A Great Opportunity
Travelling the world as a couple in Foreign Service 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. It is a shared experience, though you both may have slightly different points of view. 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.
A Relationship Under Stress
Each person in the partnership makes a conscious choice to leave friends and family behind to embark on a new type of life together. However, each individual may have different hopes and challenges as they face the stress of life abroad. It would be misleading to not talk about this other side of Foreign Service life for couples. It is true that there are many appealing advantages to living overseas, but entirely romanticizing the experience paints an inaccurate picture of expat life.
Uprooting will certainly put a relationship under some level of stress. For some couples, this is an old-hat situation. The couple may be used to moving every few years. 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. It could be argued that even for these couples, stress is still present no matter how normal the process may seem to them.
For other couples, the relationship dynamic may feel stressful for a variety of different reasons. This pressured feeling will likely occur when the individuals within the couple have different expectations for overseas life in general, or when one partner experiences difficulties and holds concerns that the other partner may not.
Moreover, the partner who appears to be doing “better” may inadvertently not acknowledge their partner’s struggles nor encourage their partner to discuss their worries. The unawareness may even put a large gaff in the relationship. As a result, the relationship may become strained. The individuals in the partnership may feel isolated or unheard, or perhaps may want to hide their true feelings knowing the other partner feels the direct opposite.
Many people believe that relocating will cure relationship problems that existed prior to the move. 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.
Perhaps it is helpful to consider this in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When moving overseas, the focus for the couple is quite literally shelter, food, personal safety, and just learning how to navigate a new culture and society. The relationship can fall by the wayside if it is not prioritized from the beginning.
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 rollercoaster, our “ups and downs,” something that’s’ just “the way it is.”
Normal “couples” problems at home are normal “couples” problems overseas. Problems include 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.
A problem for expat couples is the potential lack of resources. Where do you go to get couples support? It may be close to impossible to share intimate partner concerns with a new friend in country. There is the obvious concern of privacy within the Foreign Service community. The community is quite small and even could 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. So feelings of loneliness or isolation can be common. Professional help can certainly be limited due to local language and customs, and support through the embassy may be available on a limited scale. Seeking support from trusted family and friends at home, reaching out to clergy, or identifying professional support can be a source of relief and lessen feelings of shame of isolation.
Role-re-negotiation is another problem expat couples may face. Foreign service or expat couples typically include a working and non-working partner at least at the beginning. The working partner is employed by the government, while the non-working partner has likely put her or his career on hold.
How did the couple come to this decision? If each partner held an equal role in negotiating this decision, the transition may still be difficult for the non-working partner but each person in the partnership shares 50% of the responsibility. The power in the relationship may seem equal. However, if the non-working partner has conflicted feelings about her/his new role or if it felt more like a rushed or forced decision, the power in the relationship may seem off-kilter. Partners may experience resentment, anger, sadness, frustration or confusion. Communicating honestly with one another, attempting to see the issue from your partner’s perspective, and working on a plan to reinstate power to the partner who feels disempowered is essential to cope with this transition.
Building a Healthy Relationship Overseas
The foundation of any relationship is to ensure that you take care of yourself and understand what you need. Sometimes, that may not seem easy given a very busy life. If we do not have our own personal needs met, we are unable to meet the needs of our partners. As the individual in a partnership identifies their needs, takes responsibility for those needs and takes care of her/his self, there is more room to care for and support the one you love. Especially when we are living abroad, the ability to meet our needs and help our partners is key because our relationship can be a determining factor for how well we adjust to our host countries.
The key to fostering a mutually supportive relationship 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 loved when you do the dishes every other night because I sometimes just feel unnoticed.”
Part of forging a positive relationship is understanding where the power lies within the partnership. As mentioned earlier, 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.
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, nor 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 couples’ relationship.
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.
Living abroad as a couple is a team effort! It is full of excitement and challenge but can be a uniquely rewarding experience.
Drs. Sanness & Nelson
Therapy Solutions Abroad, LLC
An EFM-owned Business
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