How to cope when your loved one gets transferred … overseas! By relationship expert Lloyd Wells.

The situation

Moving to China was a mutual decision for Joe and his wife Maria. In fact, it was Joel’s enthusiasm for Maria’s potential opportunity that pushed them to make a final decision. When the moving trucks pulled up, they remembered what several colleagues had said -warning that they should both be fully on board before agreeing to make such a big move, and after two and a half years away, they now understand why.

“A move overseas will strengthen a marriage or partnership if both partners are on the same page,” says Lloyd Wells, a Sydney Couples coach. “However if they are not and they are in a tenuous situation before they leave, it could be the death knell of yet another marriage or partnership!”

The strain

When moving overseas — or even across the country — what’s the best way to protect your relationship from strain and stress?

Of course, the same forces can crack a fragile union, and many partnerships can hit the rocks on foreign assignments, Wells agrees. It can be a time of great stress, major
dislocation and the morphing of partnership roles. Couples often confront these issues while dealing with old resentments that can surface if both partners aren’t equally enthusiastic about their new life.

Couples often must re adjust to being together whilst living in cultures that seem to have a more benign attitude towards adultery than we generally do in Australia for example. If there are loyalty cracks in a relationship, intimacy and connection can crumble under these new pressures.

“Being overseas shows people their ‘naked’ relationship without the web of family, long-time friends and a comfortable position in society around it,” says Wells, a relationship psychotherapist who specialises in relocation stress and its outcomes. “Back home their marriage was already bad, but now they see it more clearly; because everything is shaken and there are no social escapes. At the same time, the new living situation creates added stress on top of an already not-so great relationship.”

“When we lived in Australia, all of my friends were concerned about our marriage and my well-being because my husband travelled so much — but here no one even notices, though he’s gone considerably more often,” one client told me. “It’s taken for granted because it is so common.”

Wells says that some employers assume that all these problems would, more widely affect longer-married couples, but he sees many younger, newly married and childless couples who also run headlong into difficulties shortly after moving abroad!

“It is difficult for them to have lives of their own or personal space as they would at home,” he says. “In Beijing and other large Asian cities, for example, the pond of expats is often very small, they meet the same people more often than they would at home, and do the same activities. Many of these connections tend to end rather quickly.”

The help

So, what can a couple preparing to move overseas do to avoid the pitfalls and maintain or even strengthen their relationship?

Wells suggests that it is essential to have good and clear communication, a healthy self image and a good mutual respect – these pivotal skills are even more important when living overseas! He also says it is helpful for people to undergo a couples coaching and training programme to prepare for the culture shock they are about to experience.

The problem here is that too few companies offer couples coaching training to intending expats and Wells sees this as crucial, to reduce the rate of relationship problems either overseas or when couples return home.

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