You might remember that a while ago, Louise Wiles, Judy Rickatson and I hosted the first Expat Partner Online Coffee. Since then, we’ve started a Facebook Group which now has 70 members and, because of the open and honest participation of the members, is becoming an active and supportive community of accompanying partners. Tomorrow, the group will “meet” for our third live discussion to talk about relationships and how expat life changes them. In conjunction with that discussion, I’m launching a series of articles about relationships in expat life. There’s no doubt that expat life can be tough on your relationships; with your partner; your kids; your family and your friends. It changes everything – all at once. In this first article, I’m talking about the one that most likely brought you to expat life in the first place and is most significant – the relationship with your spouse or partner.
Expat life can rock the carefully constructed foundation of your relationship with your spouse or partner. Few couples are prepared for the seismic changes that can occur when their relationship is transplanted to another country and often to an entirely new set of circumstances and as my Royal Marine friend says “failing to prepare is preparing to fail”. So in the spirit of preparation, here are my top 5 challenges to a relationship when a couple expatriates:
1. Involvement in the Decision to Relocate
For some couples the wheels of challenge number 1 are set in motion long before they set foot on foreign soil. It begins when an overseas assignment becomes a possibility. For some couples and companies, there is a discussion and a decision made regarding the acceptance or not of an assignment. For others, the assignment may be presented as a choice but everyone in the room knows that they only acceptable answer is “Yes” and anything else will have negative consequences. A few accompanying partners find out about overseas assignments when their partner announces that he (I’ve never heard of this happening to a male accompanying partner, but tell me I’m wrong) has accepted a job in [insert name of country]. If an accompanying partner feels like there is no choice, she (I’m using she throughout but it can be applied equally to men) may find that it colours her attitude towards the assignment. Or when the going gets tough, as it inevitably will at some point during the first year, she may find herself resenting her partner for forcing her to come on the assignment. When an accompanying partner has a choice, she is invested in the decision and in making it work. Where there is no choice, blame and resentment can flourish.
2. Financial Dependence
When an accompanying partner who is used to working, having her own income and making independent decisions as to spending her income cannot work or decides not to work on an overseas assignment, financial dependence can come as a shock. If the issue of financial dependence is not discussed proactively prior to relocating (and my experience is that few couples do have those conversations) money can significantly alter the balance of power in a relationship and can become a significant point of tension.
3. Emotional Dependence
Being an accompanying partner can be an isolating experience, particularly in the early days of a move. You are unable to rely on your friends and family at home because they are distant, they don’t understand what you are going through or you don’t want to confide in them because you feel guilty about complaining about your new “glamourous and charmed life” overseas. Making it worse, you haven’t formed any meaningful friendships in your new locations yet. The only person you feel comfortable confiding in is your partner. But it’s early days for him too – he’s under significant stress as he acclimatises to his new job and may be so consumed with his own issues that he doesn’t have the capacity to handle yours too. You may resent that he’s not emotionally available but he may be feeling responsible and even a bit guilty for putting you in a situation where you may not be happy. Simmering resentment and guilt – not a good combination.
4. Division of Family Responsibilities
Particularly if you’re not working, you may feel like you’ve not only moved to another country but you’ve also stepped back in time to the 1950s. The demands of your partner’s new work and travel schedule combined with your increased flexibility may mean that the lion’s share of the household tasks fall into your lap (and trust me when I say that its a hard road back from that particular division of labour, but that’s a story for another day!) In the very early days, you are the one staying home for the telecom company to connect you to the outside world or waiting for your landlord to send someone to fix something that wasn’t quite in order when you moved in. Later, you find yourself responsible for all of the cooking and cleaning because, well, you’re at home and no one wants to spend those precious hours of family time when your partner isn’t in the office or traveling, doing errands. But it’s probably not how you envisioned your role in your relationship.
Working or not working, schedules can cause strife in your relationship overseas. Many expat assignees find themselves instantly pulled into jobs that involve long work hours and significant amounts of travel leaving working partners scrambling to fill in gaps in childcare arrangements in a country where those arrangements are rarely familiar. Non working partners find themselves on duty 24/7 and both working and non-working partners find themselves solely responsible for the emotional support, physical support and discipline of their children at a time when their children are in transition and their needs are greater than normal. Women may also find that they begin to create an entirely separate social life because if the wait for their partner’s to be around, they have no social life at all. Its easy to quickly become resentful of your partner and his schedule. Of course the resentment can work both ways. The question we all dread ”what did you do all day?” Your partner thinks that you are living a life of leisure while he is slaving over a hot desk at work. You know that if it wasn’t for that lunch or coffee, you would have spent your entire day in less than splendid isolation in your house.
Of course none of these problems is insurmountable. Fore-warned is fore-armed and knowing that you might face one or all of these issues is the first step toward communication about them and a proactive solution. Based on my own experience and those of friends and clients, I have a full deck of strategies and solutions, but I’m not going to pre-empt tomorrow’s conversation with those just yet. I’ll write follow-on post next week with my top tips. In the meantime, if you have something to say about these issues or any other issues your relationship with your partner has faced in expat life, please comment here or better still, join the conversation tomorrow at 2pm Brussels/1pm London/8am New York/8pm Hong Kong.