I am a certified therapist who helps expats facing difficulties in everyday life abroad. I graduated...
Expat Couples: Migration & Relationships03 September 2013, by Somesh Valentino Curti
The second part of the "Expat Couples" series is about migrant couples. This is when it is not just one of the two partners who leave their home country (as is the case for expat couples in long-distance relationships) but when the "team" packs, farewells friends and family and takes off!
Proactive & Adaptive migration
When a couple decides to migrate there are two possible starting conditions: a "proactive" migration, in which both share the idea; or an "adaptive" migration, in which one of the two goes along with the other’s need to leave.
› Proactive migration
A "proactive" migration can create a stronger bond between partners, because they decide to experience an adventure together, a new way of living and create a chance for a better future.
It could also prove to be a real relationship test, because there are many difficulties, compromises and adaptations to face in the emigration process. It can create trouble between the two people because old and hidden conflicts can come up.
Work on them
Sometimes we take radical decisions, like emigrating, thinking that we will leave our old conflicts behind us, but they always find a way to fit in our suitcase! It's precisely this challenge, if approached in a positive way and with common intention, which creates the opportunity for an enduring and solid future.
Compare it to cultivating a field: first you need to work hard tilling the ground and sowing, after which the fruit will grow by itself. Emigration is a limited-time situation and it´s up to us to use it to learn more about ourselves.
› Adaptive migration
In the case of "adaptive" migration, the starting point is difficult because the couple’s wishes are divided: one partner wants to move, the other will adapt to the situation.
The partner who is asked to move is given a choice: "Either I sacrifice myself by following him/her or I sacrifice my relationship and stay behind".
If this partner decides to follow their beloved, one motive may be that the relationship is really important and that it is worth moving to keep it. Another reason may be that breaking up is too serious a decision to take without first trying everything to save the relationship.
When a couple arrives in a new country and tries to settle in, many things might happen, which will probably provide many opportunities to fight and blame each other:
› "You brought me here! It is your fault if it doesn’t work between us! We did not have to leave!"
› "It's not my fault if you're not happy here, you don’t want to be happy! You just want to go back!”
Crisis in the new country: What to do about it?
If a crisis erupts in the new country, one thing that must be done is to talk about the experience, giving space and time to both partners to express their feelings, emotions and thoughts. It is especially important to discuss strong emotions such as anger and fear.
If these emotions are suppressed, we start feeling bad about ourselves. If they are only acted out, sooner or later they will burst out during a fight (verbal or non-verbal aggression). But there is a better way.
The art of sharing
Sharing opens the door to a deeper level of connection. Here are some examples:
› "I feel anger towards you because..."
› "I am scared because..."
› "When you say this, the way I experience it is..."
Try not to repress or react, but to share. It is difficult when we feel such strong emotions, but opening up can make a real difference in experiencing them.
If you have left your country just to follow your partner, don’t simply blame him / her, as you also have your own responsibility. In fact, even if you didn’t agree with him / her, you did decide to leave.
Do not position yourself as a victim; it is an insult to your partner but above all to yourself. Always take responsibility for the decisions you take, because they tell you who you are in each situation.
Photo by Flickr user derrickcollins
Respect your partner’s feelings
On the other hand, if you wanted to leave and your partner didn’t, you cannot expect him / her to always be positive or open to you. You must respect and accept your partner’s anger and fear, stay close to him / her and make it clear that his / her proximity is really important for you.
When you are in doubt whether being together in the new country is a good idea, you could ask yourself some of the following questions.
Answer with complete honesty and share with your partner:
› "What do I need in this moment? What do I really want?”
› "What do we need from each other? What do we really want?”
If the answer to the first question does not correspond at all with the answer to the second one, then it could be good to check if you want to keep your relationship alive. You can risk carrying on with something that will only bring mutual suffering. If love is not there anymore, the couple might have to surrender and separate.
If, on the other hand, the needs of both individuals are similar to those of the couple, it could mean that the motivation to stay together may overcome other obstacles. The point is always the same: if love flows between you two, difficulties or differences don’t really count. The couple is strong enough to survive.
Therapy for couples
Therapy is a valid tool that can bring clarity to your situation, express hidden emotions and feelings and find a way out of your conflicts. The therapist offers an open and safe space in which you can express yourself as you really are.
The therapy process is based on unfolding what is hidden, developing the capacity to relate with and understand each other and letting the truth come to the surface: "Do we still love each other?"
If the answer is positive, therapy helps you to start afresh and to take decisions about your present and future from a more grounded, open and clear position.
The goal is to root into the couple’s feelings, emotions and awareness. If the answers are negative, therapy will help you to separate as painlessly as possible.
Key-priorities: a tool to clarify your situation
You can use the following key-priorities as a good tool to clarify and take charge of your present situation.
Ask yourself which sentence describes you best at this moment in your life:
› "I love my job, it is the main expression of who I am. I am willing to live in any place in the world where I can do it and I will love those who are willing to accept me for who I am."
› "I love my partner more than anything else in the world. I do not care where I live and what I do. Love is my main reason of living."
› "I love where I live, this place defines who I am. I would not accept any work opportunity that takes me abroad. If my partner does not want to stay here, I will let him/her go."
Life is never as simple as in the examples described above; it involves many variables. The function of these three positions is to help you to clarify what you really want and need in the situation of moving to another country with your partner.
Try to use them as a stimulus to look inside yourself in an honest way and as a mirror to reflect what really matters to you. After that, take your decision!