Dr Quratulain Zaidi of MindNLife discusses the pressures that expat life in Hong Kong can have on relationships and marriage and explores the importance of staying connected with our partners.
Losing the connection
Couples living in Hong Kong, including those with young families, often come to me for counselling because they seem to have lost their connection with one other. What I tend to find is that these couples spend very little time together during the week. Not surprising, given the demands of high-pressured jobs combined with travel. What I also find in my own work research is that the working spouse becomes job-centred and the stay-at-home parent becomes child-centred. Their conversations, therefore revolve around administrative tasks and children. So, things like booking the next holiday or planning for the school term become a priority over the relationship itself.
If this is left unaddressed, couples can drift apart and start to lead parallel lives. Sometimes, one partner will recognise that they are growing apart and will try to seek their partner’s attention, but they get no response. They’ll then begin to feel a loss of connection.
Turn towards, not away
Turning towards these “bids for connection”, as they’re known, is one of the key ingredients in maintaining a strong relationship with your partner. Dr John Gottman, who has researched extensively in the field of marriage, carried out a study with newlyweds and then followed up with them six years later. Many of the couples had remained together; others had divorced. The couples who’d stayed married were much better at one thing. They turned towards instead of away from their partners’ bids for connection. Research at the six-year follow-up showed that married couples turned towards their partner’s “bid” well over 80 percent of the time. Divorced couples, however, only about a third of the time.
A bid is any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection or any other positive connection, according to Dr Gottman. Bids can be simple, like a smile, or more complex, like a request for advice or help. While recognising these bids for connection can be complicated, it starts with paying attention to your partner and your relationship. These moments that you create are building blocks of a solid foundation for deep, meaningful connection. Turning away can be devastating.
Six ways to stay connected with each other
#1 Pay attention
Pay full attention to your partner, and give the best of yourself and your time rather than just what’s left after a long day or travel week. Start by being present with each other and interested in what the other has to say, and take this opportunity to connect with your partner and make them feel they are important.
#2 Make time
It’s so easy to start living our separate lives due to a lack of time, and the physical challenges presented by having a young family. This is why it’s important to actively make time at least once a week for a coffee or lunch when your partner isn’t travelling to catch up with each other and find out what’s going on in each other’s worlds and lives.
#3 Monitor aspirations
Life goals and dreams change over time, and it’s important to keep up to date with the map of your partner’s internal world. If you don’t do this, you’ll be left with the “outdated” map of your partner’s aspirations. So, once every three months, ask your partner, “How can I help you achieve your life goals and dreams?”
#4 Don’t assume
After being in a relationship for years, it’s easy to get complacent. It’s important, therefore, to stay active and interested in your relationship. Make time to check in on how you and your partner feel about your relationship. And don’t assume because everything is seemingly okay that things can’t be improved.
Let’s not forget the emotional and physical connection. Date night once a week is prescribed by most therapists because it’s important for couples to carve out time to turn toward one another with love and affection to connect emotionally and physically.
More and more people are finding it challenging to find life partners; just ask your single friends how hard dating can be. You have created something special – a family with a loving partner – so be deliberate in protecting your relationship. Too many people think they can put their romance on a shelf and focus only on other areas of their life, like career and family. I let couples know that if they don’t put their relationship at the top of their list of priorities, just behind their own self-care, experience shows things tend to deteriorate.
In my personal and professional experience, the four essential ingredients that see a relationship through are honesty, care, trust and mutual respect. When we have these in place, there is fundamentally a secure base and solid foundation for the relationship. To cultivate these and maintain them in the long term requires active effort and investment of resources. Not just time, but also being fully present and regularly checking your partner’s internal world.
Finally, treat your relationship with respect and integrity, and above all cherish it. Remember, it was there before the kids came along, so prioritise it.
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This article first appeared in the February/March 2019 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.