The other day I asked for some last-minute help with information about relationships to go into the Survival Guide. I thought I had actually finished the book, I’d read it and re-read it, had it edited and even sent it to the proof-reader for a final going over. I’m still hoping to meet my self-set deadline of April for publication. But out of the blue, whilst out running (which is when most of my revelations come to me) I realised it wasn’t done. I needed more on how couples cope when they move abroad together.
I hadn’t totally ignored this important aspect of expat life. Or at least of expat life for those of you going as a couple or a family. When I talk about relationships in this context, I am really talking about the relationship with your partner – although I do touch on the family dynamic as another feature of life that shifts when you take on an overseas move. The interaction between you and your partner is interwoven right through the book, including making sure it IS a partnership right from the start (eg it should be a joint decision that you go), what happens if you are so bored you want to leave, and how important it is to talk to your partner if you think you are descending into depression.
But there still felt like there was a gap. I think the affect an overseas move has on your relationship with your partner is something that doesn’t get discussed enough. Just like a post I did about depression and the expat, this is a topic that can get a bit swept under the carpet. Why? Perhaps because it’s hard to admit that the exciting new life we’re all leading or planning to lead isn’t all sweetness and light. Or maybe because it’s hard to know who to talk to about it. Or perhaps we don’t even want to admit there is a problem to ourselves.
Of course, relationship problems can happen anywhere, to anyone – you don’t have to move half way around the world to start arguing with your husband. But just like with depression, there are things that happen when you do take the leap into expat life that are more likely to put pressure on your partnership. Not least your own loss of identity (if you are the non-working partner), the possible drop in income of only having one wage, the lack of a support network, the new need to be overly-reliant on your partner and just the day-to-day pressures (finding the shops, security fears, worrying about the children etc) that come with moving to another country.
Luckily the very interesting responses to my survey showed me that it wasn’t by any means all bad news. In fact if anything there was a lot more positive responses than negative – and the clearest message that came out in the answers was that an expat move was likely to make your relationship stronger rather than push you apart. Sharing new experiences, spending more time together as a family, having to turn to each other because there is no-one else – many people told me these brought them closer and made their relationship a more robust one than the opposite. To directly quote one of my respondents: “All the moving around definitely brought us closer together. Even if there were occasional problems, by solving them we grew stronger. He’s my best friend now”. Another one even told me the move had saved her marriage – a planned split was put on hold when they found out he was being posted abroad and now they are not only still together but a lot happier than they had been.
But we can’t ignore the fact that whilst these positive stories are in the majority (or at least they were among those who responded to my request for your experiences), there are still others whose relationship does break down thanks to the particular pressures of moving and living in another place. I have seen first hand a number of couples split up for various reasons. Some I suspect wouldn’t have lasted wherever in the world they lived. But others were caused by bored partners whose spouses worked long hours in the office, affairs made easier due to the particular culture they were living in, the disparity between the two completely different lives being led or just simply an escalation in otherwise endurable problems caused by the massive changes.
So what happens in these circumstances? It’s always sad when a relationship breaks down, but being overseas can cause more complications than normal. What happens if one wants to return but the other doesn’t? Or if the working half of the partnership is tied into a contract which means they have to stay? What about if there are children involved? What are the legal considerations if you are not in your home jurisdiction? What about if one of the couple is from the country where you are living, but the other isn’t?
These are all issues that you might need to think through BEFORE you move, rather than when things start to go wrong. And if you think your relationship could be severely tested by the move, consider counselling either before you go or look for online help (Relate in the UK offers telephone, email and ‘live chat’ counselling) that you can carry on with from your new home. I know it’s not a pleasant thing to have to plan for, but knowing what I do about the affect an overseas move can have on a couple I still think it’s worth at least considering what you would do if you and your partner did split up. There is so much more I could say about this subject (and there’s now a whole chapter on it in the Survival Guide) but I don’t want to labour the point. Subjects like this are difficult to talk about and sometimes we just need to open it up as a discussion point just to make people aware of the issues. Hopefully this is not something you will ever need to worry about. But if you think it might be, or if you know it already is,do you know what you would do? It’s better to be prepared for something that may never happen than find yourself floundering when it’s too late.
How has moving abroad affected the relationship with your partner? What advice would you give to others, especially those that might be having problems?