Relocating and moving abroad as a couple can be incredibly difficult on your relationship and it’s likely that you will experience some of these expat relationship problems. And if you’ve heard that before, you’re probably wondering whether your relationship can take the strain of moving abroad together? Since we’re currently going through the relationship adjustment that comes with having your first child, I can definitely agree that there are some similarities between both transitional periods. You’ll face role changes, lifestyle adjustments, and financial difficulties. If you do nothing to work through these changes, the relationship will inevitably deteriorate. You have to put work into the relationship for it to stay the same, and work even harder to improve it. Unfortunately, too many expat couples ignore their problems, allowing small issues to snowball into bigger issues which is why expats face high risk of divorce.
Below we list some of the expat relationship issues that arose after we moved abroad to Canada, and the various things we have done since to improve our relationship. Each of these ‘tools’ and solutions helped us strengthen our relationship and avoid any further issues.
1. Expecting Each Other To Be Everything
When you move away from your support system of friends and family, you will generally notice that you may start looking to your partner to check every box on a long list of needs in a bid to fill that void. The result is that we begin to expect our partner to be our our everything: our best friend, support system, roommate, and still keep the passion and spark alive. On top of that, your spouse might even be your business partner or co-parent. Let’s be real: if one person were to be everything we needed, they wouldn’t have the time or energy to have a life for themselves – and that’s unhealthy!
What to do instead: Avoid dependency on each other, and prioritize making new friends.
Try avoid being fully dependent on your partner for all your social needs. Focus on creating a ‘support system’ and community of people that can fulfil your needs instead of depending on only one person to do the job. Also make sure your “support system” extends beyond just one person, whether it’s your mom, your best friend, or your therapist. It’s near impossible for our partners to fill every one of our social and emotional needs, so these additional relationships are crucial. That said, we’ve talked a lot about how expats can struggle with making new friends in their new city. So, this is also easier said than done!
2. Spending Too Much Time Together
Spending too much time together and not enough of the right, intentional time, can negatively affect your relationship, too. It’s common to spend the bulk of your free time with your partner when you move because your social circle is usually limited, at least initially. You usually haven’t had time to make friends or build your support system so your spouse becomes your go-to social partner. The problem with that is you forget to focus on time apart, making new friends or dedicating time to your own separate interests and hobbies.
What to do instead: Focus on Intentional and Quality Time Together.
It’s important to still make time for each other, but do it in an intentional way that maximizes that time together. Spend it exploring your new city together (You can use our City Guides to get ideas like this one for Edmonton and this one for Calgary).
3. Not Communicating About Changing Roles in the Relationship
When you move abroad, often one partner will have to make a career change and therefore, a change in roles in the relationship, too. For us, I went from a full-time student while working part-time to a fully dependent, trailing spouse with no initial career plan. This usually happens because of accreditation issues and delays. Spouses often find it difficult to adjust to being financially dependent on their partner as well as adjusting to unemployment. In many cases, this can also lead to sensitivities about money, unproductive financial conversations and contribute to expat depression.
What to do instead: Talk openly about finances, expectations of roles and how to support one another in those roles.
It’s important to set expectations before you move abroad, so you remember you’re in it together. Furthermore, acknowledging that both new roles are hard: one partner likely feeling the immense pressure to perform and earn as the sole-breadwinner making them feel anxious about money-talk; the other partner feeling unproductive, out of place and fully reliant on their spouse can result in them feeling vulnerable, unhelpful and unable to ask for money when they need it. While the one partner might face isolation and loneliness the other has to face pressure at the workspace and potential difficulties in understanding the partner’s needs. These are all valid feelings and no one feeling trumps the other: they’re all hard.
No surprise, but the most important advice is to communicate. We’ve found that communication is key when overcoming most relationship issues. Discuss how you both feel and try to come up with solutions for each other. Remember that your transition experience could differ from theirs.
If your partner is giving up a career to move with you, look into the possibility of them finding suitable work and help them with their job applications. Encourage them to consider other alternatives, such as studying or starting their own business, if they cannot work at all. If your partner plans on staying at home, research the expat community and see what is available for stay-at-home partners. Schedule planned together time and help them to identify activities in the area that they can take part in. Put as many plans in place as you can before you arrive so that you are both immediately occupied with things to do. This will help you both to settle in and will help to avoid homesickness.
3. Forgetting To Meet Each Other’s Specific Needs (And, Our Love Languages)
In the stress of adjusting to your new life, new roles and new city, you can often forget about what your partner needs to feel loved and supported in the relationship. In many cases, I think expats forget to prioritize the relationship while just trying to cope with the mental and emotional change they are experiencing but it can make you feel even more alone.
What to do instead: Take the Love Languages Test and then prioritize those.
We’re big believers in the 5 Love Languages as a necessary tool in your relationship, and especially so in an expat relationship. We’ve come back to them often when we notice a shift in our relationship, and that shift is usually because we weren’t focused on incorporating each other’s love languages into our day. You can take the free online test here, and then spend time talking to each other about what specifically works for the partner. For instance, quality time is one of love languages but sitting together watching tv does not specifically meet that need for me. Instead, I need specific activities or date nights. Don’t assume quality time for you is what it will be for them, and vice versa.
Also, be mindful that your partner might tend to show their love in their default love language (the one they want to receive), so give them grace and love knowing that they are showing love too, just not in the way you need it so they will still need to incorporate that.
4. Arguing Ineffectually.
All couples have fights, and conflict is actually an important part of every relationship. In fact, conflict can help you and your partner navigate differences in opinion and can bring certain things to light that are causing problems. That said, it’s important that ‘fights’ (or arguments, difficulties or discussions) are dealt with in an effective way. Part of what makes conflict healthy is the resolution that comes at the end of a fight, when you and your partner can work towards a compromise or solution together. But if you don’t find a resolution, you will likely have the same fight over and over again.
What to do instead: Perfect the way you fight (The ‘healthy’ fight).
To avoid having the same fights all the time, you and your partner should work on having productive fights that lead to resolution. Included with finding a resolution and compromise, ensuring you know the best way to apologize to your partner is also necessary in ‘perfecting the way you fight’. Much like the love languages, knowing your partner’s sorry languages can help with this. Perfecting your fight might also include:
- taking a pause, which allows you to ensure that your response is not reactionary and thus better address the problem without turning it into a greater issue.
- keeping the discussion in the present and not the past.
- being self-aware of certain issues that can have a way of triggering our basic fight, flight, or freeze responses that were developed during childhood.
- softer language to deescalate emotions.
5. Not Addressing Mental Health, and specifically, Expat Depression
One of the biggest problems many expat marriages face is trailing spouse depression (I experienced it). Checking in with your partner and their mental health is so important, regardless of whether you move abroad. Simply make it a habit to ask your partner: “Are you happy?”
What to do instead: Speak up and encourage therapy.
Most of the time couples don’t ask for help until it’s too late. You know yourself best, so tell your partner what they could do to help you get through this. Whether it’s just leaving you alone on particularly hard days, helping you find a therapist, or giving you some tough love =, there’s bound to be something that will help you get better.
Have you experienced any of these expat relationship problems? Are you guilty of making these same mistakes?
We’d love to hear about your own experience as an expat and if you’ve faced any of these expat relationship issues. Are you noticing a relationship breakdown after moving abroad? What have you struggled with? How has it improved? Remember, moving abroad is a stressful experience that challenges even the best of relationships. However, if you can implement some of the tools that we have, you’ll come out of this adjustment period in an even better position in your relationship with your partner. Moving abroad can be a great time to bond as a couple, improve your communication skills and learn to work as a team.
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