It seems romantic and exciting to move to a new place with your partner or spouse. And certainly, there are many moments when it feels that way. However, most of us don’t anticipate the challenges that come along with moving as a couple or family. Due to the stresses and unique circumstances of relocating, couples can become more disconnected, have increased conflict, start resenting one another, or end up with serious relationship difficulties.
In some ways, my first relocation with my partner felt like an extended honeymoon. We were newly in love, didn’t have kids yet, and had plenty of time to enjoy exploring our new surroundings. What we didn’t foresee was that not having our own independent support systems and hobbies, not having extended family and community in our lives, and the increased stresses from living abroad would put a strain on our relationship.
In our second international move, we had two young kids. We went from having family nearby to babysit for our weekly date nights, to not knowing anyone or even speaking the language in our new country. The stress of the move, a demanding new job, and lack of support system took an unexpected toll. As an accompanying partner, I started to feel lonelier and had a loss of identity and purpose as a stay-at-home-mom. There were times I felt resentment and regret about the situation, even though I had chosen it, and times my partner felt guilty that he couldn’t solve all the challenges that came with our life abroad.
Sadly, these are common challenges among couples moving to a new place. But with a bit of awareness, we can learn what pitfalls to avoid and what simple practices can help the happiness of both partners and the partnership itself.
Below I share three challenging realities that relocating couples face, and the factors that help keep a couple stronger amidst these challenges.
Reality 1: Moving is stressful. Between all the move logistics, emotional goodbyes, setting up your life from scratch in a new place, losing your support system, and one or both partners starting a new job, each of you might feel like you’re barely surviving as you start your life in your new location. This can lead to a couple not making time for each other, as well as each individual not being at their best – leading to impatience, irritability, negative interactions, etc.
Remedy: Make sure you stay connected. Make a routine so that at a certain time each day you can focus just on each other, whether its talking about your day or doing something you enjoy together. At least one a week, have a time set aside to spend together, without the kids, and without screens or other distractions.
Remedy: Prioritize taking great care of yourself. When you’re happy and feeling good, you bring your best self to your relationship. This means taking care of your physical health, your emotional health – through having someone to talk to and healthy ways of handling your emotions, having social connections, and having a purpose in your life and passions and hobbies that make you feel happy and alive.
Reality 2: Lack of Support System
Whether it’s practical support like daycare, housecleaning, a network of connections, and ease of transportation, or emotional support like your neighbors, work colleagues, and the friends you’ve known since childhood, it’s often the case that you don’t realize what you’ve got until it’s gone. These little changes can add up to a lot more stress in your life, especially when you’re already trying to navigate a new location and culture.
Remedy: You have to proactively create a support system- both practical and social support. What are some ways you can simplify your life and reduce your stress through practical support? Who can you ask for information and resources about your new place? What social and community connections help you feel fulfilled? What roles did family and friends play before, and how can you make sure that the needs they filled are fulfilled in your new place? Be creative and open-minded. Your life will look different, but the important thing is that your needs are not neglected. Connect with people as much as you can to start building a new community, even when it’s out of your comfort zone, especially in the first year. Stay in touch with your long-term friends and family, while also starting to develop new friendships.
Remedy: Don’t rely exclusively on your partner. When you first arrive somewhere new, your partner may literally be the only person you know. It’s natural to look to each other for support when you feel like you’re on an island in the middle of the ocean. However, having your partner as the only person to turn to with every challenge that comes up can lead to problems. Your partner is coping with their own stress as well, and the person who initiated the move can start to feel responsible and guilty about the accompanying partner’s challenges, and feel a burden of responsibility as their partner’s only form of support. Make sure you each have someone else to confide in, whether it’s a work colleague, friend from back home, another expat, a coach or a therapist. We can still be open and honest in our partner relationship, but when we take responsibility for our own happiness, it allows more space in the relationship for positive connection.
Reality 3: Moving for one partner’s career or opportunity can create challenges for the other partner. The accompanying partner may have put their own career advancement or life goals on hold to make this move, and then is left feeling like a supporting role rather than the lead in their own life story. This can lead to a loss of identity and sense of purpose. It can also be very isolating to leave one’s life behind and move to a new country without having any built-in community to belong to on arrival, like their partner does at work.
Remedy: Purpose and Connection. It’s essential that accompanying partners get in touch with their own purpose, goals, and passions. Choosing something meaningful to be involved in during this time, that also aligns with their larger life goals, has a huge impact on personal fulfillment. It’s also very common for accompanying partners to become lonely and isolated. Their unhappiness can exacerbate relationship challenges and put the relocation itself in jeopardy. The more connection and support you have, the happier you will be, and that might just save not only your relocation, but your relationship.
Remedy: Keep the partnership in your partnership. In other words, make sure you’re still working as a team rather than becoming isolated, with each of you living your own separate but parallel lives. Make sure both people are involved in big and small decisions – about finances, the next move or career decisions, kids education, weekend planning and vacation planning. It’s important for accompanying partners to know they have a meaningful say in their family’s direction, and important for the health of the relationship to work together as a united partnership.
Shannon Jones, founder of Thriving Relocation, works with individuals and families around the world to build thriving lives in new places. Originally from California, she has lived in Australia, Switzerland, England and several locations in the United States. She's a certified life coach, relocation advisor, trained facilitator of Adapt & Succeed Abroad, and a member of Expat Coach Coalition and Families in Global Transition.