In order to successfully adapt the new environment, every expat couple needs to overcome at least four types of challenges: organisation of practicalities, creation of a social circle, adjustment to the cultural norms and, most importantly, reshaping their relationship.
In the previous article about expat couples, we defined the different types of expat couples. Every one of those couples has their own unique stories and different questions they need to answer. But before we dive deeper into each of the types, let’s look at the general challenges that every expat couple needs to sort out when they migrate to the new country.
When it comes to relocating, practical issues are the first ones to solve. A couple needs to find a place to live, organise the main utilities in the house, take a phone subscription and so on. They also need to find their way around by spotting the supermarkets, shopping malls and other places for their daily needs. As simple as it sounds, discovering the places that fit you is the big part of feeling adjusted to the new “home”.
For a couple, these main tasks may become a bit more complicated: compromises need to be made on the best location to live for both of the partners, budget needs to be planned for each other’s needs and wishes, shopping may need to be done jointly and leisure, as well as social activities, should fit both.
We shall also add the possible strains of transportation (i.e. planning the shopping or leisure options for a bike or public transport), language (e.g. not being able to talk with your neighbours), limited or reduced budget (if just one partner is employed). These might be just temporary barriers, but they certainly add extra weight on the adaptation phase.
On the other hand, being in a couple is also a strength. Obviously, you benefit from a joint income as well as shared costs for rent, food and other expenses. But even more, having a partner helps with dividing the tasks, finding needed information, and, essentially, supporting each other physically and emotionally.
Soon after the “honeymoon” period, expats start to miss their friends and family back home, feelings of loneliness and need for belonging appears. While the routine in their native country was probably filled with after-work activities, friends’ dinner-parties and weekend outings, here, in the new country, the daily routine may only be work–home, with occasional outings just the two of them. Although it is fun at first, soon the couple starts to need fresh stories, new ideas and support from someone outside home. Thus, the second part of challenges are finding activities to enjoy outside work or home, creating new friends, close bonds and support system they can lean on.
The challenge here is counter-intuitive: while there are plenty of opportunities to meet new people, establishing friendships is not that easy. While sociable, adults tend to be more independent and to have less time to build friendships. As compared to school years, people are not in the same environment for a long time and are not sharing as many difficulties and achievements together. Even more, having less time, adults may be more selective to the people they want to bond with or simply may not stay long enough in the country to develop close friendship. Whatever the reason, finding friends becomes a task, a goal, instead of a natural result of being around people.
Although tough, creating a social circle is a crucial part of the adaptation. Without having friends to share common interests and receive support, without socializing and expressing oneself beyond your family circle, one will not feel “at home” in their new country, may dive into the feelings of homesickness, and put a strain on their relationship.
The cultural challenges literally represent the adjustment to the new country. As we have seen in the previous article, every expat couple may have a different ratio of difficulty, but essentially all of them need to face cultural differences—either as a couple versus the new country, or adapting to each other’s differences. So what is there to face?
At first, we have the language, which is the first thing that will come between the couple and the locals. It may be as hindering as even doing groceries, or as little, yet as important, as communicating with a neighbour. For example, one might need to ask for support in the shop or negotiate with the neighbour about music at night. While English is commonly spoken in the Netherlands, there might still be occasions when the local language is necessary.
In addition to the function of communication, the language is also the basis for connecting with other people, being and feeling included in the community. Sharing the local language is a way to join the circle of colleagues at work, being able to go to public events, understand their culture better and simply show respect to the local people.
Although managing to communicate the basic needs are usually overcome easily, grasping the local language and becoming a part of the local culture might be a harder challenge.
With the language, other cultural elements will appear, such as cultural traditions, norms and beliefs of the country (check out Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model for cultural comparison). As examples, one may notice that there are other ways to celebrate special holidays, or some things are seen differently, such as contrasting partnership models, parenthood styles, views on gender, religion and even laws. Understanding and especially accepting these differences could be a continuous journey—sometimes it is a positive experience, sometimes it is an unpleasant realisation, but it is certainly something that you need to accept and adjust to.
Many changes within a relationship might occur when adapting to a new country. Among that, cultural adjustment (between partners); reduction of the social circle from many to two people; temporary change of roles (one financial provider instead of two); imbalance at home’s leadership (to a more traditional provider vs. stay-at-home roles); etc. Since it is a topic by itself, we will discuss it in new, upcoming article; still, it deserves a brief overview,
At first, cultural adaptation happens not only between the couple and the new country but also between the partners. Initially, both partners need to understand each other’s cultural differences, family’s influences, discover the values and rules each hold. Then, each needs to evaluate how these fit within their own set of values and decide whether and how much they are willing to accept and compromise to one another. To undergo this discovery is a crucial first step in order to openly understand one another and to develop a harmonious relationship.
The next thing is the shrink of the whole social circle down to two people: your partner becomes your company for activities, your gossip friend, your practical partner, emotional support and your lover. He/she ends up taking all the roles, has to learn to act on them and at the same time fulfil his/her needs. It is a lot to take in and this change of dynamic is definitely one of the biggest relationship challenges.
The change of roles is another important relationship challenge in the adaptation phase. For instance, if one of them becomes temporarily unemployed because of the expatriation, it might affect his/her confidence, self-realisation and financial independence while introducing him/her to a load of household responsibilities. Then, the equal partnership model suddenly shifts to a dependent one, where one “bread-earner” and the other is stay-at-home.
Being an expat couple certainly adds a spin to the adaptation phase that every international face. While everyone has to go through practical, social and cultural difficulties, facing them as a couple brings other perspectives which require finding mutual compromises. However, it also gives the support which is so needed in that period of change.
Finally, a couple is a relationship system and there are different structures of expat couples, each faces the adaptation with their unique cultural as well as relationship challenges. Understanding them can help you prepare for moving, be more aware of others and not feel alone in your struggles. In the phase of adaptation, it is expected to experience out-of-comfort-zone struggles which are necessary to make the change in your daily life and your relationship.
I am Eglė Naraškevičiūtė, an Expat Psychologist in Eindhoven. I help other internationals adjust to the new country, relationship changes, individual past, present and future challenges. Via individual, couple counselling or the expat women support group, we step out of the cloud to live the bright day. Take the first step and reach out via https://EglePsy.world/.