For couples who decide to move to Beijing, the appeal often has to do with the opportunity to experience another culture, travel, and save money. But when the rose-colored glasses come off and the facts of life outside one’s home country set in, the reality ain’t always pretty. We speak with Psychologist Dr. Wei Chang from the Family Counseling Center at Beijing United Family Hospital about the challenges that couples most often face when they come to China.
What’s the Problem?
Specializing in couples counseling, Dr. Chang has been living in Beijing for eight years and mainly sees expat and mixed-nationality couples. She says that adjustment is a huge issue for expat couples because moving abroad often changes the dynamic in a relationship. “Often, long hours for the working spouse are a big problem because it takes the spouse away from the family,” she says. “It turns into mom and kid without dad. Just about every couple tells me that the amount of travel was never ‘this bad’ before moving here.”
In terms of adjustment, another problem couples encounter is when one spouse must often be overseas while the trailing spouse – defined as the person who follows their partner to another city for a work assignment – does not. “Very often, the working spouse really likes the work here because it’s easier for them to get promoted, they have higher value, and they feel it’s more exciting while the trailing spouse has to deal with things like pollution, traffic, and food safety,” she says.
Another common problem for expat couples is infidelity. “When expats come overseas, there’s often a mixed package of needs,” she says. “Part of those needs is wanting to know the country, culture, people, language, and … feeling attracted to the local culture, including [people]of the opposite sex.”
“I don’t want to generalize but I think it can have a lot to do with the foundation of the marriage,” she continues. “If a marriage before coming abroad has issues that haven’t been dealt with, it makes the marriage more vulnerable when coming overseas.”
Mixed-nationality couples are quite interesting, says Dr. Chang. They often face the same difficulties as other expat couples in terms of adjustment and infidelity, but with unique cultural differences that can cause even greater conflict.
She uses the hypothetical example of an American husband and a Chinese wife who met and married abroad to illustrate her point. “If the Chinese wife has parents or siblings in China, coming back to Beijing feels like coming home again. But it can feel hard to fit in for the western husband, and over time he can eventually lose interest in participating. It seems what’s happening is that there’s been a definite shift in the cultural balance of the marriage.”
Coming to Terms with Conflict
The majority of couples that Dr. Chang sees attend therapy because of infidelity. “Working with a lot of western men who have had affairs in China, it seems there is an instinct for survival and to feel secure in this foreign country,” she says. “Having a Chinese girlfriend complements that; they almost feel like they can learn Chinese better, get around easier, or get to know the customs [better].”
How do these relationships develop? Though the number one reason is a shaky relationship foundation, Dr. Chang cites factors like constant travel and social media apps like WeChat. The changing culture in China also contributes.
She says, “From a traditional family values perspective, infidelity is still not accepted, but because of economic change in the last 20 years, cities like Beijing and Shanghai are more global, cosmopolitan, and it’s no longer as taboo. No one thinks it’s a good idea, but the thinking often seems to be, ‘What’s the big deal if I have an affair with a married man?’”
For trailing spouses, the root of the problem is often loneliness. The working spouse, especially those employed at international companies, must travel more while the trailing spouse is left to deal with issues like finding a school, managing the ayi, and getting around their new environment. “It can be hard to make the best out of the condition they’re in and focus on the good things, like the opportunity to travel more and having more free time because of cheap labor,” says Dr. Chang.
Mixed-nationality couples most often cite distance as the reason for unhappiness in the partnership. During therapy, Dr. Chang often asks them to compare their lives before and after moving to China. She returns to the example of a western husband and Chinese wife.
“When living at home where they met, they had activities and gatherings with family and mutual friends, and language barriers and culture weren’t an issue,” she says. “When they come to China, the spouse with Chinese heritage dives right into the culture and is able to reconnect with relatives and old friends in a situation in which she is already familiar. This sometimes creates a strange situation that makes the expat partner feel like an outcast with his wife’s social circle.” This is the point when the western partner often starts socializing more with other expats and co-workers, creating a divide in the relationship.
Recognizing and understanding the primary problem is the key to couples therapy. Only then can Dr. Chang begin to help couples work toward their goals. “In the case of one partner wanting to keep the marriage going but the other wants out, several sessions are needed to work toward and re-evaluate more shared goals. If there aren’t common goals, I can’t help them in couples therapy; I would have to refer them to individual therapy.”
Dr. Chang uses the Family Systems Therapy approach, which is based on the idea that people are best understood through their upbringing. Using information about each partner’s family as a basis, she focuses on the dynamics of the relationship and the role of each partner in creating relationship problem(s). Dr. Chang finds that the root of many issues can be traced back to a person’s upbringing.
Though many couples work their issues out in couples counseling, many decide to divorce, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “As a therapist, my job is not to keep a couple together or to split them [up]; the final decision is theirs. My job is to help them see if it’s possible to work through their problems together. If not, maybe they are better off split.” Of the couples Dr. Chang sees, she estimates that 35-40 percent separate.
On the other hand, couples can view living overseas as a great chance to strengthen their connection. “You really only have each other, but you need to be conscious of that,” she says. She suggests having shared social groups, making travel plans with other families, and – most importantly – being proactive in maintaining a connection by scheduling time together without the kids. “Be aware that as a couple, you do need time and space to yourselves. I strongly encourage couples to make time for dates and nights out, especially here where they have the advantage of having an ayi,” she urges.
Eventually, there will be a point when couples need to mutually prioritize what’s best for themselves and their families, whether that means staying together or even leaving Beijing. Ultimately, communication is key. Dr. Chang says, “You have to discuss your relationship as any other issue in your life including health, education, or finances. There are many things to consider and we can’t always get what we wanted in coming here. We gain some, we lose some, but the decisions we make should be a balance.”
The following hospitals have doctors and counselors that offer services in marriage and family therapy for foreign couples, among other mental health services.
United Family New Hope Center 和睦家启望肿瘤中心
Monday-Friday 8:30am-5pm. 9-11 Jiangtai Xi Lu, Chaoyang District. (5927 7008, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.ufh.com.cn 朝阳区将台西路9-11号
International SOS Beijing Clinic 北京国际救援中心
Mon-Fri 9am-6pm, Sat-Sun 9am-6pm.Suite 105, Wing 1, Kunsha Building, 16 Xinyuanli, Chaoyang District. (Clinic: 6462 9112, 24hr hotline 6462 9100, email@example.com) www.clinicsinchina.com朝阳区新源里16号琨莎中心一座105室
Vista Medical Center 威斯达
Daily 24 hours. 3/F, Kerry Centre, 1 Guanghua Lu, Chaoyang District. (8529 6618, fax 8529 6615, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.vista-china.net 朝阳区光华路1号嘉里中心3层
Oasis International Hospital 明德国际医院
Mon-Fri 8.30am-5.30pm, Sat 8.30am-12.30pm. 9 Jiuxianqiao Beilu, Chaoyang District (400 UR OASIS) www.oasishealth.cn 朝阳区朝阳区酒仙桥北路9号明德医院
Agape Counseling and Training Center (ACFTC) 爱在人间朝阳区
Daily 9am-5pm. Rm C906, Eastern Tulip Building, 216 Tangli Lu, Chaoyang District (5947 2056, 150 1013 5804, email@example.com) www.aizairenjian.com 朝阳区汤立路216号院 东方郁金香大厦C座906室
Photo by Ken