November 29

7 Crucial Relationship Lessons for Expats and Nomads

Expat Counselling


The promise of adventure and excitement with the person you love was too exciting to refuse.

You brushed any thoughts of the challenges aside and leapt right in, hoping your joint trip to another country would bring you closer.

But there's one small problem: things aren't going as planned.

And you're not alone.

A 2011 study found that the effect of moving abroad for couples is comparable to the stress and transition required when a child is born.

It’s no walk in the park.

And this stress can be worse for expats who have a 'trailing spouse': someone who gives up their job and moves for their partner, becoming a house-spouse.

No matter how you’re feeling right now, and regardless of your circumstances, there are some crucial lessons you can use to keep your relationship steady.

Whether you're a nomad constantly changing location or an expat on a more extended stay, you can navigate these uncharted waters.

It's possible to enjoy the journey and glide through all the waves.

1) Don't Rely (Solely) on Your Partner

Now you've moved abroad and you're away from your friends and family, you may find yourself turning to your partner more than normal.

Back home, you had friends to talk to and activities that took you away from the relationship. Now your partner is fulfilling all these roles: they're your best friend, counsellor, roommate, and lover.

No matter whether you're living in a five bedroomed condo or hopping from one hostel to another, it's challenging to live this close to someone.

Try to avoid being dependent on your partner for all your social needs. Create a virtual and physical support system and build a community of people that support you. Put energy into building relations with expats and locals and regularly connect with people back home.

Even if you're a nomad, you'll likely stay in a place long enough to connect with a few people. Be trusting and open to them when you can.

2) Separate (a Bit)

You may also find yourself spending more time with your partner than you would have before. This is especially true for digital nomad couples as you'll often find yourselves in situations where you must work, play, eat, sleep, bathe and pretty much do everything else together.

Regardless of your specifics, your relationship can suffer when you lose the dynamic of separate friends, workspaces, and interests that give your lives and relationship vitality and space.

No matter how much you love and appreciate someone, sometimes you need some time away from them.

Create space within your constraints. You might be able to do this within the same living area by wearing headphones, for example, or retreating to separate parts of your accommodation.

Can you go for a walk or spend an afternoon working from an alternative location? Or can you give your partner space to do activities they find personal such as phone calls or yoga?

Are there activities that you could do separately? Can one person go cycling while the other goes for a run?

Think creatively: there are all sorts of options even when you're living in each other's pockets.

3) Embrace Being Adaptable

When you moved abroad as an expat, one of you might have given up their job, changing the roles or the balance in the relationship. Even as digital nomads, one of you may have given up your primary source of income to rely on the other. Even if these changes are temporary while you find your feet in your new country or career, this evolution of roles can cause problems.

If you're the sole breadwinner, you may be feeling anxious about being responsible for two people. If you're the person currently without much of an income, you may feel unproductive and out of place. Being entirely reliant on your partner may make you feel vulnerable and ashamed to ask for money when you need it.

Make sure you set expectations before you set off, so you both remember you're in this together. Communicate how you feel to each other and try to come up with solutions. Be aware that you both may struggle with the changes in role, lifestyle, and finances that relocating brings.

4) Draw Some Lines

While you might not have secrets that you keep from your partner, you've probably not told them everything. There are probably parts of your life that you prefer to stay private, certain areas where you need some separateness.

Maybe you aren't comfortable with your partner using your phone or laptop. Or perhaps you prefer to have conversations with friends and family out of earshot. Or it could be that you choose to meditate alone.

Having specific areas of your life that you like to keep to yourself is reasonable. You aren't keeping secrets or locking your partner out. Everyone has privacy and intimacy boundaries that need respecting, and everyone draws those lines at different places.

Because of this, you'll need to communicate what your boundaries are and listen and respect your partner’s. You won't automatically know where each other's boundaries lie, so having an open and honest discussion is vital.

And remember, you'll need to be willing to adjust as you change living situations. Time and new experiences could vary your needs and alter your required boundaries.

5) Be Intentional

Although you may be spending a lot of time together, you may not be doing so in an intentional way. Make sure that some of your time together is quality time, so that you're not only working or living together but also having fun while you’re at it.

Plan trips out together into the local neighbourhood, switch off your phones and laptops and enjoy some downtime. Talk about what’s going on in your lives.

Stay optimistic about your partner too.

When challenges arise in a relationship, it can be easy to let problems in one area spill over into another. The little things like your partner's cleaning habits, or their preference for you to be the organiser, might in regular times be manageable, but the added pressure of living abroad may cause your patience to wear thin.

When you notice yourself getting irritated by your partner's bad habits, try to think of a few positives to act as a balance. If you want to raise an issue with them, start gently and ensure you've dealt with your irritation first.

6) Argue Productively

No doubt you disagree with your partner all the time. It's a normal part of living with another person. With the extra pressures on expat and nomad couples, learning to deal with disagreements is essential.

The first thing you should do is to set regular time aside to discuss your relationship and any differences between you. If you do need to point something out that you're not happy with, do so gently, focusing on the specific situation and how it made you feel, without pointing the finger or blaming your partner.

If you're listening, try not to get defensive and push the topic back onto your partner by denying what your partner thinks happened or pointing out they do similar things. Instead, put aside your initial judgments and listen to what your partner is saying.

You may disagree with the details, but can you feel their pain and see the issue from their perspective?

Try to take some responsibility even if you don't agree with everything your partner says.

7) Be a Trouble-shooter

You may be excited about your new adventure and about the chance to break out of old routines and refresh your relationship. You may be looking forward to spending quality time together. But don't forget to watch out for some of the problems that can arise when you're living abroad.

Be tolerant and understanding of your partner and yourself. Watch out for some of the common mental health challenges expats and nomads face. These include:

  • The loneliness and isolation that can come from living in a foreign country,
  • The loss of identity that can come with roles and job status change and culture shock,
  • The disorientation when faced with cultures that are different from our own.

Help each other overcome these problems and face the challenges of living abroad, encourage each other to learn about the local culture, make new friends and stay in touch with friends at home. Don't be afraid if a partner wants to try new activities and grow in directions neither of you could have foreseen. Encourage them to get extra help from a

counsellor if they need it.

Let the Expat Challenge Pull You Together

Living abroad with your partner can be a fantastic experience. Having someone to share your problems and experiences with can do a lot to enhance your quality of life, leaving you with a lifetime of happy memories.

But don't be naïve.

Travelling abroad as a couple for an extended stay comes with challenges.

Changes in roles and responsibilities, loneliness and isolation, feeling in each other's pockets, and over-stepping each other’s personal boundaries are bound to happen from time to time.

If problems do arise, this isn't a sign that you're not up to the challenge or that you shouldn't be together. You can expect problems with any lifestyle change.

Instead, keep your eyes open for the challenges ahead and start working on the ways to cope. Reach out if you need any help and support. I've lived abroad extensively with my partner and know the challenges couples face.

With the proper guidance and support, your relationship can flourish. All your hopes of a romantic time and a strengthened relationship can come true if you keep these tips in mind and reach out when and if you need to.

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