The secret weapon for expat couples
21 December 2017| Last updated on 24 December 2017
If you are moving (or have already moved) abroad with your partner, then there are a couple of things you should know about the life of an expat couple.
As any other, the expat relationship has both the beautiful and difficult things that love and coexistence bring along, with the additional spin of a life full of changes. As human beings, we sometimes experience change as a messy process (although rewarding at the end) in which we are discovering who we really are while we face unknown circumstances and unfamiliar challenges.
That is why when we share this process with someone else, things can get a little uncomfortable as we learn to manage our new self and our new context trying not to affect our already established relationship. The thing is, as established as it may be, our relationship is also learning to adapt, to change and our resistance to it changing is what may be getting in our own way.
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If you want your process to start with the right foot, the decision of moving abroad should be taken by both you and your partner, understanding that adapting to a new life will bring difficult moments (and also beautiful ones) and knowing that there is a greater reason or purpose behind that life-changing decision. If there is no clarity on what that greater reason or purpose is, then I encourage you to go back and ask yourself (and your partner) why are you really doing this and then ask yourself again why that reason until you discover the ultimate truth.
For example, if the primary reason for moving abroad is a professional opportunity, then I encourage you to think about the “spill-over” effects of that opportunity in other areas of your life. Will that professional move have any effect on you or your partner’s self-confidence? On your life style? Will that move bring you opportunities to travel, learn about other cultures? Do you see the benefit of moving abroad for your relationship as a couple? Will it affect your personal growth somehow? Will it bring any benefit for your children?
If you are capable of seeing the bigger picture in a way that benefits you as a couple and a team, but also – and very importantly – you as an individual, then you have something to fight for when times get difficult, because they will. And also something to acknowledge and celebrate when you feel fortunate, because you will.
Now, if you are a trailing spouse (which is the name given to the person who follows his/her partner’s professional career abroad), my advice to you is, again, to be very clear on why you are doing what you’re doing.
If you are leaving a job/professional career, friends or family behind, it is possible that you will find yourself thinking about those things and asking yourself if it was worth leaving them. Not because you actually think it wasn’t, but because our brain tends to melancholically and selectively remember the good times in our past as if they were better ones.
That’s why, it’s smart to have clarity beforehand, so you can remind yourself about that bigger reason or purpose every time you need it. And also, remind yourself that it was your decision, as an individual and as a couple to be there and nobody made you do anything (yes, sometimes unconsciously and without bad intention, the trailing spouse will blame his/her partner as if they were guilty of the challenges experienced abroad). If this happens to you, don’t let yourself think you are a bad person for having those kind of thoughts. Just gently remind yourself about that ultimate purpose behind your decision of following him/her. That’s your secret weapon.
On the other hand, if you are the one with the professional opportunity abroad and your partner is following you, I have two big advices to give:
- Don’t feel guilty: Because if you have clarity on the big WHY, you should know that every challenge puts you one step closer to your greater reason or purpose. Feeling guilty about the sacrifices your partner did to follow you is just feeding the idea that it was probably not worth it. On the contrary, show your partner and most importantly, show yourself that you feel responsible but not guilty, because guilty would imply you did something wrong - and you haven’t, as long as that big WHY is clear and honest. Being responsible means that you value your partner’s decision to follow you and that you take that seriously.
- Be supportive: Because that is the best way of acknowledging how generous your partner was by following your career, even if it implied a mutual benefit. Be supportive in whatever road of self-discovery, job search or career change your partner may jump into and remember he/she is doing his/her best. Be patient, not condescending. Be loving, not demanding.
As your expat life unfolds, you will find yourself sharing a lot more time with your partner than you did before. At least while your social network grows. This is an amazing element to strengthen your relationship, and it can also feel a bit intense after a while. Therefore, it is really important that you:
- Share activities that you both enjoy doing together. Be sure to include things that make you go out of your house, as it is really important to change your environment (and step away from house chores and day to day tasks) in order to get that emotional and physical “fresh air”.
- Be sure to take some time for YOU and you alone. Go do that thing you love, be with yourself, enjoy your company and then go back to your partner.
- Find friends! Because the expat life can be lonely, and the more you and your partner close yourselves up and decide to spend time alone (because probably you think you don’t need friends, or you feel too uncomfortable meeting new people, or too tired, etc), the more weaknesses you will find in the other and the more the little things will start to bother you both. The secret is, having more people around from time to time so you don’t focus completely on your partner, because as romantic as that can be, it also carries the downside of picking up every little thing that can be potentially annoying.
- Find ways to reconnect with your partner. Create “rituals” that remind you why you are together. It doesn’t have to be something really deep or complicated; put on a song you both like, read something together, dance, open a bottle of wine and turn off your phone, anything that makes you be in that moment with each other. Something that triggers that memory of how capable you are of taking risks and making decisions as a team and how true it is that you are stronger together.
The expat life can be as strengthening as it can be weakening for a couple (depending on what you let it be). It will bring numberless situations that will shake you up, make you question who you are and who you want to be - at an individual level but also as a team, be it a couple or a family. The beautiful thing is, the expat life also gives you precisely what you most need: time to find the answers to those questions, as everyday is an opportunity to reinvent yourself in any way you want.
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My advice: take that chance and make the most out of it by bringing new activities to enjoy with your loved ones, new routines, new ways to connect with them, new people to surround yourself with, and most importantly: new attitudes and behaviors that will make you stronger. Use your secret weapon and remind yourself and your partner what moves you, what that ultimate purpose is, and go for it together!
As Alan W. Watts said, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” And what a dance it can be! If we let it…
About the Author
Vanessa Vallejo is an ICF accredited Coach and an expat, passionate about human behavior and personal growth. She helps expats around the world to live more purpose-full lives and to embrace the opportunities that change brings. Check out her blog VV Coaching for more tips on how to become a fearless citizen of the world!