Lysanne Sizoo, psychotherapist (UKCP reg.), considers the issues faced by expats when either one or both halves of a couple are in a foreign country.
What do we truly expect when we decide to embark on the foreign adventure we always dreamed of? I think we have been given the rose-tinted spectacles of love and infatuation for a purpose; if we always could oversee the results of our adventurous impulses, we would never leave all that is safe and familiar. And as we know from loved ones back ‘home’, even that is not a recipe for an uncomplicated life. Let’s face it, relationships are hard, and international relationships are harder still, but the rewards are worth all the investment.
Who did the choosing?
An important aspect concerns the way the decision was made to move abroad. More often than not, there is an imbalance in the ‘we wanted to’, where it is actually one who wanted it most and the other who wanted to be supportive. Often, there is a supportive partner and an initiating partner, and if the supportive partner decided to move because ‘it seemed the loving thing to do’, then their investment is more likely to be in the well-being of their partner rather more than the move. If the initiating partner then has a bad day at the new job, or a moment of doubt and a wobble, the whole project feels in jeopardy and it is a heavy burden to bear. In the same way, if the supporting partner expresses his or her frustration about the time it takes to feel settled in, make friends, learn the language, the initiating partner feels it like a personal attack. Feeling but not able to acknowledge the other’s sacrifice, they respond with confusion and defensiveness.
I often ask the person who finds it hard to adjust to explain exactly how invested they were in the decision to move, because figuring out how you made the decision and why, and whether you need to revisit it to recommit in a more ‘informed’ way can be helpful for both partners.
And when I used to run discussion groups for international women, one of the first exercises we did was to explore how they looked back on their decision to move. Just five years ago the accompanying spouse was nearly always a wife; that is changing rapidly, as well as the fact that many women are highly educated and had careers before they moved abroad. Some of them had expected to be able to work, so their decision was based on an expectation that, having settled the family in, they would continue their careers. That’s not always easy in countries that expect you to be fluent in their languages first, and so these lovely ambitious women started to feel useless in their identities as their partner’s +1. Others had hoped their international move might help them to explore a writing bug, or start a new study, and yet having explored the options they realised it wasn’t what they wanted.
The exercise was to think about how you ‘thought’ it would be, and how your decision to come here was based on those expectations. Or to reflect on ‘whom’ you made the move for, yourself or your partner? That last one often required some serious soul searching, beyond the ‘that’s just what you do’, façade and accepting that we’re maybe not as ‘giving’ as we thought we were. And then, having reflected on how the decision was perhaps not rooted in the reality there is today, or the realisation that you were not able to be as supportive as you thought you could be, the challenge is to re-commit to the decision to move, from a new vantage point, with a new perspective. For some, it was important to share with their partner that they had come to realise that there was, at least in one part of them, a feeling that really felt she’s sacrificed something for him, and needed to be recognised in that. In others, it was perhaps more about mourning the future that wasn’t how they imagined it to be, and accepting what they could make it become.
You don’t have to be the starring couple in an A-rate Hollywood movie about expats; it’s enough to have a good enough experience, where the extra challenges enrich and deepen your experience of one another as a couple, bringing you closer together. Closer, not by pretending there are no challenges, but by meeting them head on and dealing with them.
Avoid feeling put-upon
The couples that I meet as a coach are often those who have moved abroad on an expat assignment. There seems to be an internal and even socially external directive to make this adventure a glowing success and to never ever have moments of doubt or regret. If any negative feelings do pop up, they are suppressed until they finally they burst to the surface as a volcano of resentment, making everything seem a disaster. It is important to recognise why this is happening.
The accompanying partners need to be ‘seen’ in all the hard work they are putting in creating a new home abroad. And the international assignee needs to be ‘seen’ in the fact that they are probably working harder than ever and are filled with fears about failing at the job that they uprooted the family for.
One-half of the couple will quite often be at work, while the other tries to come to grips with the daily routine of ‘life in a foreign land’. Recriminations often don’t appear straight away, but are the more intense when they do. Phrases like “you have no idea how hard this is”, “I hate the way they do things here”, “I miss being able to have an adult conversation in my own language” are answered by “but I thought you said you wanted to come here” or “you can talk to me”. This latter is particularly tricky since we don’t want our partners to become our new ‘best friends’; we want to make friends of our own. Sometimes our partners spend less time at home just as we feel we need them more than ever; and at the same time, we don’t like feeling so dependent. I can truly say that feelings of abandonment are part and parcel of the overseas experience.
If you find you’ve come into the negative spiral of comparing your lot with your partner’s, do remember how important it is to recognise what each is bringing to the relationship. The accompanying partners need to be ‘seen’ in all the hard work they are putting in creating a new home abroad. And the international assignee needs to be ‘seen’ in the fact that they are probably working harder than ever and are filled with fears about failing at the job that they uprooted the family for.
Sometimes what’s needed is the opportunity to express that this foreign adventure is harder than either of you thought, each from your own perspective, non-defensive and without recriminations. Usually, you can manage to work through these things ourselves as couples, but if the support of a third person is needed, then that possibility is always there as well. Once you’ve cleared the decks of all the previously unexpressed and unexplored emotions, you can begin to make up the balance. Whatever you decide – let it be based on an open, honest discussion and an understanding that you both chose to add that extra spice of ‘international’ to your loving relationship
Copyright 2014: Lysanne Sizoo
These articles are a composite of my personal, my colleagues’ and
clients’ experiences in order to protect recognition. All therapeutic
meetings are Turning Point are confidential, and specific content would
never be shared in a public forum.
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