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Expat relocation and its effect on a marriage

 

Relocating to a new country can wreak havoc on a marriage. Former diplomatic spouse ROBIN PASCOE reveals a few truths about love on the road.

Any expat couple watching their life’s treasures being wrapped and double wrapped for protection during a relocation would do well to stop for a moment and wonder why their relationship is not being equally safeguarded against breakage.

Most couples simply don’t realise that their relationship, too, is being shipped to a new country where the impact of a variety of pressures and shocks can take a heavy toll, even leading to divorce.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that many expat marriages don’t survive relocation. And in a survey I conducted, almost half of the respondents admitted they had not given their relationship much thought in the process of moving. Why not?

“Before they relocate, couples tend to focus on the externals of the move, such as where they will live, what schools their children will attend, or where they will buy groceries,” says Dixie Wilson, who works in the Employee Assistance Program of the Houston-based energy company ConocoPhillips. “They entirely ignore the internal challenges, many of which are key to the successful relocation of a relationship. They are in denial about the changes which lie ahead for their marriage.” Dixie believes that a renegotiation of the marriage needs to be undertaken for a couple to understand each other’s needs during relocation.

Among other things, that means understanding the role each partner will play in the relocation in the first instance, and later in building a new life together abroad. Often, from a working spouse’s perspective, the pressure on the non-working spouse in a new city or country can appear minimal because it is often attached to trivial matters.

“Right after a move, feelings of disorientation and isolation are usually brought to light by something such as a woman not being able to find a mop in a new city or even knowing what store would sell one, how to get there or how to ask for it,” according to London-based marriage therapist Phyllis Adler.

“The lack of control and power this represents is not easily conveyed. Talking about it can be tedious for a working spouse who is busy trying to reorganise a multimillion-dollar division of a company.” Phyllis adds that the situation can be much worse for a couple who have had no experience with moving and have not done any preparation. “In that case, the couple may not even be aware of what they are feeling, beyond increased levels of confusion and discomfort. Relationships are not manageable in the way companies are manageable, so a marriage can’t operate like a business.”

Using the language of business is sometimes not a bad way for couples to communicate about the relocation. A wife heading to Latin America with her husband told me that the only way she could communicate her own needs was by using non-emotional, case-in-point scenarios. “I did everything short of break out an overhead projector and flowchart!” she confessed.

And how was the idea of a move abroad raised in the first place? Within the answer lies a key to understanding how a relocated marriage can develop tense dynamics in its early days, such as if a woman feels coerced into a move, or says “yes” when she really wants to say “no”.

So, here are a few tips to keep a marriage on track during a relocation:

• Think like a team 
Teams stick together through thick and thin. Ask each other about individual goals and set common objectives as a couple, or perhaps as a family. Listening to each other’s hopes and dreams can be a positive experience if you create a sense that you’re both working towards the same end and want to support the other in achieving his or her goals.

• Have regular “end of the day” conversations
These conversations help partners feel connected to each other, but pick a time that’s suitable for your family. So often in the process of moving, couples aren’t aware that an “emotional disconnect” is building a wall that will grow higher with each passing day if neither partner attempts to scale it.

• Exercise emotional intelligence 
To restore and maintain harmony when a relationship moves, it helps to be knowledgeable about the emotional part of the relocation – all the ups and downs. Otherwise, the moving boxes may be emptied and the household goods put away, but a couple’s feelings for each other may be left out in the cold.

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