Relocation to a new country forces couples to adapt to a different culture, environment, language and custom, all of which can take a heavy emotional and physical toll. It’s therefore unsurprising that some marriages simply do not survive the shift.
In theory, moving abroad should bring couples together, but in reality it often causes them to lose sight of what made their relationship work in the first place. "A change in work and social environments often stresses couples who are trying to adjust," says China Transition Institute president David Israel-Rosen.
This adjustment is particularly difficult in the case of trailing spouses. Divorced expat Deke* warns, "If there are already problems [in your relationship], those problems will be magnified [after moving overseas]. When a foreign executive comes here, he spends virtually all of his waking hours doing something related to work. His wife on the other hand, has almost nothing to do."
Dr. Al Chambers, a marriage counselor at Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU), says couples often come to him for help with issues relating to increased emotional distance following their move to Beijing. Outside their familiar territories, it’s common for people to find themselves struggling to assert their new identity, both as individuals and as a couple.
The Roles We Play
Couples should make a conscious effort to remain well-rounded individuals outside of their relationship. "Ultimately, healthy relationships are about autonomy," says Dr. Rob Blinn, director of BJU’s psychological health center.
Chambers concurs. "It is very easy to define oneself in terms of our external roles, such as parent, wife, or employee, and to feel anxious and lost when we lose those [labels]. Each individual must become responsible for their self-confidence, and not rely on their partner for their happiness. This may require stepping outside our familiar roles and taking risks."
Make the Effort
Be together, even when apart. If traveling on business, leave a series of notes for your spouse to find while you’re away. Alternatively, slip a card or letter into their suitcase. This shows your spouse that they are always in your thoughts.
When together, do things as a couple that you find fun and exciting. Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D, from the Shanghai Community Center, is a strong believer in date night. "Date night is a great way to foster communication and intimacy with your spouse," she says.
Simple steps such as these can help bridge the gap between the couple you were in your home country and the couple you are now in Beijing. Gene, who prefered not to use his surname name, is currently going through a divorce after being married for eight years. He recommends that couples who move to China "find something to bring them together, otherwise they will become divisive."
It’s important to care for and understand oneself in order to be able to care for and understand those around you. Establishing a support network is one way to achieve that balance. "When people leave their home country, they leave a lot of their bonds and support network. Even healthy marriages generally face adjustment issues," says Blinn.
To make friends and develop a much-needed emotional safety net, try getting involved with a local community group. INSPIRED and International Newcomers Network (INN) offer regular workshops on adjusting to life in Beijing. If you’re looking for something to broaden your horizons and help foster your new Beijing identity, join a team sport (Sports Beijing coaches a wide range of sports for adults), sign up for yoga classes, or volunteer at one of Beijing’s many non-profit organizations.
When It Doesn’t Work
After leading two very different lives, Gene and his wife found themselves slowly drifting apart. This was heightened by his wife’s long overseas business trips. After serious contemplation, they decided to file for divorce.
Going through a divorce while away from your home country can pose its own unique problems. Depending on where your marriage certificate was issued, it’s important to factor in your home country’s divorce requirements. Remember: China has no legal standing over marriages approved outside its borders. A long-term Beijing expat, who chose to remain anonymous, had difficulties applying for a divorce in his home state in the US. "I was unable to apply for a divorce because there was a nine-month residency requirement, which I couldn’t fulfill since I’d been living in China," he says.
Explaining Divorce to Children
It’s important for parents to work together and ensure that their children feel supported during this time of change. "Younger children feel a sense of loss for both the relationship of the parents and the parent who is no longer living with them," says Blinn. Children also have a tendency to act out their feelings. "They may exhibit more physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches. They may show signs of anger or depression, and start to fear the additional loss of the custodial parent."
A parent himself, Blinn believes his divorce helped him make clearer judgments when it came to his parenting skills. "I have learned more about parenting through working through my own mistakes. If we are willing to look at our own shortcomings, mistakes, and screw-ups, there is a lot to be learned and profited from," he says.
Blinn advises parents to allow their children to express themselves. "If it’s difficult to talk, drawing can be helpful." However, he cautions parents against wasting the time they have with their children, or using their children as a sounding board for their issues. "Children should never be their parent’s therapist," says Blinn.
Talking about divorce with children is very difficult for most parents. "The hardest part was discussing how often I would be able to see [my children]and how I could stay involved in their lives," says Deke.
Gene found ways to ease his children through the transition of divorce by providing them reassurance every step of the way. "I let my kids know that my ex-wife and I would always be there for them, even though we won’t be together physically all the time." Gene also made sure he remained present in his children’s lives: giving them hugs, going on walks with them, and simply being available when they needed him.
Despite their best efforts, both Gene and Deke agree that the most difficult aspect of going through their divorce was dealing with their children’s feelings of betrayal and their concerns that they were no longer a family.
Living abroad presents many challenges for couples and their families, but if you make a conscious effort to contribute to and grow within your relationship, it is possible to avoid the pitfalls. If you think there’s a problem in your marriage or even in your family, don’t wait to seek help. See our resources section for valuable contacts.
*Name has been changed