Expat Couples: Make it or Break it?

Contributed by Viktoria Ivanova, M. Ed., Expat Therapist

Moving to a new country by yourself can be both exciting and difficult. Moving to a new country with your spouse and kids can exaggerate these associated emotions even more. The new challenges that you face as you journey together through this change can often make or break a relationship.

Presenting Concern

As a therapist for expats, I quite often meet with men and women who share the same confronting struggles. These are people who choose to accompany their spouses to a foreign land where a great job opportunity is presented, and effectively rendering themselves a stay-at-home partner.

Upon arrival, they find themselves limited to the roles of a parent, a homemaker, and a spouse. Quite often, the non-worker in the relationship feels a loss of identify as the diversity of their roles in life diminish. For many, moving abroad meant quitting a job or resigning a career, and at the same time removing themselves from a social structure that comforts them. Basically, this meant their career-related creativity, productivity, and skills had to be packed in a box and put in storage along with their other cherished belongings.

Through my practice, I also meet with stressed and over-worked partners who feel overwhelmed by their new professional positions, who are often confused by their spouses’ frustrations and complaints, making them feel like outsiders in their own family.

Relationship Cracks

Although we have been working hard for the last 100 years to create greater fluidity and flexibility in our gender roles, becoming an expat family can sometimes feel we are back at the starting point – the bread winner and the stay-at-home-parent.

And while there are people who are absolutely happy and content with these roles, for many, it’s a difficult concept to adopt. As a couple is settling into their new home and country, these roles can start off as a fun and novel change, but over time it can start polarizing their relationship into a rigidity that both despise. As the working spouse focuses on the work, his/her attention often becomes more and more diverted from family matters. And as he/she steps back more and more, due to their demanding work, the non-working spouse has to step in more and more, left on their own to make decisions about child-rearing and home.

This shift in responsibilities becomes a continuous cycle, as the more one person under-functions in one area of their life (e.g. taking care of the kids), the more the partner has to step in. Without our conscious awareness of this pattern, we can continue sliding further and further into this stressful dynamic. It is also important to know that while working partners have a purpose and occupation, they are also stepping into their new social circle as they begin their new working role. It is always easier to make friends with people we see every day at work and have already so much in common with, like an annoying boss perhaps.

For a stay-at-home spouse, creating supportive social connections is another challenge. Not only have they left their familiar and reliable social support back home, building a new one will take time and effort, and will require opportunities that for a non-working parent are hard to come by.

It’s not a surprise that many relationships start to suffer under these conditions. Relationships function like a lightning rod, as they absorb all stress and tension that the couple is under. These polarized gender roles can create resentment and arguments, resulting in a further distance and isolation for the stay-at-home partner who is likely already feeling isolated. This pattern also comes at a high price for the working partner as he/she can feel that they are not as much part of the family and that they are missing out on valuable experiences and moments with the kids. It might be difficult for some people to be outspoken about the isolation they live in, and they might cope with it by further focusing on their work.

So, how to make it?

It sounds like this dynamic is no fun for either spouse. But don’t despair. While the picture I am painting is quite gloomy and intense, it doesn’t represent every couple with a working mate. The picture simply shows a pattern that couples might be sliding towards, unintentionally and without much awareness. The responsibility for this dynamic and the power to change it lies with both parties.

Many couples find creative and innovative ways to maintain satisfying and close relationships. Their secret lies in being aware of difficulties to come, recognizing unhealthy patterns early on, and turning to each other at times of distress, as opposed to turning away like many people do.

The key is being mindful of the role you assume and why. For example, as a woman, you might have agreed to the job of taking care of the kids while your husband is working. You might absolutely love your job, but if we work 24 hours a day at anything, even being a mother, we will burn ourselves out. Be mindful that you don’t work overtime and take away the opportunity for your partner to interact with the kids. You might be the one waking them up and taking them to school, which gives your spouse a perfect opportunity to put them to sleep and make lunches of their desire for the next day. Sure it might be challenging for both of you, for one to step back and for another to step in. But it is important to challenge ourselves and our partners, so our relationship grows and deepens.

If you are not sure how to make these steps on your own, connect with me for a free consultation at my global, online support service, Expat Therapy with Viktoria.

Can’t wait to start making changes? Visit my blog and check out my YouTube channel, Tea With Viktoria, for bite-size wisdom ideas you can apply in your life straight away.

Author: Viktoria Ivanova, M. Ed., Expat Therapist

Viktoria is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Certified Canadian Counsellor & Psychotherapist who specializes in human relationships.

Her mission is to share with people an essential life skill – how to build healthy relationships and transform challenging ones. To make that a reality, she created a global, online practice – Expat Therapy with Viktoria.

For more information about Viktoria and her practice visit www.expattherapy.online

Viktoria can be easily reach at viktoria@expattherapy.online

Visit Viktoria’s YouTube Channel – Tea with Viktoria