Even the most secure marriage or partnership can go through rough patches when faced with significant changes, such as kids, financial difficulties or an international move. Counselling psychologist Sebastian Droesler, who has lived in Hong Kong for 14 years, gives his advice on how expat couples can better support each other.
How does the expat experience put stress on a couple?
When I work with couples and individuals on relationship issues here in Hong Kong, I often find that problems arise in three areas: differentiation, communication and adjustment. Differentiation takes into account that each couple consists of two individuals. The stronger, clearer and happier each individual is, the stronger, clearer and happier the couple will be. When a couple comes to Hong Kong, sometimes one partner might grieve leaving family and friends behind or resent having had to give up a job or career, while the other is more ambitious, wanting to conquer and explore. Communication is needed to bring up doubts, fears and stressors, and to gain insight into each other’s world. In my experience, successful couples have developed an open and fair communication style, and mastered the art of being curious and non-judging, without taking things personally.
What are some specific issues you see expat couples dealing with? Is it fair to say that the “trailing spouse” usually struggles more with relocation?
All life stressors – relocating, taking on a new job, and settling into a new country and culture – put a strain on relationships. While one partner might get overwhelmed at times with adjusting to the new living situation and the stress of running family, school and household, the other seems absorbed in career, business development, networking and often travel. Struggles then can manifest in an emotional way in both partners: loneliness, anxiety, guilt, impatience and anger, to name a few. The trick is to sharpen the awareness when this is happening and to deal with it skilfully.
Given that the relocation experience is often different for each partner, how can they best support each other?
Both partners need to work closely together not just during and after the move, but well before it. Successful partners are able to see and understand themselves, and to see and understand the other. Couples grow together when they’re able to maintain a strong bond as partners. A strong bond requires both to be aware and share each other’s inner world, mindset and challenges.
The “moving spouse” typically tends to become complacent about being responsible and in demand beyond work. It’s important to allocate time and space and to fulfil the roles outside of work as spouse, family member and friend. The “trailing spouse”, on the other hand, typically tends to forget that their partners need space and time for themselves in order to relax, reflect and recharge. When partners feel guilty and obliged to spend their free time together as a couple or with family, they often suppress the need for individual downtime. Neglecting a healthy amount of me-time always comes with reduced capacity of attention, empathy and engagement.
Sebastian Droesler is a counselling psychologist, mindfulness trainer and life coach at Counselling Hong Kong.
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