What no one tells you about expat marriage

expat marriage

When I’m drumming up topics to write about for this blog, sometimes I’ll skim through the travel section of news sites and, if they have them, articles about expat life. Yesterday, the headline “Hong Kong is a marriage graveyard” stopped me in my scroll.

What the what?! At first glance, it doesn’t seem outrageously salacious. However, if you’ve trolled through enough articles about expat life then you’re aware that for the most part, titles skew towards benign.

Obviously, I immediately fell into an expat-marriage-crisis internet wormhole and came across several other sensationally titled articles. Articles like “Can the move to the UAE wreck your marriage?” and “True story: The problems of married expat life in Singapore.”

If I would have stumbled across these when I was getting ready to move to Colombia, I have no idea how I would have reacted. At that time, I was struggling to find even a discussion of how an international assignment would impact my relationship. It took me a bit and I did find an excellent book, but still, expat marriages aren’t really talked about.

I think part of the reason behind this is that expat life, in general, is an enticing idea. It’s alluring. We imagine life abroad as filled with whimsy and grand plans and romanticized versions of ourselves. Most of us aren’t banking on marital stress so when it pops up—because hi, we all live in reality—there’s barely enough energy for getting by, let alone self-examination. And besides, who wants to air their dirty laundry when trying to make new friends?

Robin Pascoe, the author of that book above that I loved, puts it perfectly:

Most women don’t think much beforehand about the impact a relocation is going to have on their marriage. No one tells us the complete truth, either. It’s like the having-a-baby secret. Women don’t tell each other how painful childbirth really is, because who in their right mind would do it if they knew the truth? (p. 2)

Pascoe’s style is direct and a little on the bleak side, but it’s true. On the other hand, it leaves me wondering: how many of us first-timers would be willing to hear that truth? When I was facing our first move abroad I know I would have listened. But, I also would have taken this advice with a huge grain of salt and defiant let’s-see-about-that chip on my shoulder.

Remember the idea of expectations that I discussed last week in last week’s post? We all have visions of ourselves in our future homes but at the end of the day, we’re still the same people. Whatever things you struggle with in your relationship will be waiting for you in your new country, too. The thing about a move abroad, though, is that there are also new little booby-traps waiting to surprise you.

Before we get to the booby-traps and marriage part I want to sprinkle some positive vibes over this quasi-discouraging conversation. After four years and two countries, I haven’t found much truth in those scary failing marriage headlines. The couples we befriended are all still together. The girlfriends I talked to all agreed that yes, there are tough spots but in the end, the struggles only helped their relationships grow. I’m aware my evidence is anecdotal. Still, I truly feel that if your current relationship is solid, then a move abroad will only bring you good things.

So, with that little ray of light, let’s look at four unexpected ways expat life may challenge your relationship.

Personality differences 

You may already be aware that one of you is an introvert and the other is an extrovert. With us, I have always been the homebody and Cody the social butterfly. However, in Colombia, I didn’t have the built-in stimulation of a job. I also didn’t have a big social circle. Come the weekend, I was itching to get out. Cody, on the other hand, was working all day in a new culture and language—on his off days, he needed downtime at home. That said, don’t be surprised if you and your partner switch spots after a few months in your new home.

Isolation

It sounds romantic to be in a new place with your one-and-only. The reality is that most of us don’t realize how much we rely on our former communities. We also take for granted how long it takes to build a social circle from scratch. I love my husband and would rather hang out with him than anyone else, but I still need girlfriends! That said, start dipping your toe in the friend pool asap, even if you don’t think you need it yet.

Isolation can also be extra hard on trailing spouses. If you’re no longer working, you’ll have a lot more time on your hands. Figure out how to use it. Being alone too much, even for people like me who love quiet, gives your brain free rein to second guess decisions, over think things, and miss home.

Identity

Identity is a mix of internal and external factors—principally our values, roles, and duties. In some cultures and especially in the U.S., a foundational piece of identity comes from our professions. Take that away and the rest gets shaky pretty quickly. Losing your work identity shifts the balance of dependency in a relationship as well. If you’re not working, you’ll be 100% financially dependent on your spouse. It’s a hard thing to wrap your head around because income is a tangible way to quantify contribution. My only advice here? Lots and lots of honest conversations.

I talk about identity regularly on the blog because it shifts with every move (you can read some recent thoughts here and here). I don’t know what to say about this besides that it’s hard. And unfortunately, I don’t know that there’s any way to prepare for it either besides knowing that it’s coming and having a plan in place to begin finding your purpose as soon as you can.

Competition

This was the most surprising of all because I’m not a super competitive person. And I’ve certainly never felt threatened by my partner’s accomplishments. Well, that was before someone told me how much better Cody spoke Spanish! More than likely, one of you will be more adept at languages, at feeling ok being outside their comfort zone or dealing with homesickness. Everyone processes things at a different pace and resentment can creep in quickly on both sides. A little compassion will go a long way here.

Trailing spouses, in particular, may lag a bit when it comes to the transition part. After all, they usually are more isolated and are grappling with that identity shift. The working partner may have a hard time understanding what the problem is because, from the outside, the trailer is leading a leisurely life. When this happens, it’s really easy to bicker about who’s working harder.

Pascoe illustrates this in A Moveable Marriage when she interviewed a couple who both felt they had done 99% of the work during their relocation. The husband saw his role of attending to their finances and his job as most taxing while the wife thought the opposite because she took care of all the logistics of the move, including reconstructing the home that made it possible for him to function at work. Remembering you’re on the same team as your partner will absolutely help diffuse some of these moments.

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Whew, that was a lot. If you’re feeling up for a bit more reading, you can check out this post about making the most of the trailing spouse experience. Now it’s your turn—how has life abroad challenged your marriage? And also, how did you beat those challenges? Feel free to leave a word or two in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “What no one tells you about expat marriage

  1. Hi Danielle!! I’ll reiterate again…I so wish I had found your blog before our European adventure a couple years ago!! Yes, yes, yes to every word!! Hope you are well! All settled back home….missing it a bit I must say… Adventure on…..

    1. Happy New Year, Trish! I’m glad you’re still checking in here even though you’re all settled back “home”. I can totally understand how you’re missing bits of that old life :-) though maybe not the tiny refrigerator? Thank you for your kind words about what I shared here—it always makes me feel more normal when people can relate, haha!

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