How to Keep Your Expat Relationship Strong
Is relocation stress affecting your relationship? Expat psychologist and couples therapist Jeanine Souren understands the high stakes for couples on international assignment. Here she shares some tips for protecting your relationship, especially during more vulnerable times.
Meet Sue and Bart
Bart got his longed-for assignment to Singapore, and both he and Sue were excited about the move. Sue especially looked forward to having a domestic helper. “Finally, I can have some time for myself when the kids are at school!” was her thinking.
The move went smoothly enough, yet after four months Sue felt a deep and confusing restlessness. The children were in pre-school, the helper was taking care of the house, and she was lonely. She missed her family. She struggled to fit in with the Singapore expat circle and to meet local friends. As an escape, and to avoid her despair, she started to drink more than usual. Things started to spiral out of control. Both she and Bart felt out of their depth, and unsure at this stage how to repair and reconnect.
This is their story, of course, and disconnection in relationships can be manifested in many other ways too.
Expat relationships at risk
Expatriate couples face the normal challenges of a committed partnership as well as challenges unique to their nomadic lifestyle. External factors like reduced social support, cultural dislocation and family disruption (to name but a few) can have an impact on the emotional stability of each partner and therefore the relationship. A strong expat relationship requires a lot of attention and maintenance, not to mention an alertness to warning signs that suggest the relationship is struggling.
It’s easy to let things slide in our relationship as we deal with the challenges and adjustments that come with an international move. Expat couples can therefore be very prone to relationship challenges. The average expat is also high-performing, tending to focus on work and less on their relationship, until the signs can no longer be ignored.
In situations like Bart and Sue’s, the working spouse is often preoccupied with work (and perhaps the travel that can come with an international work assignment), while the accompanying spouse (or “trailing spouse”) traditionally deals with the domestic side of things and is often responsible for providing emotional support to everyone in the family. Without the familiar routine of work, and living far from home, it is often the accompanying spouse (and children) who feel at a loss. Their identity is shaken. These days, there is greater awareness about the importance of supporting the accompanying spouse’s career, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
“Build relationships; without connection, human beings wither away”
Tips for expats to strengthen a failing relationship:
- Work on your identity and learn to become confident with who you are, wherever you are. Living as an international requires high levels of resilience, and this starts with deeply caring for yourself.
- Learn how to ‘make’ an expat relationship. Expat relationships are a different cup of tea – more attention is needed, and more often. Set up habits and structures that support this new way of being in a relationship.
- Get professional support. Find someone who guarantees discretion, (expat) experience and professionalism. Even if there is no crisis yet, schedule maintenance sessions with a couples therapist.
- Spend time together. Scheduling regular and meaningful time for each other is critical for anybody who wants to take action and reconnect with their romantic partner.
- Deal with stress. Higher risk of stress symptoms comes with demanding lifestyles and jobs. Learn to manage stress before you or your relationship burn out. Mindfulness is a great way to quiet your mind and reconnect with yourself. Once you feel balanced, it is also easier to connect with your partner.
- Discuss and manage expectations. Sometimes things turn out completely different than expected when living abroad. Talk about expectations, wishes and concerns with your partner; keep your communication channel open. Check in with one another regularly to see if you can handle the unexpected as a team.
- Have fun together! Release those endorphins and explore your lighter side by scheduling time to get out of your head and into your life. Find mutual hobbies or create playfulness in your relationship. Research shows that some light-heartedness does wonders for relationships compared to the usual focus on what could be better.
These relationship tips are an excellent start, and everyone can benefit from them. We encourage you to play an active part in reigniting your relationship. It may not feel like it, but even the smallest step can start to turn things around. If the problems feel overwhelming, do reach out for more intensive and personalized support. We are here for you.
About the author: Jeanine Souren is an expat psychologist and couples therapist who offers intensive couples programmes in English. She intimately understands the high stakes of an international assignment and is familiar with the potential sources of stress facing an expatriate moving beyond his or her borders. If you need support with your relationship, contact her via www.timeforeachother.com.