Q : I live in the Midwest and read your column on the Internet. My husband has been offered a transfer to his company’s European headquarters. At first I was excited about the idea of living in Paris, but I recently read a troubling article concerning expat marriage breakups. Is it true that couples abroad experience lots of relationship problems?
A : Most couples find that moving to a new country is both exciting and occasionally stressful. A common cultural background in no way insulates partners from the difficulties they are bound to encounter abroad. A major move introduces new stressors such as:
- culture shock for the whole family – i.e. suddenly not being able to understand not only the language, but all the subtle signals in the environment about the way things are done.
- separation from one’s familiar support system – extended family, friends, community activities etc.
- for the employed spouse, the corporate culture shock associated with having to adjust to French or European business practices which may bewilder, frustrate or madden him/her.
- for the accompanying spouse, 90% of whom are women, the necessity of structuring a whole new life for him or herself. This is often particularly distressing if that spouse has given up a job or career to make the move possible, and becomes financially dependent on the partner.
Many wives, who are often the family member most vulnerable to relocation stress, lose their sense of identity and usefulness, feel like sacrificial victims, and spin into a depression which can last anywhere from 6 to 18 months before they begin to find and invest in new outlets. Unfortunately it can also happen that the working spouse, dragged down by the unhappiness of his or her partner, seeks refuge in an outside relationship, thus compounding the distressful situation.
There are many couples who land on their feet and are only minimally destabilized by the changes to which they must adjust. A certain number of them even decide to live abroad permanently.
You need to assess your couple’s strength and resilience, both of which will be sorely tested for at least a year following relocation. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that an overseas move will help a faltering relationship find new life. It is more likely to stretch it to breaking point. Here are some questions you should ask yourself:
- Do you and your husband have good communication and conflict-solving skills?
- Are you able to function autonomously in the absence of your familial support network?
- Are you, personally, ready and willing to take a break from your career, from your identity as a professional and as a wage earner, and take on the traditional roles of housewife and mother?
- Are you and your spouse flexible, curious, open to new experiences, and not too demanding or rigid about how things should be?
If your answers to these questions are closer to yes than to no, you will probably find your move to Paris to be both enriching and enjoyable in the long run. Have faith in your own strengths and use the many resources which exist here to help yourself and others like you through those early, tough moments.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships.