Alain de Botton believes the reason so many relationships today turn sour is because we expect too much from our partners. While this idea often holds true at home, it is especially pertinent for couples moving abroad. Contemporary society, de Botton says, propagates the notion that it is possible for our romantic relationships to be consistently filled with both love and practicality, tenderness and passion, stability and excitement. We expect our partners to be responsible with money, and yet fiery in love; independent and yet perpetually supportive; faithful and yet fun.In short, we expect too much. And while it may be possible to retain the facade of balance at home, this pretence will undoubtedly be upended when a couple relocates overseas. The complete restructuring that follows a move abroad may be the best thing that ever happened to your relationship, or it may be the worst. It all depends on your expectations.
Expect the first year to be the worst year
Don’t be mistaken: your first year will be filled with confusion, stress, and turmoil. Yes, there will be some excitement and novelty too, but romanticising what the first year has in store won’t do you or your partner any favours. Moving abroad involves paperwork, culture shock, isolation and a lot of organisation. Faced with chaos left, right, and centre, relationships can get very shaky. It is often those closest to us who bare the brunt of external worries. Resentment can also find root here, especially if one partner perceives themselves to be doing more work than the other.
In order to get through this time, both you and your partner will need to become masters in communication and compassion. Don’t expect the first year to be a fun, fulfilling and inspiring time. It will be difficult, and it will be hard on your relationship. Yet if you navigate it well, it will give your relationship a sturdy foundation going into the future.
Expect the role of partner to mean a lot more
Abroad you will find yourself spending exorbitant amounts of time with your parter, probably much more than you did at home. Also, this time won’t involve fun-filled weekends and walks in the park, but waiting in administrative offices and examining invoices. Becoming expats will mean having to navigate new paths together at close proximity, a venture which will probably elicit a plethora of infuriating moments.
Likewise, separated from your friends, families, hobbies, and mentors, your partner will now have to take up many of these roles. You will be relying on them as your primary source of advice, emotional support, comfort, social activities, and as a springboard for ideas.
In many ways, spending time being physically and emotionally together on a journey can bring couples closer. The sharper edge of this, however, is the issue of overuse. Transitioning from being one pillar of support, to being perhaps the only pillar of support can be a heavy load to carry. You will find that often you or your partner are exhausted by the constant demands, and that it is not easy to transition between the new roles you now have to fill. It is difficult to be a lover, a friend, a supporter, and an interesting conversationalist.
Luckily, many of these problems will fade with time. Soon you and your partner will make new friends, partake in different hobbies, and grow more independent. While time will help couples to solve this problem, honesty will also be vital.
Be honest about what you can and can’t do for your partner, and set up boundaries so you don’t get overloaded. Even if you have a job, there will still be many days early on when your partner is the only person you really talk to. This is a huge jump from life at home, where most people have a fairly large social network. Don’t worry too much if you find yourself getting sick of your partner. Even if you’ve been with them for many years before moving, it can still be a shock to spend so much time so close to one another.
Also, don’t expect your partner to fit all these roles perfectly. Before you get frustrated about them not being enough fun, give them credit for the stability they might provide. No one person is ever going to be enough to fill all the different roles.
Expect to be dizzy
Moving abroad is dizzying experience. It will upset many of the ideas you held about yourself, your identity, and your path in life. Likewise, the move will bring a dizziness to even the most stable relationships. This will involve oscillating feelings of companionship and isolation.
While you might be spending excessive amounts of time with your partner, this will not necessarily shield you from sharp pangs of loneliness. Of course, part of this loneliness will involve the sadness of being removed from your home and social circles. Yet it often runs deeper than that.
The decision to move abroad is often pushed by one partner more than the other. Not only does enthusiasm effect how quickly people integrate, but it also changes how you will perceive your new home. If one person has initiated the move and is eager to be part of a new life, this may well leave the other partner feeling deserted. The sensation that one is drifting, watching their companion rapidly progress, can cause major rifts in the relationship.
It is crucial that expat couples work as a team and don’t create an environment where one party feels isolated from the relationship and joint goals.
Expect there to be growing pains; it’s not easy to find a new rhythm in life. The move will likely be harder for one partner than the other. Creating a comfortable life as an expat couple requires a heavy dose of empathy, beginning here.
Expect to see your partner’s flaws
In the transition abroad your partner’s weaknesses will come into acute focus. Firmly outside your comfort zone, you will naturally run into issues that were not even on your radar at home. That is often because these problems are masked by the buffer zone familiarity brings us. Expect that buffer zone to be stripped.
Also bear in mind that some people are just better travellers than others. Most of the time this comes from practice rather than innate temperament, but both contribute. It is very difficult to gauge whether your partner, or indeed you, are actually a good traveller or not because these limits rarely get pushed at home. Things like how you deal with shock, foreign cultures, and language turn from abstract questions to glaring realities. You won’t like everything you see.
Faced with your partner’s weakness, don’t forget to remember their strengths. Sometimes these strengths will be obvious, and you will admire the open-mindedness of your partner, or their ability to remain cool in times of stress. Sometimes, however, their strengths will be less visible, such as offering comfort and emotional stability. Try not to lose sight of the positive things they bring.
Expect communication problems
Abroad, couples find that what was once clear has now become murky. A couple may have mastered communication at home, yet will realise that their strategies no longer suffice. Between the tension of trying to adjust to a new life and culture, couples often loose their groove. Likewise, the time required for nurturing your relationship can get taken over by tedious tasks.
It is crucial to set aside time to talk about how each of you is coping every day. Both you and your partner will be experiencing much more emotional, psychological, and perhaps physical turmoil, so having a regular outlet is vital. Set aside time for a debrief in the morning, or designate a period at night. However you want to do it, make sure you allow for a good 20 minutes or more.
Expect money problems
Readjusting to the costs of life abroad will likely throw out your balance sheet. Even if your new home is not as expensive as your old one, the way you spend money will inevitably shift. Also, there is a good chance that only one partner will be in work to start off with, or perhaps neither of you will. Nothing causes problems like a lack of financial lubricant. Make sure you collaborate on how you want to spend your money, so that each of you feels supported even if one of you cannot contribute as much.
Expect to be enriched
Things shift when they land on foreign soil, and while it’s not always easy, it always teaches us something. If you can make it through the initial wobbly period and learn to see the best in one another, then your relationship will definitely be made better by the experience. Moving abroad builds a level of closeness, trust, tenderness, and humour in a relationship that is not easily acquired at home.
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