you.

  • Make your relationship a priority by integrating positive shared experiences together in what may otherwise seem like a stressful situation. For example, research ahead of time on babysitters or pre-select a restaurant to try or activity to do in your new city that you can do in the first 7 days that you arrive.

  • Consistently check-in with one another regarding their thoughts and feelings living abroad, and determine if individual needs have shifted unexpectedly. If they have changed, work to understand what may help the partner and the relationship.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate! Use healthy communication to understand each other’s feelings.

  • Finally, have some fun together! It’s important to laugh, and enjoy one another’s company no matter how crazy or different your new life abroad may seem.

Overall, living abroad as a couple is a team effort that requires mindful planning and collaboration. It is full of excitement and challenges, but also has a unique set of rewards and opportunities that can foster a lifetime of memories. Our hope is that you can find joy in your experience, and create new meaning that will move with you as a couple. Happy Spring!

Highest regards,

Drs. Sanness & Nelson

Therapy Solutions Abroad, LLC

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