Expat Essentials

Sarah Nagaty in Lisbon: Three relationship factors that will test you as an expat couple

expat couples abroad
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Moving abroad is a challenge, and moving as an expat couple is no different. While expat life as a single person might be lonely (here’s how to overcome it), being in an existing relationship when moving is not always easy either. Feeling lonely may not be the issue here, but surviving new kinds of difficulties as a couple can definitely be a challenge. There are three relationship factors discussed below that I believe will test you as an expat couple.

(Author’s note: I am not referring to long distance relationships; that’s a whole other situation in itself. I am talking about people who move to a new country as a couple.)

Moving abroad as a couple can go either way

When you move abroad as a couple, two things can happen: either the relationship grows deeper and becomes more exciting, or it gradually collapses because of the inability to withstand challenges that are very specific to the expat life.

I have personally experienced both – a relationship that went downhill after moving to a new country, and a relationship that flourished and is still flourishing. I have also seen it with many of my friends who were either surprised of how much closer they got to their partners when they relocated together, or of how far apart they grew from each other.

Truth be told: whether your relationship flourishes or not is never really about the expat life. What moving abroad together does is simply provide one of the many ways that life tests our relationships. More often than not, it is good news because it brings awareness to the strengths and weaknesses in one’s relationship sooner rather than later.

What are three relationship factors that will test your relationship when moving abroad as a couple?

I believe that moving abroad will test three major factors in your relationship as an expat couple (and none of them is love!):

  • Communication
  • Compromise
  • Independence

How you handle those factors in your relationship will determine whether you make it as an expat couple or not. These are not important only for expats; however they do become more pertinent among expats.

At first, I was planning to share my perspective on how a positive scenario for an expat couple may look like and another scenario where things don’t go so well. But then I realised: whether your relationship grows stronger or crumbles, aren’t both scenarios positive in a way? Of course a breakup in a new country is painful, but it can teach you so much about yourself and what you need and want in a partner.

Therefore, I decided to call the possible scenarios Positive scenario A: it works out; and Positive scenario B: it does not work out.

Positive Scenario A: Your relationship as an expat couple works out

Communication

The relationship working out does not mean that it was a smooth ride all along. It actually means that the couple had to work through a lot. It takes effort and compatibility to make a relationship work, more than love and attraction. Contemplating the idea of moving to a new place, making the decision, and then adjusting and adapting are big steps in one’s life. Partners need to be able to communicate in a clear, honest, and respectful way.

Thoughts like:

  • “But I feel that I will be moving for you, not for me””
  • “Why did you not involve me in that decision?”
  • “I feel you are different since we moved”
  • “You are not providing me with enough support to adjust here”
  • “I do not like the new financial arrangement’

may all emerge. These are difficult things to address, but they do need to be addressed. Expat couples who manage to make their relationship work are willing to have the difficult conversations. They address them head on.

Compromising

Willing to have difficult conversations is great, but not enough. More often than not, some compromises have to be made. A friend of mine moved with her husband to a compound in a dangerous and isolated area in the south of Sudan for his work. I often wondered how she coped. She was always the last person to leave the bar. She said: “I gave up one thing which really mattered to me: my social life. Had I had career plans, it would have been difficult
for me to compromise both. Yes, I miss my social life, but I found myself capable of temporarily giving it up for him. He has done a lot for me in the past as well.” Balanced, well-thought out compromises are integral for couples to navigate their new lives.

Independence

Living an expat life exposes if a partner is too dependent on the other or if they are co-dependent. Relationships are more likely to work out when couples are protective of a certain degree of independence. Those who encourage each other to build their own circles, pursue their own hobbies, learn a new language, find a job or start studying, etc., tend to work out.

This protects relationships from boredom, allows partners to grow, and for them to feel grounded in the new place. My British friend moved to Lisbon with her partner (also British) and did a whole tour of the South of Portugal with her girlfriends without her partner. She also has her own income and budget for personal expenses to avoid full reliance on him, which allows her to be even more independent.

Positive Scenario B: Your relationship as an expat couple does not work out

Communication

Back home in Alexandria, I once worked with a young man back who decided to move to Paris whether his girlfriend was on board or not. He was applying for jobs and his girlfriend found out from his best friend when he accidentally told her (the best friend was not aware that she did not know). He was so determined on traveling that he thought: “Well, she will have to deal with it.” They moved to Paris together, but she returned back to Alexandria after six months. She did not understand why she moved in the first place. He didn’t communicate his plans or even made them open to discussion. She also did not really communicate to him how she felt about moving to a place where she does not speak the language, without a work permit, and where she knows absolutely nobody.

Things go downhill when couples do not stop every once and while to check in on how they really feel. Another friend of mine, a scientist working on cancer research, had to work in Italy as a bartender to be with his Italian girlfriend. It was exciting for a while, but because of the lack of a work permit, he felt that he was throwing all his years of very hard work and studying out of the window. He told her how he felt when it was too late, when he was no longer willing to find a solution to the problem.

Compromising

It may look like the problem with my Egyptian friend and his Italian girlfriend was that he compromised too much. Actually they both felt that they compromised too much. She was taking care of most of the finances due to his work situation, which certainly changed the quality of her lifestyle.

And then there’s the other aspect where both partners refuse to compromise, or when only one of them is compromising too much and all the time. In the case of both of them refusing to compromise, they won’t be able to go far anyway (being expats or not). As for having one making all the compromises, and another one constantly being on the receiving it of that compromise, that is a more common situation to find.

It is usually most likely for the relationship to be asymmetric: it was either the idea of only one of them to move away, or it is only working for the career of one, but not the other, etc. And just like refusing to compromise altogether, compromising too much for your partner takes the relationship nowhere AND creates resentment. Compromising too much is like digging slowly into the foundations of a building: it may not collapse immediately, but it will at some point.

Independence

We may have encountered a partner who can’t speak the language of the country they moved to, and lets their partner take care of all the communication and paperwork. There are also couples who do everything together and make no attempts are made to create new personal spaces in their new environment. There is also the financial dependence which tend to happen more often with women, forcing them to stay in an unhealthy relationship. It is easy to curl up in our comfort zones, but if a couple is not always observing their independence meter, this is a recipe for disaster. People do not need to lose themselves in relationships and they, most certainly, do not need to lose themselves when they lose a relationship.

Takeaway Note

We tend to think that the life of an expat is la vie en rose: everything is wonderful and magical. Sure, most expats earn more than locals, they get to see the world, they have international social circles, they chase their dreams, etc. While some of that is true, everyone has to pay their dues and has challenges to overcome. As expats, there are three main relationship factors that can determine your outcome as a couple. And whether the relationships flourish or end in the middle of navigating all those challenges, we can only grow grow by leaving our comfort zones (and this includes our love life).

About the author:

Sarah Nagaty is a PhD researcher of cultural studies in Lisbon. She’s lived in Portugal for three years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

See all of Sarah’s Dispatches posts here.

See Dispatches’ Lisbon story archive here.

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