Communication between expat partners – sometimes fragile, always crucial

At about halfway through the summer each year, I start noticing newspaper articles discussing the strain vacation puts on couples. The gist of most of these articles is that heightened expectations (that are not well communicated), in combination with spending extended time together without the regular framework of everyday life, exposes communication deficiencies within a relationship. One could argue that this is the exact situation expats living abroad experience. Only in their case, the everyday framework has been turned upside down completely with a new job, foreign language and different culture all at once.

I read a fair share of articles and blog posts chronicling expat life and it appears to me that one of the big stumbling blocks for couples is that they enter life abroad with completely different expectations of what it will be like. Often times, there is a working partner and an accompanying partner and their realities, once in place are pretty different.

The working partner has to quickly get into the new job and focus on getting to know coworkers, work culture and procedures while the partner staying home is left with the practical matters of getting settled. Both partners may have a difficult time understanding the other’s perspective.

I remember the early days abroad as very isolated and lonely. My husband worked long days and was absorbed with something new and exciting from the get-go. I spent the days making sure things worked at home – dealing with paperwork and making phone calls to institutions of various kinds. At the end of the day my husband was filled with impressions while I was a little starved for real interaction. He was making social connections at work while I was mostly speaking to anonymous clerks and officials. He had instant access to a new and exciting world while I had the more mundane task of setting up “everyday life”. Considering all this, it’s not so surprising that a couple can end up with completely different experiences of life abroad, at least initially.

Complicating matters further is the idea that you are supposed to be happy and excited – after all, you’re on the adventure of a lifetime! Expressing unhappiness or doubt, or letting your partner know how out of place you feel, or how overwhelmed at work you really are, is not an easy thing to do. Speaking about the experience to your regular support network of friends and family back home can be equally difficult – leaving you feeling doubly isolated.

It’s impossible to know beforehand how you will react to your new life situation, but acknowledgement that change is coming and frank discussion about what you are thinking is a good start.

As with all communication you have to be willing to be open and honest in disclosing how you feel. Likewise, you have to be willing to listen and acknowledge that this is how the other person experiences the situation. Lastly, as is almost always the case with international relocation – there is much help and insight to gain from those who have gone before. So, if you get a chance, speak to someone about what his or her experience of life abroad has been – it is invaluable!

By: Felicia Shermis

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