Why Your Expat Relationship Is Out of Balance (and How to Save It Before It’s Too Late)

Move abroad and you’ll get out of your comfort zone. Guaranteed.

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When your expat relationship gets out of balance…

Throw in the mix a partner and (eventually) a few children. The whole system is shaken.

 

This might sound scary but it doesn’t need to.

“A problem well stated is half-solved” said Charles Kettering.

 

Today, we’re taking a good look at the very foundation of a family: the couple relationship.

For many of us, the decision to move abroad was motivated by a work opportunity from one partner, usually in a corporate or academic environment.

 

You know the story:

On site, the working partner is … at work 8 to 12 hours a day, dealing with multicultural teams, interacting in another language, juggling with power and politics.

There are no set hours. Email is on 24/7: the company is global. When you go to sleep, colleagues keep sending questions. When you wake up, your inbox is full. There is no separation between work and family. You’re following your mobile device everywhere even to the bathroom!

No wonder you feel stressed, tired and a tad frustrated. Holidays and weekends are no real time-off.

Work pressure is always on. You’re the sole bread-earner now. You can’t blow it!

 On the other hand, the supporting partner is in charge of what’s called the daily grind: running errands, changing the gas bottle, looking for help for the leaking dishwasher, the capricious heating installation, gathering tax return documents, disputing the exorbitant telephone bill, seeking reimbursement for healthcare, keeping contact with extended family, managing doctor’s appointments, school commitments, playdates, driving around for soccer, drama, gym, music lessons. All activities continuously eating away at any possibility of your spare time.

And when everybody is busy at school or at work, you’re faced with yourself.

What are you going to do with your life? You’ve studied hard, you left a career behind.

Are you doomed now to live through others? See them flourish while you wither?

 

The gap in your expat relationship is increasing every day.

You both live in two different worlds. You lose touch with each other.

Frustration grows. Misunderstandings pile up.

 

What’s the result? Two people in complete imbalance, deeply unhappy, yet relying on each other for support. Unbalanced_scales: the image of your expat relationship?

 

STOP!

 

 

Self-nurture is the best remedy “for the awkwardness, mistrust and downright hostility that sets in when couples lose their balance.”

This is what Alice Domar asserts in her book “Self-Nurture” after decades of therapeutic experience. And I agree.

 

The solution is to work both on ourself in solitude and with our partner in relationship.

As we discussed in 3 myths about self-care that make expats gamble with their life,  for many of us, the idea of nurturing the relationship when taking care of ourself is completely counter-intuitive.

Self-care wrongly refers to the idea that “my needs will now come first and I won’t take care of anyone else. Ever.”

To support this incorrect assumption “self-care is selfish”, we carry the weight of our education, our culture, our religion with a myth deeply rooted inside ourselves: the redemptive value of self-sacrifice.

 

After all, isn’t that what we’ve done in following our partner, giving up our career and taking care of all the trivial aspects of daily life to support his professional development and the growth of our family?

 

Except that it’s not the whole picture.

 

We were also attracted by the unknown, curious about other cultures, eager to learn other languages. We were excited by the prospect of a life out of the ordinary, not the dull daily grind of living for 30 years in the same place. We were drawn to take up the challenge of doing something “crazy”. Something to push our limits. An experience. After all, we’ve only got one life!

So we have to reconcile both sides of the same coin.

Especially when the unhappy side has taken over because we lost a great deal of our identity in the process, because we feel stuck, frustrated, and trapped.

 

Commit to take care of yourself in solitude

If you’re depleted, you can’t give any longer and you can’t wait any longer either. You’re on the brink of collapsing. You still may have to care for others because there’s nobody really who can pick up the slack.

But do yourself (and your relationship) one favor: commit that you’re going to carve out time to attend to your physical and emotional well-being.

How is this going to help you with your relationship?

Expats are bad at self-care.

Not only accompanying partners. Working employees too.

What can you expect if your partner is in the same state of exhaustion and stress as you are?

You can’t change your partner (even if you wish so much to!). Lead by example. Change yourself first.

Imagine a scale where both sides are unbalanced. To re-establish a new balance, you only need to attend one side of the scale. The equilibrium will change automatically.

You get the idea, don’t you?

Start small (5 minutes per day) but commit consistently (every day). This is key to build a new habit.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • mini relaxation,
  • 10 breathing several times per day,
  • 5 minutes for journaling or for quiet meditation.

Pick up one activity and stick to it.

Action for you: Write your choice in the comments or send me an email. I’ll keep you accountable 🙂

 

By focusing on yourself, you’re shifting your attention from the outside to the inside. Instead of relying on someone else to salve your wounds, you now take full ownership of your needs, feelings and emotions. And you attend to them.

 

Once you feel stronger, commit to take care of yourself in relationship

 

Be patient but determined. Indicate to your partner that you want to set aside some time together every day to attend to your relationship.

 Referring to the 4 areas outlined by Alice and Henry in Self-Nurture, here are suggestions to practice self-care with your partner.

1/ Nurturing the body

Practice together relaxation, meditation or breathing exercises. Offer each other a massage.

Take a walk in which you don’t talk but only experience your environment with all your senses.

2/ Nurturing the mind

Review your negative thoughts (I’m not good enough as a wife / I’m not supportive enough)

Find what triggers them.

Reflect on when you have an argument. What was the conversation about? Is there a pattern here? Why do you lose your temper? Where’s the pain for you?

Once you’ve clarified it for you, try to explore what’s going on with your partner.

3/ Nurturing the emotions

Once you’ve analyzed your emotions and reflected on the situation, you’re better prepared to have constructive conversations.

Alice insists upon speaking up when something matters to you. She underlines that “it’s a mistake to stay silent if the cost is to feel bitter, resentful or unhappy”.

4/ Nurturing the self

Mind reading doesn’t work. Even if you were in perfect harmony, be sure: it just does not work.

If you crave for your partner to do yourself a favor, you know… something like a random act of kindness: make a list!

Ask him/her to do the same. Now, you know.

 On the same principle: discuss what you’d like to do together: going for a walk, sharing a pastry, watching a movie, listening to each other’s favorite song, exchanging poems.

 Another idea I found appealing was paired listening. Each partner talks in turn.

You first share something positive about your other half you never told him before.

You share something about yourself you never mentioned before.

You share something about your relationship you never acknowledged before.

 Action for you: once you’ve nurtured yourself in solitude and you feel better, talk to your partner. Explain your intentions. Propose and agree on an amount of time you’re going to spend together (only the two of you) every day.

 All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.

                                          Ralf Waldo Emerson

Share your findings in the comments.

Credit image Wikimedia Commons Credit music Piano Society

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