Challenges for Ex-patriate Couple Relationships

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People are disturbed not so much by events as by the view which they take of them` Epictus, first century AD.

So you’re here! You`ve successfully made all the necessary transitions to living abroad, however perhaps your mutual decision to relocate is proving to be more difficult than expected. The reality of living where practically everything is different in terms of your prior lived experience has dawned and perhaps you`re finding the relationship with your spouse/partner itself to be troublesome. You are not alone. Whilst every couple relationship is unique, most ex-pat couples have the additional challenge of adapting to ex-pat life.

An example of where a problem in the ex-pat couple relationship can occur is when the relocation is perceived by one partner/spouse as affirming and personally and professionally rewarding and by the other as personally and professionally challenging and unrewarding. This can create stress in the couple relationship. It is an example of how differing perspectives of the same situation can be problematic in ex-pat couple relationships, even though both partners welcomed the relocation initially.

When previously helpful support structures are no longer readily available to one or both partners, a sense of isolation can increase the stress within the couple relationship, which in turn can lead to an escalation in conflict. It is important to note however that it is not the amount of conflict in a couple relationship that determines the quality of the relationship, rather it is how the couple manages the conflict.

Assertive conflict management skills are necessary for both partners, to ‘weather the storm’ when problems occur. Good communication is essential. However, we often find it difficult to communicate verbally, reliant as we are to a large extent on non-verbal communication. Empathic listening is a key ingredient in good verbal communication as it ensures that both partners feel understood and heard. Fortunately it is something that can be learned.

Empathic listening is facilitated by an understanding of individual boundaries whereby each person assumes responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. For example instead of communicating to your spouse/partner “you make me feel” or “it makes me feel” (which is an example of not accepting responsibility for one`s own feelings), rather saying “I feel …. when you or” or “I feel ….when it ” (an example of accepting responsibility for one`s own feelings) is a more assertive style of communication. When each person accepts responsibility for their own feelings, situations whereby one spouse/partner feels blamed is averted and thus is less likely to respond defensively.

It is also important for both spouses/partners to treat the relationship itself as an `organic` entity, something to be mutually cherished and nourished. Making time for each other, in busy ex-pat lives, perhaps doing something enjoyable together is a helpful way to maintain a healthy and happy relationship. Even the simplest gestures like going for a walk together can make a positive difference.

Professional support is available for ex-pat couples and can be very helpful to provide a space for good communication.

Written by:                                                                                                          Dr. Anita Corfe                                                                                              Counselling Psychologist & Integrative Psychotherapist                          SACAC Counselling

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