Expat Blues: Being ‘the other half’ in an expat couple

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Published 2020-07-01 08:00

When a couple moves abroad for career reasons, this can sometimes mean that one person is quickly immersed in a demanding new job, and the other suddenly finds themselves in the role of a 'support act'. How come some people can adapt to this transition to 'the other half' with ease, while for others, regrets and resentments begin to surface? And how can we deal with this? London-based psychotherapist Paul Carslake offers some ideas.

When you’re in a couple, you’re working a bit like a micro-organisation. A company of two. Each of you may have your day job – your paid work – but you may also have a kind of job within the couple. While there are no written job descriptions, you might find yourselves taking on certain roles, such as booking the holidays, or taking care of the bills, or perhaps one of you is more likely to invite friends round for a drink, re-do the bathroom sealant, or get the car serviced. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the hundreds of other tasks linked with looking after kids, if you have them. It may all feel chaotic at times, but there is a kind of equilibrium.

Becoming an expat throws this out of balance. You have left a home in one country and set up elsewhere. Maybe you both left previous jobs, but maybe it is your partner’s job that has brought you to this new place, and you are currently finding yourself without work, maybe for the first time in your life. Of course, this has its benefits, and when you first arrive, there can be a lot of administrative tasks that will fill your every waking hour, delaying the realisation that fundamentally, some serious things have changed.

A British woman in her 30s told me how she was at a work summer drinks party hosted by her husband’s employer when she began to feel something was wrong: ‘We had name badges, and they’d spelt my name wrong, which I would be OK about normally, but it somehow mattered that day. I trailed around after my husband, met a few acquaintances and made small talk but felt somehow absent, not connecting. That was when I realised how much I’d lost by coming out here.’

Expats can thrive, or struggle, or go from one to the other in any order. In some ways, the knockbacks and hurts that life throws at us can seem amplified in expat life because we don’t have some of the ‘shock absorbers’ that get us through life back home: a network of close friends, perhaps, or the familiarity of a favourite park or coffee shop, or simply knowing that parents are just a car journey away.

What’s more, when the couple relationship gets thrown off balance and one of the two find themselves as the ‘plus 1’ or the ‘other half’, this can stir up thoughts and feelings that may have been long-buried. It has perhaps taken the Covid-19 crisis to show us just how much a job, workmates, and a workplace contribute to our sense of wellbeing. Losing these way-markers in our everyday lives – as many expat spouses or partners have to do – can leave us feeling out of place, and sometimes low and anxious too. In some cases, this can even reignite the kind of overwhelming sadness stemming from significant losses earlier in our lives.

It can leave people feeling pretty angry too: ‘Look what I gave up when I followed you out here, and look at what my life is like now!’ For many of us, our biggest problem with anger is not being able to express it enough – and that often goes back to how anger got dealt with in your family when you grew up. The key to negotiating some of the darker moments in the expat experience is to be able to communicate everything you are feeling, including all the anger – with the important understanding that how you’re feeling now does not define everything about you for the rest of your life. 

A useful framework for this is to think of yourself as a collection of parts: ‘Part of me is angry that I had to give up my life back home and come out here. But the other part of me loves you and would never leave you.’ In return, the person ‘receiving’ the anger can think of it not as a personal attack along the lines of ‘This is all your fault’ but as an important expression of how a loved one is feeling in that moment. Then, the defences can come down – and the talking can start.

Paul Carslake is a registered psychotherapist based in London, UK, offering online counselling to clients across the world. You can find more of Paul’s articles on www.talkplace.co.uk