How to Safeguard Your Relationship Abroad

Have you noticed that moving abroad has put a strain on your relationship with your partner? Amsterdam psychotherapist Debby Poort explains how to reconnect.

Safeguarding Your Relationship Abroad

Living abroad offers many exciting experiences as well as a myriad of challenges. If you are living in your non-native country with your partner, you probably agree that the adjustment period is difficult. You are faced with creating a new social network, adjusting to a new culture and possibly starting a new job. You might even be dealing with a new role in your family after having left a trusted career behind.

Transition Strategies

During any time of transition, we all adopt certain coping strategies in order to help us survive. A common strategy you might have noticed in yourself and in your partner is relying more on each other than ever before. This makes a lot of sense, since neither of you have anyone else to turn to in your adopted country. While this strategy is logical, the result is that it puts an added strain on your relationship.

In order to navigate the transition successfully and keep your relationship healthy, you will need certain skills that you may have taken for granted back home. How you cope in the early days will lay the groundwork for the months and years to come.

Ingredients for Safeguarding Your Relationship

So, how do you safeguard your relationship while living abroad? The most important thing is to stay emotionally connected, through understanding and supporting each other.

There are two main ingredients to understanding and supporting your partner. The first is not to make assumptions that you know what they are going through. Sure, you both might be living in a foreign country and have moved together at the same time, yet what you experience might be very different from your partner. This is because we all experience things uniquely, based on our past histories, temperaments, and our inherited genetics. For example, two people who get in the same minor car accident will have two very different reactions. One might talk about how scared they were and in the weeks to come might be fearful of getting in cars. The other person might talk about how grateful they felt not to be hurt and proceed to live their life more vigorously in the weeks following the accident.

Understanding Your Partner's Experience

Realizing that your partner will have a different experience than you will help shape your expectations about how they are coping. And it will be less of a shock if your partner is behaving differently than they did back home. It helps to keep in mind that life changes and stress can bring about hidden vulnerabilities.

Often these difficulties can be surprising to someone who is used to handling adversity well. I have heard countless stories of people who function perfectly well back at home, surrounded by their friends and family, only to struggle and feel like they are falling apart upon arriving in the Netherlands. While this can be frightening, it actually isn't all that surprising. Humans are social beings who rely on a close-knit tribe in order to thrive. When that tribe is no longer physically available, we can feel as though the rug has been pulled out from underneath us. 

You Don't Need to Solve it for Them

The second important ingredient is to not try and solve your partner's problem for them. You might think that it would be best for your partner to get out there more, but during times of distress many people do better focusing inward on a smaller tribe, such as the family unit. What you need might not be what your partner needs. Remember the car accident – for you, it might have been a life changing moment in a positive direction, but for your partner it was terrifying.

The good news is, most people are capable of solving their own issues, they often just need support and understanding in order for them to figure it out on their own. Trying to solve the problem for your partner usually doesn't help the situation. Think of it this way, if your partner is feeling sad, scared or overwhelmed, imagine what it must be like if you, the one person they rely on, tells them that all they need to do is just get out the door and start living.

Listening and Empathy is Enough

Instead of assuming that you know what your partner is going through and what the solution should be, it is far more helpful to listen and empathize. Just being there for your partner and asking about how they are experiencing the adjustment, without the pressure to have to solve it for them is enough. Really, it is.

Above all, it is important to remember that we all want to be heard, feel connected, supported and loved. In my experience, these are the top issues that lead couples to seek professional help (though they can be and often are, disguised as other issues). So what are you waiting for? Set up time with your partner today and just ask these two simple questions: "What are you going through right now?" and "What can I do to help support you?" You might just be surprised by the answer!


Debby Poort (B.A. Psychology, BCZ Registertherapeut®) is a U.S. native who has been offering psychotherapy to the international community in the Netherlands since 2007. She offers individual therapy, intensive couples therapy, couples workshops and couples retreats in her private psychotherapy practice, Yellow Wood. For more information, you can find her at expatcouples.com.

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