I’ve said it before and I will say it again,
Expat life is not for the faint hearted.
The daily motions of multicultural living, frequent travel, stressful careers, raising bilingual children, and becoming each other’s crutch as you live far from family, will put a strain on even the strongest of relationships. It’s not for everyone.
There’s an abundance of studies on expat relationships. For example, the findings from this one, “Till stress do us part: the causes and consequences of expatriate divorce”, empahise how the consequences of divorce for expatriates are immense and include bankruptcy, destitution, homelessness, depression, psychophysiological illness, alienation from children, and suicide.
It’s not a small matter at all.
Today marks 3 years since Polar and I walked down a beach in the Seychelles and signed our names into a thick book of marriage licenses. A day I remember not just for the heartfelt commitment our elopement signifies but also because of the uniqueness of our wedding. Who has a wedding with just 3 strangers? We did. You can read about it here. But since we started (casually) dating in 2017 to now, I can safely say that we are not the same people, our relationship is not the same and the way we feel about each other has also shifted. That’s not to say that there is a lack of love (it is our anniversary after all!), but rather, the feelings have evolved and deepened.
When people discuss expat relationships, we often gloss over the harsh realities of what it takes to make them work and what that comes at the expense of. People living abroad would be happy to advise you on the best schools and nicest neighbourhoods but will not warn you about how expat life can take its toll on your relationship.
The widespread notion is that relationships should be 50/50- with each partner doing their best to contribute to the relationship equally or 100/100- with each partner giving 100% of themselves to the relationship at all times. And this may be possible in some contexts but in my experience, expat relationships often lack balance and consistency due to the intense nature of life abroad.
Meaning that sometimes one partner gives more than the other and these percentages ebb and flow, constantly in flux as contexts change.
This is of course compounded by other factors such as being from different cultures, countries, ethnicities; working in different industries; communicating in non-native languages; and of course- children.
There was a time around our second year anniversary where Polar and I were operating on a 90% and 10% imbalance in our relationship- with one partner propping up the bulk of the relationship while the other simply had nothing to give. The context shifted and that changed but it was rough going for a while. In a way I am glad we went through that because we know why we ended up there and how we can prevent it from happening in the future.
As a result, expat life has really taught me to understand the notion of imbalance and be in tune with my reality than any relationship advice from people who have never left their hometown. In my experience there are 3 main imbalances in expat relationships where one or both partners live in a country they aren’t familiar with. Here they are:
The career imbalance
The pursuit for professional success is a common goal in most societies and widely accepted norm in most cultures. Working a new job in a country new to you means being taken out of your comfort zone and challenged. And because your very presence in a country may be tied to your employment, the job can take on a newly central role in an expat’s psyche. Coupled with the fact that company socialising can include lots of late nights and alcohol, it’s not exactly a recipe for strengthening any relationship.
The imbalance can occur in a number of ways. For example, one partner may have to walk away from their job/career in order for the other to pursue their dream. In another context, one person may become financially dependent on their partner if there are inequalities in income or unemployment. Or even when one partner enjoys their job and finds meaning in it; whereas the other person is struggling to go to work each day to confront a job that makes them miserable. All of these situations can lead to one person feeling abandoned and isolated or stripped of professional identity and worth.
Polar and I have both been miserable due to our jobs; we’ve been unemployed simultaneously and both taken a step back from work at different times in our relationship. Every situation was unique and sometimes put extreme strain on one person or the relationship itself.
Whatever the situation is, it is a normal part of expat relationships to have career imbalances and for this to shift and adjust over time depending on the people, place and situation.
The community imbalance
Even if both partners move to the same place at the same time, the rate at which each person acclimates will be different. Based on people’s personalities, the ability to speak different languages, and the overall experience of each person, making friends will look different for each person.
The UAE has a lot of expat marriages and the highest divorce rate in the Gulf. Gulf News investigated the issue and a top 10 reason listed was lack of a support system: “Not every couple can cope with life in a foreign land without the support of family and friends.”
Some people may make friends quicker in a new place than others and that can leave the other person feeling slighted if they’re struggling to find their community. Alternatively maybe you’ve relocated to a place where your partner lived before. So they have a pre-existing social circle and you don’t. Inheriting friends doesn’t always work because humans subconsciously choose their loyalties to people. And well… you’re your own person. You need your own friends.
Another common problem with expat relationships is that many couples move abroad together- and not knowing anyone else- expect their partner to be their everything; best friend, support system, roommate, and still keep the passion and spark alive. On top of that, they might even be your business partner, colleague or co-parent. It can put a lot of pressure on each other because it’s psychologically impossible for one person to constantly fulfil every single one of your needs.
And what happens when one person has to travel or can’t dedicate their every waking moment to the other? I’ve seen expat depression occur far too many times when people don’t have a community outside of their partner.
Polar and I have learnt that this is another imbalance that ebbs and flows, as you move from place to place and of course depends on where we move to and who we meet. Making friends as an adult is difficult and socialising without your partner can be scary but in the long run, it makes for a healthier relationship.
The location imbalance
People who have lived abroad for a while understand how mobile expat life makes us. Flying around the world is not the momentous event it is for non expats- it’s a part of our scheduled programming. Where we live plays a huge role in the quality of life and quality of relationship we enjoy depending on how each person responds to that place.
You can’t be in 2 places at once. As much as technology has evolved or as much as you may want to be. People underestimate how much the location itself contributes to the expat experience with some countries making it easier for non-locals to live and work and others actively obstructing the paths of foriegn nationals. While one partner might love the location and the lifestyle it offers, the other partner may be less enthusiastic and struggling.
What about when a job involves extensive travel by one spouse, with extended absences forcing even more adjustments in the relationship? Or when one partner wants to move back to their home country and the other is not ready to hang up their expat hat?
If you’re from different places, your families may live on opposite ends of the planet from each other. That can cause conflict within your own family and in turn can put a strain on your relationship.
The location imbalance is a fragile one and sometimes I envy people who have never lived abroad. Never having lived in more than one country means you will not draw endless comparisons between 2 or more places.
When Polar received a job offer from Bahrain to work in a position he really wanted, there was nothing for me to say. We knew we had to live separately in the next chapter of our relationship in order for him to pursue his professional goals and for me not to drop everything to leave a country I enjoy living in. We currently hold dual residency in both Qatar and Bahrain and see each other often. But it’s been an adjustment.
I know if we had lived in South Africa, people around me would be so concerned about our marriage and my well-being with my partner living elsewhere– but as an expat no one even notices, because the separation of families is taken for granted; it’s so common.
Becoming comfortable with location flexibility, based on the needs of each partner (and children) and the needs of the relationship is an endless tightrope that many couples are forever navigating.
Of course it’s not all gloom and doom. Many couples living abroad do enjoy a high level of happiness despite the challenges of expat life. Polar and I have been together for 5 years now and despite many ups and downs, we are fortunate to enjoy a meaningful relationship based on understanding, empathy and respect. But it has been a struggle at times.
The important thing to keep remembering is that expat life is hard, it is a struggle and it can and will put its own specific strain on any relationship. You’re not alone in dealing with these challenges and neither is your relationship abnormal.
I feel like being more honest and open about these challenges can help others understand that imbalance happens. You and your partner have to communicate about how you can handle it both as a couple and as individuals when you move locations and as your relationship evolves.
The way I see it is that each place you have lived stitches itself under your skin. So when you leave a place, there is always an uncomfortable tugging as the threads are pulled taut. Now when you enter a relationship with another expat, your threads can often become knotted or tangled when it’s connected to theirs especially if the threads are being pulled in different directions. Sometimes the knot of crossed threads becomes so thick that it creates endless pain. Now you can choose to sever those threads or untangle them and create something beautiful. The choice is yours.
As Polar and I continue to stitch together our conjoining threads, sewing together the fabric of our lives, I look forward to many more anniversaries reflecting on the journey we’ve been on.
For similar reading on expat relationships, please enjoy some of my earlier posts:
If you enjoyed this post about expat relationships, please pin it using the pin below:
I’d love to hear about your own experience as an expat and if you’ve faced any of these expat relationship issues. Are you noticing a relationship breakdown after moving abroad? What have you struggled with? How has it improved? Leave a comment below!