Meet intercultural specialist Sundae Schneider-Bean and read her blogs on culture, the differences between us and how to make your cultural differences work for you in your life as an expatriate.
15 March 2015| Last updated on 27 December 2017
Many expat spouses have cringed when hearing these items slip from her loved one´s lips. Beyond avoiding a relationship debacle, following the suggestions in this article can actually help create connection and understanding. And can I share a little secret? For many spouses, when your partner takes a sincere interest in understanding you, it´s a bit like foreplay. (Fun little side effect).
If you are the accompanying partner, you may passionately agree that these things need to stop. But, I´m not going to let you off the hook that fast. If I am asking the one on assignment to make a stretch, be ready get your legwarmers on because you may just get a workout yourself. (1)
Blood Boiler Nr.1
Uttering the words, “You should be grateful that you don´t have to go to work all day."
This is otherwise interpreted as “You don´t work.” Tell that to this woman:
I'm not working. I do 12 school runs per day, shop, cook, clean, take my son to football, bring the kids to haircuts, supervise homework, etc. etc.
By emphasizing the gratitude that your partner “should” feel, you may be adding salt to a wound you can´t see. A significant number of expat spouses who choose to give up their careers to join their partner on an assignment abroad are later hit with a paralyzing sense of loss.
This sense of mourning is connected to a loss identity and privileges that come with something easily recognized across industries – regular employment.
While these feelings of loss are real, there is danger of misplaced resentment. Resentment is relationship poison. Both parties can do their part.
If you are the partner on assignment, try something like this:
I thought you´d be happy with how we´ve divided our responsibilities. What´s bothering you?
And then listen. (Don´t start doing Blood Boiler Nr. 3).
When you think your partner should be “grateful” that she doesn´t have to go to work all day, I have a feeling that this may be a projection of your desire NOT to have to go to work all day. So why not share that with your partner?
Try something like this:
Hey Sexy Mama, I know it isn´t all coffee hours and Thai massages for you while I am at work. But it´s hard when I don´t see the kids while they´re awake. It is also hard when I come home after a crazy day only to face a frazzled wife and the requests of eager children. I hate that I can´t be at all of the kids´ school events. That part of the connection and flexibility you have, I really envy.
This does three things. First, it offers what most women would love from their partners – a window into your inner life. It also helps raise appreciation of her situation without being paternalistic. Finally, it helps her extend more empathy and understanding toward you.
Ooh, things are getting warmer in here already.
Blood Boiler Nr.2
Asking “What did you do all day?”
This is the second-cousin to Blood Boiler Nr. 1. While potentially innocent, it can be heard as:
So what the hell did you do today, anyway?
Instead, try “How was your day?” or “Tell me about your day.” This small but important difference helps create a space where the one “at home” can let you in on the daily challenges and joys. If open questions aren´t your thing, then you can always try irony, “What did you do all day, sit around and eat bonbons?”
One accompanying spouse shared a common “secret fear” among fellow expat partners is that they are not doing enough. If you are carrying the invisible burden which reads “I need to earn my keep,” please stop. It´s not true - you need to actively contribute to the family.
SEE ALSO: Find out more about Intercultural Specialist Sundae Schneider-Bean here
When your partner is in a position of power (like head of an NGO, or director in an international company), you may be making matters worse by stewing on the stark differences between what your partner is accomplishing (meeting national ministers, launching regional strategies) and the deceivingly mundane appearance of your tasks.
This is where “comparison-itis” has got to stop.
Instead, get real about what you as the accompanying spouse are accomplishing within your specific context. In reality something like getting the Wi-Fi installed ends up turning into a six-month tragicomedy.
Comparing your challenges with your partners or what you can get done “back home” is an exercise in futility. It also brings up resentment. Instead, notice and celebrate your accomplishments.
If you have settled in and still feel unfulfilled, it may be time to get clear on what you can do to invite more of what you want into your life. Becoming a Trailblazing Spouse® may help you along.
Blood Boiler Nr.3
If you´re the one on assignment, you may be tempted to feel responsible for the happiness of those that joined you. That weight of responsibility can get heavy. The truth is you cannot protect your partner or children from frustrations that are inherently bound to crossing cultural boundaries.
Besides the obvious complexity, there is often a duality in a cross-cultural move. This expat spouse highlights it:
When I talk about the things I miss about “home,” he takes it as a personal criticism! I get it, he feels responsible for my being here since I am a "trailer." For some reason it seems impossible for others to accept that I could both miss things about my country AND still love living here.
Hearing women chime in about living in this liminal space brought back memories of me in Switzerland, speaking what my husband and I call "dolphin language." (Cue high-pitched unintelligible talk while sobbing.) I´d stare at my partner and squeak out in a snotty mess, "No, really - I am happy!", as I collapsed into the fetal position.
You might also be interested in Sundae's other work, here:
- Start working with assumptions, this way
- Expat Spouse? My 3 steps to ensure your greater happiness
- Top strategies to identify and deal with Expat Fatigue
And you wonder why men say they don´t understand women?
Try saying something like this to help your partner resist feeling responsible or want to “fix” things:
Hey Hunk of Burning Love, I want to tell you about my bad day. But don´t worry, you don´t have to fix anything. I just want you to listen. If I want your advice or help, I´ll ask for it. Ok?
And to all the Hunks of Burning Love, keep in mind that she most likely just wants to be heard. To be seen. She most likely needs empathy over a solution.
So what are we responsible for?
- If you´re the partner on assignment, you can try to understand the frustrations. Offer an open invitation for support.
- If you are the expat spouse, release any attachment to being a victim of circumstances, and focus instead on the creation of your own adventure.
Expatriate life is essentially a joint-venture.
To avoid Blood Boiler Nrs. 1-3 and support your partnership, consider this:
- When would I appreciate more understanding or empathy? Share these with your partner!
- Where could I do a better job at seeing things from my partner´s perspective? Make it a priority.
- When are “we” at our best? Do more of that.
Sundae Schneider-Bean is an intercultural specialist, coach and trainer based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West Africa) who helps individuals and organizations meet their toughest intercultural challenges with clarity, strength and wisdom. Sundae is the founder of Trailblazing Spouse®, a program designed to help trailing spouses live in closer alignment with their passions and skills. Sign up for free expert insight and you´ll receive a gift – the Expat Trump Cards – a unique set of digital cards aimed at helping you tackle the toughest aspects of global life.
2) This list is drawn from authentic responses from a large pool of experienced expats who responded to my inquiry in two online forums. While stories from my own expat communities mirror their shared pain points, this article makes no attempt to speak to everyone´s experiences, everywhere. The passion and length at which we discussed these examples suggest that they are worthy of attention. Names and some details have been changed to protect the guilty.