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  • Henriette Johnsen

Enhance your relationship and expat life with couples therapy!

Updated: Mar 27

Most couples embark on expat life armed with hopes, aspirations and courage as well as good spirits to make the most of their time abroad. Initially, during the so called honeymoon phase, many couples bond more closely as lots of decisions are due and there may not be anyone else to turn to for emotional support in relation to relocation challenges. As any expat will know, these are plentiful and testing.


Sadly, there is no handbook on expat marriage; and as many couples and families attest, they literary make it up along the way. In many ways a wonderful experience, expat life is also one of the greatest strains to take on; and many couples suffer prolonged periods of stress and unhealthy living before ending the expatriation contract prematurely or dissolving the marriage via separation or divorce.


Expat marriage needs an extra dose of nurture and care as well as clear communication and continually matching of expectations. Just as if you are in a cross-cultural marriage, you can’t interpret your partner’s actions, idiosyncrasies, insecurities and dreams through your own cultural lens. You must be willing to translate their meaning through their lens. And when living abroad, lenses often change perspectives and you are likely to discover new likes and dislikes about each other.


All relationships are challenging at times. Subconsciously, we tend to choose partners who represents unresolved matters from our childhood hoping for a better experience when we unknowingly use the adult relationship as a scene to re-enact our childhood traumas with our spouse as a stand in for the influential people of our past, most often our parents. If couples unknowingly fall into this trap, there is a risk they will experience frustration, resentment and a blockage in communication rather than the love, empathy, understanding and support spouses turn to each other for.


In my experience, we can receive and embrace these if we take full responsibility for our own personal wellbeing, happiness and contentment; and don’t put this on our spouse. For many couples, this is hard enough in their home country; and for expat couples, life adds an extra layer of complexity to matters.


In my practice, I see couples struggling with various aspects of expat life which affect their marriage. A faltering marriage can’t be helped by moving abroad; on the contrary, it may well be brought to a breaking point by some of the following challenges which occasionally also knock otherwise sound relationships sideways.


For all, it can be a huge strain to be separated from one’s familiar support network. Friends and family can no longer be closely involved in your life; and if they haven’t lived abroad themselves, it can be difficult for them to fully appreciate the struggles of expat life and understand the extend of your distress.


New friendships made abroad are challenged by you not sharing a cultural reference point; and by the fact, that many expats move every two to three years. Due to the latter, many locals often hesitate to include expat couples in their circle of friends, so expats are often faced with an ever-changing circle of friends starting over and saying goodbye again and again. In the long term, this can be emotionally taxing and lead to social isolation.


For the working spouse, new and unfamiliar work demands are on the horizon, corporate culture shock sets in whilst learning to conduct work tasks in a new language. The trailing spouse, faced with the necessity of having to create a new life from scratch whilst often settling in the children and running the household, are often the most vulnerable to relocation stress. Many suffer from debilitating loneliness, identity crisis, depression and experience feeling paralysed in their way of being in the world manifesting itself in anxiety. Often well-educated and coming from well paid jobs, they also find it hugely challenging to be financial dependent on their partner. Adding to both parents’ stress levels, children may find it difficult to settle into a new school system and make friends. Furthermore, the working spouse can easily feel dragged down by their spouse’s reaction to expat life impacting their wellbeing and productivity at work; and some seek comfort in an extramarital relationship compounding the distressful situation.


Things to do to enhance your expat relationship and make your expatriation successful:


· View expat life as an opportunity to learn new things about each other and to further bond.

· You need to continually check in with your partner.

· You need clear and honest communication to assess the strength and resilience of your relationship. On and off, these will be thoroughly tested throughout your expatriation; and you will need to function autonomously in the absence of your usual support network.

· You will need to be flexible and curious to new experiences, to develop solid skills for conflict-solving and for maintaining empathy for a spouse reacting differently to expat life than yourself.

· Try out new experiences together.

· Develop individual friends but remember to also create mutual friends; it is just as important to meet people as a couple as individually.

· Talk about your different experiences; and do not take for granted that your partner experiences expat life as you do.

· If children are involved, talk about their challenges in a calm and adult manner without the children present. Find common ground from which you advise your children; and remember, they may experience expat life different to you.


How can couples therapy help your expat relationship?


When going into couples therapy, it is important to remember that it is your relationship which is the client, not the two of you individually. Couples therapy mainly serves the purpose of making sense of what is going on between you; doing this with a neutral therapist provides you with an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of each other, how you each contribute and react to your challenges and to find a way forward which will enhance your connection and better your expat life.


Besides developing a further understanding of each other, couples therapy also helps you to:

· Promote self-awareness and personal growth.

· Clarify your feelings about the relationship.

· Resolve relationships road blocks before they become impasses.

· Deepen intimacy and connection between you, physically as well as emotionally.

· Create better communication between you.

· Fall in love and feel loved again.


How to make the most of couples therapy:

1. Try to put the idea of divorce out of your mind - at least for the time being.

2. Go with the process and give it your best effort.

3. Even if you feel as if you have tried everything, be open minded.

4. Prioritise your appointments.

5. Make sure you arrive for and leave appointments together.

6. If any, do the homework.

7. Know that the therapist wants the best for your relationship.


If you are interested in knowing more about couples therapy, please feel free to visit my website.






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