Home » How to Help Your Marriage Thrive Instead of (Barely) Survive While Living Abroad

How to Help Your Marriage Thrive Instead of (Barely) Survive While Living Abroad

I am an American psychotherapist in private practice in New Delhi, working primarily with the expat community. I also work with expat couples worldwide through Skype video conferencing. Many couples come to me because they see counseling as the last stop before separation and divorce. Fewer couples call for a routine “check up” when they feel their marriage isn’t functioning optimally. Fewer still seek me out when their relationship is going reasonably well and they just want to iron out a few kinks.Sam and Susan have been married for 15 years, and while they both agree that their marriage has never been “great”, it was meeting many of their needs until 2 years ago when Sam was given a promotion and transferred to India. They had both lived abroad as kids, so they didn’t think that living overseas would be difficult for them. Susan said that at the end of her first week in India, she threatened to leave and take the couples’ four year old son with her as she had hardly seen her husband during that time, felt abandoned, and like she may as well have been a single mom. Sam thought her behavior was irrational, they had a huge explosion, and their relationship has gone from bad to worse ever since.

Jennifer and Richard have two young children and live abroad. They had agreed to see a therapist for premarital counseling when they became engaged, and have had regular “check ins” periodically during the seven years of their marriage. Jennifer reports that she tends to nag Richard when he doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do. She feels angry when Richard doesn’t meet her needs for commitment and trust. Richard feels annoyed and defensive that his needs for respect and autonomy aren’t being met. They have learned through counseling how to make observations without judging the other’s behavior, take responsibility for their feelings and unmet needs, and make a request that is not a demand to their partner.

Sam and Susan fall into fairly typical patterns of “naming and blaming”. Neither of them is taking responsibility for their own feelings and needs and instead is blaming their spouse. They are making demands instead of requests which only further alienate their partners. Jennifer and Richard, on the other hand, have learned Nonviolent Communication, or as I prefer to call it the Compassionate Communication model of conflict resolution.

What is Compassionate Communication and How does it Work?

Compassionate Communication is a model for resolving conflicts. It was pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960’s and has been used successfully to negotiate conflicts between countries, in schools and communities, in the workplace and with couples and families. As a marriage therapist working within the expat community, I am most interested in how two people in a primary relationship can resolve conflicts and have greater satisfaction within their relationship, particularly during stressful times living abroad.

Compassionate Communication works with four basic principles: Observation, feelings, needs, and requests. To demonstrate how this might work, let’s return to our first couple, Sam and Susan. Susan was blaming Sam for not being there for her, and Sam was blaming his wife for being irrational.

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If Sam and Susan were using the Compassionate Communication model, it might have looked something like this:

Susan: “When you come home from work at 9 p.m. and talk on your Blackberry until you go to sleep, (Observation without judgment or ‘just the facts’) I feel hurt, ignored and angry (Feelings) because I need support and companionship (Unmet Need). Would you be willing to spend an hour with me between 9 and 12 p.m. and give me your full attention during that time?” (This is the Request, which must be concrete, time limited, do-able and can be answered yes or no.)

Sam: “No, I can’t commit to that. When you ask me to spend an hour with you when I come home, (Observation, just the facts) I feel anxious and stressed (Feelings) because it’s daytime at the home office and I have a need to be responsible, trustworthy, and succeed at my job (Needs). Would you be willing for us to have a 30 minute check in time in the evening and spend 30 minutes together in the morning before I leave for work?”

Susan: “Yes, let’s give that a try.”

So let’s take a look at what happened here using Compassionate Communication:

1. Observation:

The first step is to make an observation by just relaying what you heard or saw the other person say or do as if it were being played back on a recorder, without judgment. This is the first step in removing blame. If Susan had said, “you’re on your damn Blackberry all the time and we never get any time together”, this would have set up an entirely different conversation. Sam probably would have felt attacked, and gone into either defensive mode or counter-attack.

2. Feelings:

When Susan said she felt hurt, ignored and angry, she was taking responsibility for her own feelings, rather than stating that Sam caused her to have these feelings. And when Sam said he was feeling anxious and stressed, he was likewise taking responsibility for his own feelings instead of blaming Susan.

3. Needs:

Marshall Rosenberg states that there are universal needs that all human beings experience at some point in their lives. So I can’t have a need for you to spend less time on your Blackberry because every human being doesn’t share that need. Some examples of universal needs are companionship, support, peace, responsibility, understanding, connection, safety, security, happiness, respect, love, autonomy and trust to name just a few.

So when Susan stated that her needs for support and companionship weren’t being met, it might have been easier for Sam to hear than if she were blaming him for not meeting those needs. And when Sam told Susan he had a need to be responsible and succeed at his job, Susan might have been able to hear this as added information instead of allowing it to fan her anger.

4. Request:

This is the “natty-gritty” of the model, and probably one of the most important components. A request is not a demand and can be answered with a yes or no. As I mentioned earlier, it must be concrete, time limited and actually do-able.

When Sam answered Susan’s request with a no, he went on to tell her his feelings and unmet needs using Compassionate Communication language. He followed with another request that Susan was able to answer yes to. In CC language we frame a question with “Would you be willing……..?”

Compassionate Communication and the Expat Marriage:

Expat couples, particularly at the beginning of a posting, are typically under stress because their usual coping strategies for meeting their needs no longer work. Their support system is diminished, and they need to rely on one another more than they typically do at home.

The non-working spouse may need more support, communication and companionship than usual. At the same time, the working spouse is at a new and usually more challenging job, where he is likely to be the interface between the home office and the reality on the ground. Frequently, this is extremely stressful and what the working partner needs is some understanding of long hours, space, and support for doing everything he can to get through this rough patch. We can see how these needs might collide and the resultant strain this can put on a marriage.

Sam and Susan are a case in point. Although under duress, when they were able to change their language to the Compassionate Communication model, they were able to arrive at an agreement where both of their needs were getting met.

When Language isn’t Enough:

Although I have given some examples of the language of Compassionate Communication, it is the intention that is crucial, not the words being spoken. If I am using precise CC language, but am angry with my partner and trying not to show it, it is the anger that will be communicated no matter what I say. But if my intention is to let my spouse know exactly what I’m feeling and which needs of mine aren’t being met, and if I have a sincere desire to understand what is going on for him, then the intention of understanding will be communicated. Using words that are non-blaming help, but it is by no means the whole picture.

Another Word about the Expat Marriage:

If a couple’s relationship was on a slippery slope before moving abroad, it is likely to become more stressed during and after the move. But this is not all bad news. The Chinese have 2 symbols for the word crisis; one is danger, the other is opportunity. They believe inherent in every crisis is an opportunity for change. I have seen couples in crisis make astounding and lasting changes in their relationship that never would have come about were it not for the crisis they found themselves in.

If you believe your marriage is in a critical state (or hopefully before it gets to that point) this is the best time to seek professional help from a marriage counselor, psychotherapist or psychologist. There are English speaking therapists in most major cities as well as being available online. You have every right to interview your perspective therapist. It is most important that he or she is a “fit” and someone both partners feel comfortable with.