Your dishes may break in a move. Here’s how to ensure your marriage doesn’t.
Jennifer* had just moved to a new city where she knew no one when her husband of four years sprung the news: He was leaving on a three-month assignment to another country. Furious, this Beijing resident and mother of two did the only logical thing she could think of: she locked her husband out of the bedroom.
The couple worked through their problems and stayed together – they’re even expecting their third child early next year. But, recalls Jennifer, it wasn’t easy weathering that three-month separation with neither family nor friends nearby.
All relationships hit hard patches, of course, but the stresses of overseas living can magnify the problems that ordinary couples experience. Some couples find that they bicker about all things large and small. And that’s if they can even find enough time together to start a fight. But before you toss his suits over the balcony, see if you can identify these common triggers to fights – and stop them before they start.
Can I Borrow the Keys?
Back home, you knew where you were going, and likely you had a way to get there. Here in Beijing, you suddenly find yourself trapped at home without a car, and you’re not even sure where you’d want to go anyway. Stay-at-home spouses agree that it feels wrong to have to ask the working spouse for the keys to the car, but they don’t like relying on brand-new neighbors, either. After just 60 days in Cairo, one American mom says, “The lack of a car has been the absolute worst. I hate begging people to pick me up!” Another American mom, who lives in Shunyi and needs to cart her three small boys to school and playdates, says “My husband is totally understanding of my need to go places. But still it feels like I have to ask permission to borrow the car.”
The salary might be good, and the restaurants can be cheap – so where’s all the money going? For many, especially those families where one spouse gave up a job to move, money can seem particularly tight. You’re here, so you ought to travel. You’re here, so you want to mail-order soy butter. You’re here, so you need to sign up for language classes, pay the ayi, enroll the kids in after-school activities, buy organic milk and pay the hospital bills up front. That’s where the money is going. But try explaining that to the working spouse, the one who sees the paycheck go in the bank but doesn’t see where all of those bright pink RMB 100 notes are going.
“Before we moved, I was making more money than he was,” says Sarah, a Beijing mom who gave up a flourishing medical career to move her family overseas. Now, because they share one income, it’s hard for her to buy Christmas presents for him using his paycheck.
Who Works Harder?
The ayi is the greatest invention of all time, but her addition to the household does not mean stay-at-home parents are free to lie around all day reading novels. They still need to manage the household: paying bills, planning meals, correcting homework and searching out items that were easy to find back home, like kids’ underwear and watch batteries. Woe unto the spouse who collapses onto the couch after a long day at the office when the kids all need to be bathed and read to. And if he should happen to mention something about how he has been working all day but she’s had the ayi doing her work, well … he’s in for a rough night.
Hello? Hello? Is Anybody There?
You’ve spent all day either trying to speak Chinese or trying to reason with a 2-year-old. Your spouse comes home, and you want to talk to an actual adult who speaks your native tongue. Unfortunately, your spouse spent the whole day listening to complaints and suggestions, and all he really wants to do is watch a movie. So he does. Leaving you fuming in the kitchen, with no one to talk to about how hard it is to run errands in this town. Without a network of friends, you come to rely solely on your spouse for conversation, but men and women don’t always talk in the same way about the same things, so without some other conversational outlet, you end up feeling irritated.
Who Am I?
Back home, you were a doctor. Or a journalist. Or a scientist. You were somebody. Here, well, if you’re not working, you’re just a spouse. Self-esteem can take a hit when you give up a career to move overseas, and when you’re feeling down about it, the easiest person to blame is the working spouse – the cause, it sometimes seems, of all your mental health issues.
On the other hand, if you and your spouse are both working here in Beijing, you might find it difficult to integrate into the community because many school events, group shopping trips and even exercise classes are scheduled to be convenient for stay-at-home parents. If you work downtown while your child studyies out in Shunyi, you might have trouble finding ways to connect with other parents. You might struggle to play the role of parent when other parents all socialize during your work hours, leaving you feeling isolated and resentful.
Do any of these hot button issues sound familiar? Most expat spouses, both male and female, have been plagued by at least one of these problems in the course of their overseas marriage. Some of these problems really can’t be fixed – most expats aren’t able to have two cars in Beijing, for example, and you certainly can’t make more money appear in your bank account. But even when you can’t change the situation, you can change your outlook. Sometimes just shifting the way you view these problems helps.
Many spouses initially feel powerless to make any changes. After giving up her medical career and moving to Beijing, Sarah says, “I became more passive because I couldn’t make long term plans – so much depended on The Job.” Even something as simple as planning a family outing was tricky, because she never knew if her husband would be home or not.
The trick is to learn to ask for what you need. Set aside a time to go out together and just talk about how you’re feeling. Be prepared to listen, too. Remember that the working spouse is struggling with a new set of issues at the office even as you’re trying to find footing in your new city.
In her book A Moveable Marriage, author Robin Pascoe writes, “When partners can begin to see – and understand – what’s going on for the other person, this empathy is a lifesaver for the relationship and a good chance to strengthen the marriage.” You might find that the mere act of expressing your thoughts and having your spouse validate them will help you feel more in control of the situation. (Hint: don’t try this as soon as one of you walks in the door from work – you need to plan a date night or set aside time when you’re both ready to talk.)
The Job Giveth, The Job Taketh Away
It also helps to remember that it isn’t all bad when you move overseas. “Sometimes I do feel some subtle resentment,” admits one ISB parent. “But then I remind myself that I’ve been given this wonderful opportunity to spend time with my children and try out different careers. I wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to do this.” Because this mom quit working to move to Beijing, she is able to meet her kids at the bus stop every afternoon. She is also free to volunteer at the school where her four children are enrolled.
Use your time in Beijing to try out a new career, or volunteer with an organization that you admire. Study the language, take a cooking class, or join a group like the International Newcomers’ Network. If you’ve hired an ayi to help out around the house, plan to spend some of your newfound free time going out on “dates” with your kids and your spouse, one-on-one. Remember all the things you always wanted to do back home, but never had the time to do? Now you can.
Pascoe, the wife of a Canadian diplomat who was posted to Beijing and other cities in Asia, writes of her own frequent moves: “Over and over, my marriage got back on track only once I’d figured out how to spend my days and made some – any – outside connection to my new community.” Get involved in the community, make friends and get yourself settled into a new routine. Think of yourself as a tree trunk, with your spouse and children as the branches: Only by putting down roots will you be able to support those branches and keep the whole structure healthy.
Ask And Ye Shall Receive
If there’s something you need to survive, let your wishes be known. “My husband realized early on that in order for him to be happy, I have to be happy. That means, immediately upon arrival, we rent a car. I will not be stranded,” says Jill, a diplomat’s wife in Chennai, India. Don’t assume that your spouse knows you need help finding a language course or interviewing a potential ayi. Speak up if you need help.
Another parent suggests asking for help from your new neighbors. “At every post, you’ll find somebody who is like a cheerleader,” says this spouse of an American diplomat. “Find that stable person who can point out the good things of where you are. Find someone who is there to step in and help you.” Most foreigners still remember those first dizzying days in Beijing, and they’ll likely be happy to help you navigate the shops and streets if you ask. Avoid the chronic complainers whenever possible, and search out those people who can help you acclimate. Look around, you’ll find people who are willing to take you places when you’re car-less, or include you in play dates.
Give Before You Take
Moving overseas can bring out the worst in people. Kim, a former Beijing resident who has moved with her family to five different countries in the past ten years, says it’s important for spouses to support one another emotionally. She recommends finding places you can explore and things you can do together, whether it be sightseeing, concerts, restaurants or just a movie at home.
“It’s very easy to grow apart if you are not careful,” she notes, so it is important to “show interest in each other’s worlds.” It is imperative, she feels, that the working spouse be appreciative of the trailing spouse’s efforts to set up and maintain the family’s new household. “Express your gratitude for the good things happening on the home front: the great meals, the clean home, the great parenting, the excellent civic volunteer service, etc.” And she advises the trailing spouse to “provide some of the things that are high on your partner’s list of needs,” including things such as time alone with a book, physical affection or a movie date. Both partners need to work together to ensure that the home is a place the whole family wants to be.
At times, you’ll feel particularly overwhelmed and needy. This might come as a surprise, but the best thing you can do then is to search for ways to meet the needs of those around you – your spouse, your children, even your colleagues and friends. “When it feels like your bucket is empty or you have little to give,” Kim advises, “give what you can. You’ll find the people around you will respond to your efforts.”
It’s basic advice, really, say these spouses, though it’s not always easy to follow. Find the time to talk or reconnect physically. Tell your partner how you’re feeling about yourself and your new home. Listen to what your spouse needs from you, and then do your best to meet those needs. Maintaining a close relationship is hard work, but if you put in the effort, your marriage will be strong enough to survive this move – and the next.
When Your Marriage Needs Outside Help
“When we got married,” says one longtime expat, “our minister gave us the best advice: Never complain to your mother about your spouse.” Why? Because your mother will almost always be on your side, and when you start taking sides against one another, you’ll dig yourself deeper into a hole. So where do you turn for help when you’re all alone in Beijing, with nary a trusted old friend in sight?
When your problems are little, feel free to vent to the other moms at your mommy-and-me groups, or talk to a trusted colleague. But if you’re in over your head, or you find yourselves arguing constantly, think about getting help from a professional. SOS International and Beijing United Family Hospital both have licensed counselors available for confidential services – check with your insurance company to find out if these services are covered under your policy. Or ask the counselor at your child’s school for a recommendation – counselors at the international schools often have contacts within the community.