With all the packing and planning that goes into moving abroad, many couples forget to prepare for one of the most important changes of all: the one their marriage goes through. Studies show that moving abroad places numerous stresses on a marriage – stresses that can either make or break the relationship.
The key challenges
Research for the 2008 Global Assignment Policies and Practices (GAPP) survey showed that the main challenges to expatriate couples, especially where the partner follows a spouse abroad, are:
Feelings of isolation from being far removed from friends and family.
A sense of unfamiliarity induced by living in a foreign country, particularly if the culture and language are very different to home.
Changes in lifestyle, which includes larger/smaller accommodation, domestic help and elevated social duties.
Financial dependency on one’s spouse.
Difficulty in finding suitable and/or rewarding employment.
Taking charge of challenges
While meeting these challenges may not be easy, it is possible. By far the most important strategy is also the most simple: communication. Talking to one another openly and frequently is crucial if couples are to have a full understanding of how the relocation is affecting each partner at all times. Expat life coaches suggest scheduling a weekly meeting where one sets an agenda to discuss the ‘business matters’ relating to the move. The key is to be open and honest and adopt a problem-solving mindset.
It is also vital to have realistic expectations and objectives about the move. Know before you go by gathering as much information together so the shock of the transition is less severe. Read detailed expat guides, visit forums and read relevant blogs to give you a sense of how people have met and overcome challenges of an expat life.
Another important tip is to keep in touch with people from home; the familiarity will ease the sense of isolation. Tools such as Skype, blogs and Facebook now make this much easier to achieve, of course.
Another tip, if you are being sent overseas by a corporation, is to ensure your contract includes periodic flights back home.
Connecting with people
A key stress factor is social isolation during the initial phase of a relocation. This often leads to couples putting too much pressure on each other when they have no friends to spend time with or confide in. You can overcome this by joining clubs or the gym, and interacting with people at your spouse's work functions.
As a spouse it is essential to be proactive in this regard, especially if your husband or wife is meeting plenty of new people through the new work environment. For example, if you have children you might become friendly with the parents of their classmates. There are expat forums and groups that you can join to meet other people in your situation. And take a language class – in addition to meeting people in a similar position, you can also get a grip on the local language and start to connect more positively with local people.
Taking roles in the relationship
Another frequently reported cause of stress is when one spouse becomes financially dependent on the other as a result of an expat move. This upsets the dynamics of the marriage and can undermine a partner’s sense of self-worth. This issue is most apparent when moving to countries like Saudi Arabia where female partners do not readily have the option of working for a living. One solution is for each partner in the marriage to take control over different areas of their expat life. While one spouse works the other can be responsible for managing the home, social life and education of the children. The key is to work together as a unit, a partnership meeting and overcoming the challenges together.
The adventure of expat living involves a range of relationship stresses to go along with all the positive experiences. If a couple can work together through the challenges of moving abroad - rather than against each other - and openly communicate their feelings and anxieties to one another, moving abroad can be a fantastic experience to share.
In fact, many expatriates report that moving abroad turned an ordinary marriage into an exceptional partnership that lasted long after the strains of relocation had passed.