Expat couples: Changes within the relationship

Expat couples go through a number of challenges to fully adapt to the new environment. Besides the anticipated general struggles, the relationship changes might be the most unplanned and difficult ones to deal with. From becoming each other’s unique support and social system to experiencing role’s and financial change, couples have to undergo real challenges in their relationship dynamics.

The common challenges of the expat couples are widely talked about and highly anticipated by the partners planning to move. It is unsurprising that there will be a change in social circle, a need to find a place to live and understand a new culture. While going through these changes might be expected by the couple, what is rarely foreseen is the changes within the relationship itself.

Coming together to the new country (or moving to the partner’s home) is a new step in the relationship. The physical, social, and work environment suddenly changes; the free time and the time you spend together may also differ from the way it was, and; all the tasks of adapting to the new country has to be discussed and mutually agreed. Clearly, moving to the other country is a step out of the comfort zone for the coupleindividually and relationship-wise.

In the previous article, the relationship challenges were briefly summarised; today we will discuss the main ones in more detail. It may not fit all the expat couples types, but be open to reflect what suits your relationship. If you do recognise some of those patterns, know that these are just the signs that your relationship is evolving, ready to be changed. It does not mean that it is getting worse, it only signals the new stage in your lives that needs to be accepted, openly discussed and adjusted to fit both of you.

Ready? Let’s see the big shake-ups that can happen in the relationship.

1. One-on-one support and social system

When you move to the new country, you leave everyone behind. Differently than in the home (or previous) country, there aren’t man’s or woman’s friends, nor there is family around. There is nobody else to chat with, take a “steam off” and discuss the difficulties with—except the two of you.

Firstly, it means that the partners are the only ones to listen about each other’s day, share various ideas, silly jokes and gossip—whatever we like to do with friends. One person becomes a combination of a partner, a friend, a family member and a lover. While often perceived as an upgrade, there is certainly a difference to the way things were: one may notice the strangeness in it when the partner would share a dirty joke or unexpected comment that the other is not used to or wish to hear.

Besides the merged roles, partners become each other’s, unique emotional supporters. They will have to help go through emotional difficulties on being in a new country, feeling lost or struggling with the process of finding or starting at a new job. While both parties experience emotional struggles at the same time, this load of emotions will circle just between the two of them, forcing the couple to share the time between the listening and expressing moments: it may not only be difficult to do it, but it may certainly be a situation that was not experienced before. When once the friends and family took part in fulfilling this need, now each partner have to take it all, maybe even without knowing how to.

Then, naturally, when there is no place to release the emotional pressure, arguments may arise. Understandably, it is difficult for partners to function in two ways because it is never easy to support someone if you are not feeling strong or heard yourself. Each may want to adhere to their needs first and may not be able to listen to the other’s side of the story—which causes miscommunication and disagreements.

There is, also, no place to steam off and lack of friends or family to talk it out or put a mind on pause. When it is just two of them in a house, there is no place to run away or give a pause. Imagine if you had a big quarrel in your home country, you may go to your parents or your friends, talk to them or even spend the night. In the new home, there is no such option: no matter what, you will have to face the disagreement here and now and find a way to solve it without a runaway. While it may be the best opportunity to strengthen your relationship, it is clearly not an easy way and sometimes it is a completely unexpected change in the relationship.

2. Changed role models and financial inequality

There are several reasons why couples move to another country: better life quality, new adventures, following the loved one and so on. But one of the most common scenarios of the expat couples in the Netherlands is moving due to a job opportunity for one partner. While new employment would benefit a couple’s life in several ways, the decision to move for one partner’s job would also bring changes within the routine dynamic of the couple itself. First, let’s talk about the changes in the unemployed partner.

2.1. The unemployed partner

If both partners were working in their previous country and now one of them is not fully employed, his or her daily schedule suddenly changes. On the plus side, an unemployed partner may have more free time and use it to rest, do hobbies and explore other professional areas. Maybe after working hard in the home country, it feels like a refreshing change, giving time for yourself and exploring the long-postponed hobbies. On the other hand, that free time is mostly filled with responsibilities around the house. Having more time, the household chores fall under the unemployed partner, giving the responsibility of doing grocery shopping, taking care of the house and dealing with most of the other parts of the couple’s life. The previous dynamics of dividing everything in half between the partners changes into one being responsible for the financial stability, and the other for the house-hold related needs. It may be enjoyable or forced role to take up, but it is definitely a changed one from being in full-time work.

Alongside the changed daily routine, not expressing oneself at work may also evoke identity loss. Nowadays a job is more than just a way to make ends meet—it is a way to realize oneself, express the knowledge and skill, fulfil professional aspirations. Thus, those that left their careers behind when they moved, may start feeling lost of what defines them. For example, let’s imagine a woman who was a successful physician in her home country has moved away with her partner for his job: while she used to have an intense daily schedule and be professionally challenged, now she may feel unfilled with having a role of house-carrier and question her place in the world. Thus, unless the non-working partner gladly accepts his or her role as a house carrier, he or she might feel unhappy with being separated from the previous role in their profession.

Finally, not being employed, inevitably brings the difference in financial status and possible feeling of inequality. From being a (co-)provider, he or she is completely supported by the partner: expenses has to be counted from one budget and every purchase gets to be openly discussed. While this is simply a factual change, naturally arising from having a sole provider, it may evoke feelings of inequality on financial decisions. For example, the non-working partner may feel having less impact on decisions of travelling and other entertainment since the money for these leisure activities have been earned solely by the employed partner. Even more, the simple wishes of buying something for themselves may be undermined due to feelings of guilt and undeserving. There is no discussion about the actual worth of each partner in this situation, but not receiving monthly salary may induce these feelings, putting oneself behind the needs of a partner and the household.

Moving to the new country brings various changes for the unemployed partner. He or she may experience different division of time on daily chores, changing roles that may feel unfulfilling or feeling less worthy and impactful in financial decisions. It is probably important to note that these changes can be experienced at different intensities, based on the circumstances of a partner’s unemployment. For example, a partner that has decided to take a break from work or the one that did not work in the previous country may feel less identity loss or role change than the partner that left the enjoyable career and is struggling to find a fulfilling (or any) job in the new country. Therefore, when trying to understand the struggles of the unemployed partner, one should be open to various reactions to the changes discussed above.

2.2 The working partner

The employed partner is also going through some changes from their previous daily routine: just like a non-working partner, he or she is experiencing a difference in responsibilities as well. While it may seem that he or she has a release of house chores and increase of financial status, he or she becomes a unique financial provider. The partner becomes exclusively responsible for a couple’s financial status (basically, survival) which brings pressure to succeed on the job at all costs. Not to mention that a new workplace already requires to deal with insecurities and adaptation within a new professional environment. Thus, being employed may release from other daily chores, but it adds an obligation to provide for the family and a household.

In addition to that, he or she also needs to adhere to the previous aspect of being emotionally and socially active for his or her partner. While the working partner has more opportunities to socialise and share his experiences with colleagues, the partner at home may solely depend on the support and company of the employed partner: when returning from work, the partner may be expected to engage in joint activities, fulfil the socialising needs and help overcome the struggles the non-working partner is facing. Hence, the working partner may need to balance the emotional and social needs of his loved one, giving extra attention to his partner after work.

Finally, the working partner may also endure pain for his or her loved one. Seeing the challenges his non-working partner faces may evoke the feelings of helplessness and guilt. For instance, the employed partner may suffer from not being able to help or blame himself for originating these changes in the first place (i.e. moving to the new country because of his or her job). Thus, the challenging changes of the partner may also arouse internal suffering.

Just like the unemployed partner, the working spouse also undergoes changes in his daily life. From a different after-work routine, a need to be emotionally and physically available for the partner to internally bearing the struggles of the loved one—these changes are equally challenging and requiring the understanding and support.

Expat couples go through a number of challenges to fully adapt to the new environment. Besides the anticipated general struggles, the relationship changes might be the most unplanned and difficult ones to deal with. From becoming each other’s unique support and social system to experiencing role’s and financial change, couples have to undergo real challenges in their relationship dynamics.

The couple will have to find a way to help each other go through not only practical but also emotional difficulties. They will have to give each other time and space to express their feelings as well as listen to them with empathy. They will also have to learn about each other’s needs for individual space and time to be alone. Also, they will have to find activities that they enjoy doing together since for the most time they will be each other’s company. And finally, they will have to find a way to deal with disagreements. Relationship changes are probably the most difficult part of the migration, but by helping each other accept the difficulties, be empathetic and encouraging during this new phase of life, the couple will jointly overcome it and grow closer (not apart) as a couple.

While openness, empathy and willingness to understand each other are the main tools to enrich the relationship, in the next article we will discuss a few ways partners can help each other in this new stage of their 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/.

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