New series on expat couples and their challenges

Picture by Matheus Ferrero

Moving to another country means leaving your comfort zone, entering into the unknown with all your strengths and weaknesses; it is truly a new “game level” where your skills will be tested.

And what if you’re moving together with your partner or to join your partner? Does it make it easier to adapt? What unique challenges couples have to face? How will your relationship get affected in this big life change?

This is the first article of a series especially written for Eindhoven News by Eglė Naraškevičiūtė. She is an Expat Psychologist in Eindhoven. She helps other internationals adjust to the new country, relationship changes, individual past, present and future challenges. In this series she will zoom in on different ‘types’ of expat couples, what are the challenges they are facing, how about the support system, migrating with kids and more… so keep on following Eindhoven News.”

Nowadays the word expat is not a rare one to hear. More and more people are travelling to other countries to live, making a career change or following their loved ones. It is not uncommon to meet someone who has changed several countries, has a multicultural family and who doesn’t tie his or her future to his or her home country. People became more mobile, more open-minded and adventurous, expanding their home from one country to the world.

While this new page of life certainly is filled with exciting experiences, it also comes with its own challenges. There is already a broad understanding of the difficulties an individual migrant faces, but there is a lack of attention to the relationship part of the expatriation – how does an expat couple experience the migration?

In this series of monthly articles, I will dive into the topic of expat couples. How do they, as union of two individuals, go through the adaptation phase? What challenges do they face in terms of practical, social and romantic relationship changes? Are there different types of expat couples and what are each of them dealing with? And, of course, how can we make this adaptation phase easier and, for example, help each other to communicate better? In the next months, I am inviting you to explore, identify and empathize with the expatriate journey as a couple.

Different types of expat couples

To begin with, let’s define what an expat couple is and what are the different types?

By expat, I do mean every international and migrant which has moved to a foreign country -whether it is for a job, for a better life or relationship.

By the expat couple, I define it as a union of two people, in which one or both of them are expats in the new country they currently live in. Thus, an expat couple could mean several combinations of cultures and stories of how they became to be called an expat couple.

Within each couple’s unique stories, we could distinguish at least four different types, based on their cultural and migration challenges:

  • same-culture couple;
  • multicultural couple;
  • local-foreigner couple; and,
  • international in loco

Each of these couples share unique strengths and difficulties that make their experiences very different from the others.

Let’s understand them better.

Picture by Adriana Velasquez
  1. Same-culture couple

It is a couple who shares the same cultural background and moved together to a foreign country seeking for better professional opportunities and quality of life.

They better understand each other’s struggles during the adaption to the new culture because they share the same culture and similarly perceive new experiences. Consequently, they may feel more united and emphatic to each other.

Besides the general challenges of migration (which we will discuss in the next article), they are constantly comparing the new country to their own country while trying to answer the question “is this country better than ours?”. Therefore, they may be less open to adapt and feel more separated from the new environment.

For example, Camila and Maurício moved to the Netherlands from Brazil. They are used to a more spontaneous and relaxed time arrangement; thus, they share the struggle to adjust to the more time-strict cultural rules. As they are used to and prefer to act more spontaneously, they often feel misunderstood with their last-minute decisions.

  1. Multicultural couple in a foreign country

A multicultural couple is the one where both partners are from different countries and they together move to the foreign country.

They have already had a cultural adaptation within their relationship and by not having one direct culture to compare, they may be more open to explore a new place.

Since they do not have a shared culture, they have to separately compare and adapt to the new norms and they may not as easily understand each other’s struggles. In addition, they, as a couple, may find it hard to define what “home” should feel like.

For example, Julia, from Poland, and Mario, from Italy, moved together to the Netherlands. Mario experienced local culture as too straight-forward, whereas for Julia it was a refreshing place to be more open. When they discussed the distinction from their own cultures, they could understand the reasoning behind this way of acting and adjust to it. However, they were undecided which level of directness would fit best for them as a family and the country that would fit their values.

  1. Picture by Priscilla Du Preez

    Local-foreigner couple

That’s the expat couple where one partner is actually a local and his or her partner moved in for a life together.

The local partner is a strong pillar who does not need to overcome migration challenges and can be the support system for the foreign partner. The migrant partner is included in the social circle faster, can experience culture directly and, thus, adapts faster.

Within the couple, the international partner takes the biggest cultural shock in- and outside the relationship. In addition, the foreign partner may feel pushed to accept every cultural norm of his/her partner.
On the other hand, the local partner may not understand the adaption challenges the other faces and take negative comparisons personally. Even more, the local partner may not expect to adapt to the foreign culture of his/her partner.

For example, Hanna moves from Hungary to live with her Dutch partner Jacob. Although she immediately feels involved into his social circle and explores culture widely, she feels overwhelmed being in a Dutch-only speaking environment without understanding the language.
For Jacob, it is strange to hear the complaints of not spending enough time with her separately since they already go out together with his friends. Also, he was surprised to learn about the different family model that Hanna holds and felt compelled to accept it.

  1. International in loco couple

The category of an international couple is a possible mix of all the above. It could be a multicultural couple; it could be a couple with one local or even a same culture couple. The difference is that the relationship started when they were separately living in the local/foreign country.

This couple goes through more internal adaptations as a couple, without the migration challenges  that newly arrived couples go through. They already have formed their social circles and life routines; thus, they do not weight much on each other for support. They may also take more time to know one another and develop their relationship.

Since they may have different cultural backgrounds, the biggest challenge is to adjust to each other and compromise on their differences. Even more, since they have already adapted to the new country independently, they may not be willing to “walk the extra mile” for the relationship.

For example, Florian from Germany and Sofia from Spain met in the Netherlands. Since they already have their own life, they do not rush into a relationship and date for some time. When they are together, Florian gets irritated when Sofia cancels their plans due to last-minute visits of her friends, whereas she feels excluded when he does not open up about his life.

  1. Picture by Christin Hume

    With or without children?

Finally, there is an extra part in every type of the expat couples that would make a difference in their adaptation phase. A couple with children has additional organisational and emotional levels to their moving, since they feel responsible not just for themselves, but also for the well-being of their child(ren).

On the one hand, a child brings a purpose and makes one feel less lonely in the new country. Even more, searching for schools, play-dates and other child-related aspects is a good way to meet new people and expand the social circle.

On the other hand, focusing too much on the child’s needs may be a way not to face the personal, social or career challenges. In addition, a child may adapt faster than parents and become a separate unit, not necessarily following the family’s cultural traditions.

For example, a Chinese family came to the Netherlands. Their 5-year-old son had to go to school that same year, thus parents got involved in several parents’ groups trying to find schools, friends and various activities for their child. Soon after, he started to speak Dutch at home, asked for different food for lunch and disagreed with the usual routine they had before.

***

An expat couple is not just a sum of two individuals: it is a relationship system of two people who face challenges to both form the intercultural union and adapt to the new country.  Although sometimes they are put into one big category, there are different stories how they come to be. Distinguishing the different types allows to understand the unique challenges each of them faces.

Now that we have seen the short overview of the different kinds of expat couples, it is time to explore their challenges closer. In the upcoming article, we will look into four types of universal challenges that every expat couple has to sort out during their adaptation to the new environment.

Written for Eindhoven News by Eglė Naraškevičiūtė. She is an Expat Psychologist in Eindhoven. Via individual, couple counselling or the expat women support group, she helps expats adjusting to their new life. You can get in touch with her via www.EglePsy.world.

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