There is no doubt that the expat lifestyle has many advantages but unfortunately it can put a lot of pressure on relationships. Whether you are living abroad already or thinking of leaving your home country you might find it helpful to realise that such a change will inevitably strain the emotional ties that bind. However when you understand what is going on and you are prepared for the sticky patches, it doesn’t have to spell disaster for your relationships.
The decision to up-sticks and move abroad – whether permanently or temporarily – is not one which is usually taken lightly. There are five distinct stages in the process of becoming an expat: Research and Discussion; The Decision – where and when; The Move; Settling In; and Settling down.
Each of these stages has challenges for your relationship s – not only with your partner but those with family and friends too. When you initially start talking about moving abroad and looking at the options your nearest and dearest may well be ambivalent about the whole project. They love you so they want what is in your best interests but they can’t help feeling a bit abandoned. They may express this openly but in some cases it will come out in negative comments and attempts to put you off the idea.
Obviously this problem varies depending on what your family ties are. If your kids are grown up and you have no dependents it is fairly easy to pack up and go, if you have elderly parents it is less so. In that situation you can feel a lot of guilt about even thinking of living abroad.
The best way to deal with the mixed feelings flying around at this stage is to talk openly about it – tell your friends you can understand they may feel you are rejecting them by choosing to live elsewhere, but reassure them that that is not the case. Inevitably when you do actually go some friendships will fall by the wayside, but the ones that remain can become stronger if you make the effort to sustain them.
Discussions with your family may be more complicated and it is not always easy to speak clearly on such an emotive issue. Often it is the fear of the unknown that scares people so it may help to spell things out from your point of view so they have a better idea of what to expect. For example you could commit to calling them once a week and tell them you will return and help if necessary if there is a family emergency.
A friend of mine Linda, who moved abroad with her husband, children and parents a few years ago, has a cautionary tale on the subject. Her sister was very hostile towards the idea of their parents going away – largely, thinks Linda, because she didn’t have a clear idea of what their expat life was like, and assumed it wasn’t good for them. Her negativity may have contributed to their parents’ decision to return and live in the UK. Linda and her sister have only recently resolved things between them.
It is understandable to have doubts and worries as to whether you are doing the right thing and that can put a huge strain on your relationship with your partner, especially if he or she is more enthusiastic about moving than yourself, or vice versus. The key here again is communication – try and be understanding if your partner has qualms about leaving family, talk it through as much as possible and think of practical steps that might make it feel a little easier. For example if you have elderly relatives research the help that could be available for them, if they should need it in the future, so that you can organise it for them from overseas if necessary.
Once you actually make the decision about where you are moving to and when, things will probably seem easier on the emotional front. There will be such a mountain of things that need doing you will have no time to worry about relationships!
The excitement of moving to a new country is enormous and it can have an invigorating effect on all your relationships. Suddenly you feel more alive than you have in years, perhaps everyone at home has been telling you how brave you are- you do feel courageous , you have taken the leap out of a more or less sure and certain lifestyle into the unknown. It can feel like a great adventure and sharing the thrill of it with your partner can be wonderful. However the actual move itself is more or less bound to be horrendous! They say that moving house is one of the most stressful experiences there is and when you are going to a different country you can multiply that ten times!
Still, you have managed all the packing up, letting go and tearful farewells; finally you are there, in your new life, settling in. This period can last a while depending on where you are living. Obviously the greater the differences between your new country and the one you left behind, the bigger the adjustment that has to be made.
Probably most people who choose to become an expat have some worries about being lonely. This can happen of course, especially if your language skills aren’t great. If you are used to a close-knit group of family and friends it can be hard to suddenly find yourself isolated as a couple. The only solution to this is to get out and immerse yourself in the local culture and make friends. However in my own experience and that of many others that is unlikely to be a problem as expat life tends to be very sociable!
Keeping in touch with those at home is crucial at this stage both to reassure them that you are okay and haven’t forgotten them and from your point of view, old friendships can be very sustaining in this period of transition. Whether you are an expat because of your job and have all the practicalities taken care of by your employer, or whether you are going it alone and forging a new life from scratch, there will inevitably be days when things seem frustrating and incomprehensible. Laughing about it with an old friend can change your perspective entirely.
Whenever I have felt mildly homesick for Scotland I remind myself of the time when people emigrated for good in the days before telephones, email, Skype or even a reliable post system. You waved good-bye to your family on the quay and that was it, you had no idea if you would ever hear from them again. By comparison we have things pretty easy nowadays and with the internet there is no excuse not to let people who care about you know what you are up to.
However, assuming all is going well with you do try to be diplomatic about how you portray your new life. It is human nature to want to present the best side of things, especially if your move was controversial with family and friends, but it can be alienating for those left behind to see an endless parade of sun filled scenes of an apparently idyllic lifestyle. Try and intersperse the envy inducing shots with others that show the down-side. My brother was starting to make sarcastic comments about all the pool parties we were attending until I began sending photos of our very dodgy plumbing and the litter in the streets!
As you settle in you may find yourself suddenly spending a lot more time with your partner than you were used to – in a new place it is natural that you will explore and discover things together. While this can be very pleasant it may also feel claustrophobic if you are used to doing things separately so it is worth trying to make the effort to do things on your own. Your partner’s company can be a form of safety net – dropping it temporarily can be very enriching for both of you.
Every day you make new discoveries about life in your new home – you are constantly looking and evaluating, trying to understand a different culture – putting it all into context with the life you left behind. It can be very stimulating. Sometimes you feel like you are falling in love with the whole country. Unfortunately sometimes it happens that one of you falls in love a little more literally – in the initial buzz of a move people are often in an excited, keyed-up state and perhaps are more likely to attract, and be attracted to, other people.
If this should happen, either to yourself or to your partner, it is best to bear in mind that it is probably an infatuation arising from the circumstances rather than anything more serious. Again try and keep the lines of communication open between you and accept that it is natural to find other people attractive. It can actually strengthen your relationship if you can be honest with each other about this issue.
As opposed to spending a lot of time together you might find your new life leads to seeing much less of each other. A friend of mine who has recently moved to Australia has had to adapt to a completely different life with her three kids while her husband is away frequently for work reasons. This has been a difficult adjustment as they previously worked together.
Likewise in my own case: Robbie, my other half, works Argentine hours which means an early start and late finish, with often, but by no means always, a break at siesta time. We end up eating at ten o’clock at night and are often too tired to talk properly about anything other than the basic practicalities of the day. My advice if you live in a Latin country is to take full advantage of the siesta tradition. Taking an hour or more off in the middle of the day to sleep, talk – and do anything else you might not have the energy for in the evening – is a very civilised habit, good for the health and good for relationships!
It may be that the move emphasises differences that haven’t been that important previously, or indeed, reveals previously unknown incompatibilities. Having moved from the UK to a Latin American country and talked to many expats, we are amused and exasperated at how quickly our partners drop certain western attitudes, most notably around health and safety. For example here it is still considered socially acceptable to drink and drive and not to use a safety belt – both unthinkable in the UK. My husband has also readily adopted the less healthy aspects of the culture, such as eating massive quantities of animal fats and smoking. While differences like that may seem relatively trivial they can become an issue if we let them! After many arguments I have reluctantly conceded that Robbie is an adult and makes his own decisions!
Linda, the friend I mentioned earlier, says that initially she and her husband were very positive about life here but her parents ended up sharing a house with them for four months while were building their own home, and that caused tensions all round. As a result her husband began spending more time away from home and his in-laws, and became involved with a local woman. They are now divorced.
Linda believes the split was caused by the enforced intimacy with her parents as they were all going through the settling in period. They would never have shared a house like that if they had stayed in the UK, she says, and concludes that the whole experience of moving was much harder than any of them expected. However she emphasises that she is very happy here now and in a good relationship.
The settling in time can be very stressful because of all the adjustments that need to be made. Alternatively you might experience a honeymoon period with regard to your move when everything seems exciting simply because it is different. Either way some time down the line you finally feel things have settled down. Ironically this can be when the cracks start to show. You have been flying on adrenaline for goodness knows how long, buoyed up by the constant sense of discovery as you learn more about your adopted home.
Gradually, however, it doesn’t seem so new anymore. The things which initially seemed quirky novelties now become boring irritations. There may be a feeling of anti-climax as life inevitably falls into a routine pattern. This is the time when old dissatisfactions with your relationship can resurface. Amongst the expats here there is a syndrome known as the three-year-itch because by this point you have a realistic picture of what life is really like, and it may cause you to question your move.
One common problem that can arise between couples is that one of you wants to return to your own country and the other wants to stay. There is no easy answer to this dilemma but it can help if you set a time limit on any decision. For example you could decide that you will look at the situation again in a year but that you won’t discuss it constantly in the meantime. That way the partner who wants to go back feels their point of view is being respected but it also allows time for the situation to change without lapsing into the vicious circle which can arise when someone is unhappy – the more you complain about the failings of your adopted country the more dissatisfied you become.
A sense of boredom and disillusionment with your partner and, or, your life, is by no means confined to the expat community but it can be especially hard if you have consciously sought a new beginning, thinking it will change old patterns. If you do find yourself feeling like this it is tempting to think that if only you could go back to your home country things would improve. Obviously in some cases they might, but do look hard at yourself before you reach that decision. It may be more about your own sense of self-worth rather than the country or the relationship. You can be in a different place in the world but you are still the same people.
Unless your career has led you into the expat life it can be difficult to find rewarding work, or you may be retired. If that is the case then you could consider doing some kind of voluntary work – involving yourself with the local community will strengthen your ties there and very likely provide a sense of satisfaction. Janice, another friend of mine, was distinctly disenchanted with life here until she started teaching English to the children in her village. Now she feels much more at home and her relationship with her husband has improved.
Of course the majority of factors that put stress on relationships are not unique to the expat life. However moving out of your comfort zone can definitely exacerbate worries about finance, housing, healthcare, education and all the other basics.
There is little financial security anywhere in the world right now but it is particularly scary to be facing money worries in a new country. Disagreement about spending can create conflict – in our household it certainly does. For me it is important to travel home every few years in order to see family and friends whereas for Robbie the priority is to save up for better machinery for the farm.
This is one of the areas where thorough research before you reach your decision is essential. Make sure you have a clear idea of living costs before you commit to move. If your destination is a country known to have a problem with inflation – like Argentina – factor that into your equation. If you intend to work make sure you are eligible for all the necessary documentation. Don’t make any assumptions – just because you have found it easy to find employment in the U.S. or the UK doesn’t mean it will go so smoothly elsewhere.
The same can be said about the other issues that cause stress – do as much research as you can before you even set a date to leave. The more clued up you are the more in control you will feel and the easier it will be to navigate the system once you have arrived. It can be difficult finding things out through the official channels – here in Argentina very little public information is put on the internet – so do take advantage of websites and forums that let you contact expats that have already moved to your destination.
So with so many different challenges facing the expat relationship is it inevitably doomed? Of course not but just don’t expect it to be easy! Try and be as realistic as you can about things, recognise that you will probably go through trying times but if you keep communicating it will be easier. It is especially important to be clear about your dreams for the future – what that vision is that has actually driven you to move abroad. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a shared dream although perhaps your relationship will be stronger if it is. We have friends who farm together and share the work equally – it is their passion and they get a good deal of satisfaction out of it. My husband’s dream is also farming and he loves it too despite the many frustrations involved. I was always clear that my thing is painting and I have no intention of becoming a hands-on farmer. So far we are still together!
Yes, despite the negative pressures that sometimes seem to crowd in from all sides we are still here, still arguing, discussing and talking endlessly about anything and everything. Our lives are by no means idyllic but we have great friends, good weather and fantastic wine! I have never felt more alive.
About the author: Kate Kirby is a mother, wife and an artist. She graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art and taught in various places, including at the Leith School of Artand The Open College of The Arts. She runs teaching vacations along with a fellow Scottish Artist in San Rafael and you can find more information about this by clicking here.