Expat Couples: a guide to improve your relationship

When changes in the relationship are in full swing, brushing your communication skills is essential. From creating time and space for important discussions, learning how to tackle disagreements, to finding ways to enhance your bonds, simple steps can be taken to bring your relationship to new depths.

As we have discussed in the previous article, expat couples undergo a number of changes in their relationship while adapting to the new country. Their limited social system, shifted roles and financial status rises the need for open discussions to understand each other and find compromises.

That is when communication becomes the main tool. Although every couple has their way of expressing their needs and wishes, in the time of change, those methods may not function well any more. Thus, a fresh look at each other’s communication may be needed to ease the adaptation and improve the relationship.

In this article, we will discuss three parts: ways to encourage discussions, ways to deal with disagreements and ways to improve the relationship as a whole.

1. Encouraging discussions

Starting a conversation is not always an easy task. Not everyone is used to sharing their own thoughts and feelings, especially when it comes to sensitive topics about each other’s emotional state and their relationship. Hence, when faced with challenges, the couple may not be able to openly discuss the matter and fall in the loop of avoidance, assumptions and disconnection. Although it is uncomfortable, bringing a matter to the surface is the only way towards the mutual compromise. Here are a few ways to do it:

  • 3×5 technique. Each day, make it a habit to talk to each other for 15 minutes: first 5 minutes for one partner, next 5 minutes for the other, and the last 5 remaining minutes for a dialogue. During the first ten minutes, only one partner should talk, while the other gives full attention. After both have shared their thoughts, the last five minutes are meant for a discussion of both sides, or simply a dialogue.
    This technique can be used broadly, from forming a daily habit to talk about the day after work, to discuss important topics that need a mutual decision. In any case, it creates an opportunity for each partner to be heard without interruptions and gives just enough time to deal with avoidance or overwhelm.
  • Discussion time. If the couple has several topics that have been held in, to set a discussion time might be useful. Agree with each other on the time and day to have a talk about important issues: it could be 30 to 60 minutes long, two or three times a week. It is important to keep with the agreed time, without skipping it or prolonging it. Following this schedule helps to have a safe, scheduled time for topics that are impacting the relationship without letting them slide in the background. If you struggle to share the time to express each other, apply the 3×5 technique during the talking time.One more important note: try not to talk about the difficulties during other times, postponing (even writing down) the worrying thoughts for the fixed discussion time; meanwhile, create pleasant activities together in the present moment.
  • Request full attention. The start of the conversation is as important as the content itself: if one starts talking without checking the readiness of the partner, the conversation may go downhill fast. For example, if a woman is sharing about her day to her husband while he is watching television, the chances are low that she will get the emphatic response that she wanted. Thus, it is important to:
    1. express the wish to have a talk first and ask if the partner is ready to listen;

    2. the partner should evaluate his or her availability and either give the attention to the conversation or ask to postpone it to the fixed time (after his or her activity).

It is essential to be aware of whether the partner is paying attention and consider his or her willingness to give it; otherwise, the communication will not be satisfactory. Finally, if the conversation is not possible at that moment, do not let it be forgotten and agree on a set time and remember to return to it later.

2. Facing disagreements

It is natural that in every relationship feelings are sometimes hurt, requests are not completed, dissatisfaction raised. The difference is always in the way it is communicated and responded in return. If one is blaming the other, there is no option but to defend—either with retraction and guilt or with fighting back and anger. Thus, in order to make oneself heard, one must express it in a way that is non-blaming, rather honestly accepting his own feelings and needs, and only asking for them to be answered to. Only then, the partner can be empathetic and try to satisfy the request.

For example, when one shouts at the other for leaving dirty dishes, it is essential to realise that it is the one’s (unmet) need for cleanness that evokes anger, not the partner himself. Learning to communicate one’s needs, feelings and requests is the way to avoid conflicts and have compassionate communication. Let’s see how to do it.

  • Factual description of an unwanted situation. Instead of shouting out the phrase “what a mess”, you should state the situation that is dissatisfying to you (e.g. “I see the unwashed dishes on the table”). In this way, the partner will know what is the concrete thing that is affecting you, instead of hearing a general complaint. Also, the former comment contains judgment (“you are messy”), which is perceived as criticism and can only be responded with defence. Therefore, only a clear statement of facts can be accepted neutrally and allow the partner to listen to the complaint.
  • Identifying feelings. Next step is to identify the feelings that emerge from observing the situation: “when I see unwashed dishes, I feel irritated. Frequently, feelings are confused with thoughts (“I feel it is useless” vs. “I feel irritated”) and judgement of self or others (“I feel that you don’t care about me” vs. “I feel frustrated”), which again leads to blaming and a resistant reaction from the partner. And by sorting the thoughts and feelings apart, you are able to recognise what is happening inside you, allowing to see the situation more objectively.
  • Expressing needs. As you recognise and express which situation made you feel in such a way, the fundamental cause of it lays in unmet needs. What it means is that the cause of your frustration of the unwashed dishes is not the partner who left them, but the unmet need of cleanness. In order words, your partner is not responsible that you do not like the unwashed dishes, it is you that have a need for them being clean. Thus, in order to express your dissatisfaction in a non-blaming way and allow your partner to understand you, it is essential to express which need was unfilled in that situation.
  • Making a request. Finally, the initial goal of the whole complaint was to ask for different behaviour. It is important to phrase the wish clearly so that the partner would know exactly how to help you to meet your need (e.g. “would you be willing to wash the dishes after dinner” vs. “would you clean the mess”). Once you accept the responsibility of your own feelings and express it without criticizing and blaming, the partner will be more open to listen to your wish and try to satisfy it. In short, when you want to express yourself, try to use this formula:

When I see …,

I feel …,

Because I have a need for …

Would you be willing to …?

Dealing with disagreements is never a pleasant or easy thing to do. It requires understanding and expressing yourself honestly as well as making space for the partner’s feelings. Especially when we are in an angry mood, it is hard to take responsibility for one’s feelings or accept the feelings of the other. But keep in mind—the more you practice these skills, the less blame will come your way and the more needs will be met. It is how you wished your relationship to be like, isn’t it?

Few extra tips to make disagreements easier:

  • Recognise when the partner is the most/least reactive: which times, situations would not be most suitable to bring up dissatisfaction and when it is best to do it.
  • Understand each other’s “quarrel style”. Maybe one is used to leaving the room when faced with an argument, maybe another is used to shout out loud or other ways to handle conflict. Be aware of each other’s individual ways without taking them personally; when you notice these patterns emerge, give your partner space to deal with his or her emotions.
  • Allow pauses. If the argument gets heated, make a pause and spend some time apart to reflect and calm down. Agree beforehand when you should return to the discussion, and do return to it later.

3. Boosting your relationship

While frequent discussions and conflict resolutions are fundamental parts in dealing with change, there are ways each partner can bring some positivity to each other’s lives and reinforce the bond. Consider incorporating these actions into your daily routine:

  • Say “thank you”. Every time your partner fulfilled your request or did something that was pleasant or helpful to you, do not forget to show appreciation and thank him or her. Being grateful is a powerful way to reinforce those positive actions and make your partner feel important. As a practice, try to say three things daily to your partner that you are thankful for.
  • Say “sorry”. Apologising for the hurts you caused is equally important as being grateful. Expressing your apologies makes the partner feel considered and appreciated. Even if you may not agree that your behaviour was hurtful, the apology is a response to the feelings of your partner, not yours. As we discussed before, it is about your partner’s feelings, which means that neither you are the one to evaluate their legibility, nor blame yourself for causing them. Thus, make a habit to apologise every time you see that your behaviour was hurtful to your partner— it will make your partner feel understood and more open to responding to you in the same way.
  • Surprise your partner. In time, every relationship becomes more routine and less exciting. If you think back to the beginning, each of you used to make small surprises and pleasant things, constantly reinforcing the love to each other. Therefore, remembering to show affection daily in small actions would also make your relationship more exciting and lively. Try to do a pleasant surprise three times a week to each other: write a lovely note, make romantic dinner, simply give a long hug. Remember the things that make your partner smile and do them!
  • Spend time together. As simple as it sounds, spending quality time together can improve your relationship instantly. Together with those daily talks and small pleasant surprises, plan a mutually exciting activity together, e.g. once a week. It has to be a consciously chosen activity, during which other things are set aside, arguments are paused, important discussions are delayed. It has to be the time when you only enjoy each other’s company.

Moving to another country inevitably creates changes within a relationship, which require the attention of the couple. Partners will need to find time to discuss important decisions, deal with arising disagreements and find ways to boost their relationship in challenging times. While it may be a hard phase in their lives, making time to each other, learning to express own emotions and listen to dissatisfactions will gradually improve the relationship—the couple will be more perceptive, more understanding and the closest to each other than they have ever been.

Eglė Naraškevičiūtė

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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