Dealing With a Failing Relationship as an Expat
Expatriates Beware – Your Relationship is Vulnerable!
Moving house and a change of work environment are considered major live events. Are you coping with extreme stress which has a negative influence on your relationship? Or are you burdened by a stressful home situation caused by family members (partners and/or children) who deal with the difficulty of fitting into their new environment?
Sue & Bart – Identity Crisis
Bart got his longed-for assignment to Singapore, both he and Sue were excited. I get to have a domestic helper and am done with chores! Finally, I can have some time for myself when the kids are at school!, was Sue’s thinking. Bart was already planning ahead for the change management task he was hired to do.
The move went smooth, yet after 4 months Sue felt restless. The children were in pre-school, the helper was taking care of the house, yet Sue felt lonely. She missed her family. She did not feel like she belonged, in the Singapore expat circle. To not think about it too much and to avoid feeling her despair, she started to drink wine. A lot. Things started to spiral out of control, Bart was at a loss.
Relationship at Risk
Often, family issues have been blamed as a leading cause of failed expat assignments. In my work with couples, I noticed that romantic relationships between partners are often taken for granted. Yet with expatriate couples, their relationship requires even more attention and maintenance, compared to regular relationships. External factors such as reduced social support, cultural dislocation, family disruption and so on, have an impact on the emotional stability of each partner and thus their relationship. If one person is not happy, it has an unavoidable impact on the environment, including relationships.
The working spouse is often preoccupied with work and perhaps travel that can come with an international job assignment. Traditionally, the accompanying spouse, also known as trailing spouse, deals with the domestic challenges and juggles all kinds of different support- balls up in the air. Without the familiar routine of work, and living far from home, it is often the employee’s spouse and children who feel at a loss. Their identity is shaken. Nowadays, more effort is put into facilitating the continuation of the supporting spouse’s career as well. Still, there’s quite a ways to go in finding a healthy balance as children also require more emotional and practical support, in many expat families.
In my experience as an expat couples therapist, I think that this particular population is more prone to relationship challenges. The average expat is high-performing and often focuses on work and not so much on their relationship until the signs can no longer be ignored. That doesn’t help with feeling connected in a situation where that exact feeling is fundamental for a successful and happy time abroad.
Tips For Expats to Improve a Failing Relationship
Learn how to ‘make’ an expat relationship. Expat relationships are a different cup of tea, more and focused attention is needed with a higher frequency. Living as an international requires an open mindset and a higher resilience factor. Work on your identity and learn to become confident with who you are, wherever you are.
Get professional support, sooner rather than later. Despite the risk, I find that expats are often reluctant to seek the help of a psychotherapist. There are stigmas, and these are higher within the expat community. Find someone who guarantees, discretion, (expat) experience and professionalism. Even if there is no crisis yet, schedule maintenance sessions with a couples therapist.
Spend meaningful time together. Expatriate relationships are vulnerable, be aware of this and schedule regular and meaningful time for each other. Scheduling time for each other is my urgent advice for anybody who wants to take control of not feeling connected to 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 burns out. I find that mindfulness is a great way to quiet your mind and reconnect with yourself. Once you feel balanced yourself, it is easier to connect from there with your partner.
Discuss and manage expectations. Sometimes things can turn out completely different than expected when living abroad. Talk about expectations, wishes and concerns with your partner, keep your communication channels open. Check in with one another to see if you can handle the unexpected, as a team.
Have fun together! Release those endorphins and find your humorous side by scheduling time, to get out of your head and into your life. Find your mutual hobbies or create playfulness in your relationship. Research shows that some light-heartedness does wonders for relationships when the usual focus is on what could be better.
Everyone can benefit from these relationship tips, but some people need more intensive and personalized support. As an expat psychologist and couples therapist, I intimately understand the high stakes of an international assignment and am familiar with the potential sources of stress facing an expatriate moving beyond his or her borders.