The Silent Problem

In October, a Singapore expat killed his 5-year-old son in a dispute with his ex-wife as they were going through a custody battle in October 2015.This is an extreme example but it serves as a platform to discuss the complexity of moving abroad and how it can affect a relationship for better or for worse.

The life of an expat is amazing, interesting, and rich for many families. You get a chance to experience a new culture, see things that you have never seen, and have an opportunity to meet people from all over the world. I want to highlight another aspect of being an expat that you do not always get to hear about-the hardships of the accompanying spouse.

“Carmen” moved to Bangkok because her husband got a new opportunity. She imagined that it was going to be a fun adventure where she and her husband would spend quality time together. However, her husband worked long hours so that made it tough for her as she had to figure out what to do when he was at work. She used to have a fulfilling job, but now it felt more daunting to live in a new country on her own with no family around. She spent her days calling her friends from abroad.  She would wait for her spouse to come home in the evening so they would be able to connect. Whenever he came home, he was exhausted and this led to Carmen feeling angry. What was she here for? She felt lonely and depressed that she gave up her prior life and felt resentful about coming abroad.

Many women (or men) come here as an expat on an assignment with their partner and experience a loss because it is difficult to start over in a new place. Carmen (and many accompanying spouses) had everything before she moved; her job, her self-worth, her income, her friends, and her family. All of a sudden, the roles have changed from both parents taking care of their kids to one person holding the sole responsibility. In addition, more travel may be required which means that you are on your own to pick up the pieces.

It can be harder because you do not have your spouse to talk to and do not feel comfortable sharing your feelings with your expat friends. Everyone knows each other so you feel like you have to act like “everything’s fine”. This can feel like a huge burden because it is hard to get yourself out of this situation when you feel like there is no hope.

What can you do to improve the situation?

  1. Get support by talking about your feelings. It is lonely when you are experiencing these feelings and it is important to find someone you trust. When you bottle up your feelings, you tend to act out with your partner.
  2. Keep talking to your spouse about your feelings. Use “I feel” statements so that he/she can understand where you are coming from. For example, “I feel angry because I am not fulfilled here”, rather than “You are selfish and don’t care about my feelings”. This only makes conflict escalate and then you do not get to have the experience of feeling heard.
  3. Start making friends in your new environment. When you can feel more connected to a new place, it will help you feel more grounded. Join groups so that you can talk and get to know what resources are available.  When you have other people to connect with, you do not rely solely on your husband but you have a community to elicit support from.
  4. You have to re-establish a sense of purpose when you move to a new location. That could be continuing your education, volunteering, joining a language class, learning a new skill, and/or finding work that feels fulfilling. This can take a lot of soul-searching but in the end, it will get you to a place of feeling happier and more connected to your environment. This can help you establish a sense of purpose and be able to engage more deeply about what is important to you.
  5. Continue to make your needs known in the relationship. What do you need in the relationship? Talk to your partner to figure out what is realistic so that you can manage your expectations better. If you expect your partner to read your mind or anticipate your needs, then you will be disappointed. It is empowering to think about what you can do to get your needs met.

It takes effort on both individuals in a marriage to have a strong relationship. Moving abroad can present challenges that can shake up a relationship. You may feel like you are out of your element in a new country and that is tough for everyone involved. There is hope and you are not alone! I have seen many people re-invent themselves in ways that he/she never expected and then be able to experience fulfillment in their new home. Be patient with yourself and keep the channels open in your relationship. The more you and your partner can engage and connect from a loving place, the happier your relationship will be. Keep searching for what you love to do and you will find fulfillment in your relationship, and in your life!

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