Some time back, I met a British expat who had moved from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur with his partner. He learned about my occupation as a marriage and family therapist and asked, “Do you think moving to a different country with your partner can inject a healthy fresh-start to your relationship?” I replied, “It depends.”
It depends on how troubled the relationship was in the first place. If the relationship was already in a vulnerable state, moving to a new country would not mean moving away from the problems—the psychological and relational baggage gets checked-in along with them. When the stresses of adjusting to a new country begin to grow, their relationship is likely to crack under the pressure.
Despite the exciting opportunities of expat-living, moving abroad is not easy for most people. The stresses of finding appropriate housing, children adjusting to new schools, unfamiliar languages and lifestyle, changing work-life balance, changing marital relationship dynamics, and not having much social support, can all put the marriage to the test. If a marriage was already struggling with personal issues, adding in the stress of expatriation can seriously jeopardise the continuity of the marriage.
According to psychologist Guy Bodenmann’s stress-vulnerability model, chronic everyday stressors negatively affect relationship quality by (a) decreasing the frequency of time couples spend together; (b) decreasing the quality of marital communication; (c) increasing the risk of physical or psychological problems such as sexual dysfunctions and moods disorders; (d) increasing the expression of problematic personality traits. These processes result in mutual alienation between the partners, eventually leading to divorce.
After explaining the vulnerability-stress model to the Western expat who asked me if moving to a new country could give a couple a fresh-start, I asked him why he had asked the question. “Because that’s what I did with my girlfriend,” he replied.
“So, what happened?” I asked, to which he answered with a shrug, “We broke up.”
What can couples do to prevent the stresses of living abroad from destroying their marriages? Here are four suggestions:
1) Recognize that healthy relationships do not just happen automatically.
Good relationships need to be cultivated. Couples would do well to hold “weekly couple meetings” where they discuss and work on relationship and family matters with just as much seriousness as they would their professional work. In addition to weekly couple meetings, set aside date nights at least once, if not twice a month. During date nights, do not try to problem-solve, but focus on having fun and romancing each other to upkeep the reservoir of positive memories.
2) Learn to communicate effectively.
Learn to hear what your partner is saying, and help your partner know that he or she has been heard correctly by paraphrasing what was said. Take turns being the speaker and the listener. This is especially important when talking about sensitive issues or hot topics. Learn how to speak and listen sensitively and respectfully.
3) Find healthy support locally.
Many companies have expat services, gatherings, and other resources that can be helpful to family members adjusting to a new place, language, and culture. In some cases, expats find that social networking events do not work well for them because of the superficial nature of such gatherings. It may be necessary for these expats to seek out a good therapist. A therapist with experience working with expats can help clients to work through their adjustment difficulties.
4) Read a good book on marriage.
The expatriate experience can be a very positive and exciting time, providing couples and families with much new learning and financial resources. To take advantage of the experience, put some conscious effort into protecting your marriage relationship by reading some books of marriage. A helpful resource is the book Fighting For Your Marriage by Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg. Based on over 30 years of research, the advice given in this book provides effective and scientifically proven ways to overcome the negatives and enhance the positives in a marriage.
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