By Lissy Puno, Counselling Psychologist
Arriving at your new host country can be filled with joy and excitement, as you and your spouse anticipate this new adventure you promised to experience together. Before you know it, your spouse is travelling weekly to exciting places in the region as part of the job, returning with stories of people met and cultures discovered. The children are settled in school, but you may start to feel isolated thinking: “What about me?” You build your environment and fill days with a routine of a well-managed home, making new friends, keeping up with your fitness, and taking on volunteer opportunities. The source of anticipated happiness, though – the shared expatriate life – can bring total disillusionment to the once-connected couple, as expectations of the shared experience are not met.
The new regional role is taking away the travelling spouse from the family on a weekly basis. Back with the family on the weekend, but filled with fatigue and the need to be an involved parent watching sports activities, or shuttling the children between play dates. The social life of the expatriate couple can also be demanding, as they spend more time apart.
Couples start living parallel lives without realizing it. It starts with legitimate reasons of needing ‘me’ time to destress as the working week was no fun, with meetings all day. The children’s active lives are also exerting demands, so there is a need for time out. The push for individual happiness and prioritizing what the ‘me’ wants, and feels it deserves, creates the disconnected lives that make a relationship distant. The idealistic expatriate image of what a relationship should be creates significant pressure, because the reality is that both are consumed with work and home management, and there’s no time for each other.
Soon enough, the adjustment phase feels more settled and things start to change. This change is inevitable and couples begin to wonder if this move was right for both of them. They question if they had made a mistake and doubt whether they can continue.
Are you unknowingly drifting apart? Ask yourselves a few of these questions.
- Are you distracted by day-to-day challenges of life that mean you are paying less attention to each other?
- Has your schedule been dominated by your work or social calendar that you’re not safeguarding couple time?
- Do you assume that there is really no need to ask about each other’s lives, because if there was something to be known, then the other would?
- Have you stopped behaving in caring and affectionate ways because you believe that they are not as important?
Maintain closeness by focusing on a few basic things:
Safeguard your weekly couple time. Make time for each other. As adults, you can take care of your needs, but remind yourselves that you are a team and need support from one another. Set a date night, have fun recreationally and enjoy each other’s company, in or out of the home.
Connect daily in loving ways. Offer gestures of affection. While travelling, attempt to have a few minutes to talk via various ways technology can offer.
Stay interested in each other’s lives. Keep intimate personal conversations going and attend to each other’s needs.
Share areas of interest and maintain intimacy. Learn new things together. Develop new hobbies. Get involved in weekend activities as a couple that do not include the children.
Offer emotional closeness. You and your spouse should know each other the best, so validate feelings and thoughts that may arise during the week.
Keep positive thoughts and images of your partner. Remind yourself of what you appreciate in your partner. Those traits are still within, but may be temporarily put aside during stressful moments.
Don’t let little things exacerbate. Stay away from negative, unhelpful thoughts. Focus on what’s working. The effort and contributions, big or small. Heighten the overall good of your partner and the value given to family life.
Stay committed to each other. Keep in mind the long-term vision of your relationship, family and couple goals.
If you feel that you are in a crisis because the new lifestyle has changed your priorities, don’t despair. Talk to your partner about the imbalance; recognize it as an adjustment phase which all relationships will go through during times of change. Identify what is causing the imbalance and communicate the needs that are not being met. Stay committed and don’t let temporary imbalances disconnect you from each other. Discover ways to nurture your relationship amidst the challenges back to a place where you feel understood.
Healthy marriages are work in progress. A good marriage is always growing and changing with the stressors in life. Build the marriage and family life that you always wanted to have wherever you may be.