Marriage is work. We all know that, right? It’s a hot, glorious mess of love, perseverance, humility and work. We are constantly building our marriages. But what do you do when you throw expat living into that hot mess? What do you do when you are living in a foreign land with a foreign language and a foreign culture? How do you handle the stress of life abroad AND build a healthy marriage at the same time?
The more aware we are of the snares that hide and wait for the expat couple, the more we can avoid strife. There is a lot of advice on marriage out in the blogosphere and my desire is not to give you any new counsel. Read those blogs about marriage. They are helpful.
I just want to make you aware of the possible set backs; so, together you and your spouse can avoid, or at the least have some idea on how to manage, the traps and snares of an expat marriage.
Four Snares of an Expat Marriage
1. The “Language Learning” Snare. It almost always turns out that either the husband or the wife is better at learning a new language. It can seem like one is a struggler and one is a savant in learning. When this happens it becomes frustrating for the language struggler. The language savant seems to be adjusting better. The struggler may feel left out or left behind in the early months of learning language. Guard against this snare by being patient with each other. If you’re the savant, be patient…go ahead and order at restaurants for your spouse, help them when they want help. Be their biggest cheerleader. If you’re the struggler, give your spouse praise for their gift of language learning. Be honest with them if you are feeling frustrated. Support each other. People learn at different rates and in different ways. Make sure you are giving each other the support and hope needed to persevere in language.
Life Example: I was the language savant in our marriage only because I love to talk and I wasn’t intimidated by making lots of mistakes. My husband, Max, is a perfectionist and it was very difficult for him to use the language if it wasn’t perfect. I struggled with wanting to make him use his language. It wasn’t good to feel like I needed to control that. He needed to work on the language at his own pace. When we had an unexpected two year hiatus from our work overseas and were in our home country, I didn’t use my language the entire time we were there. But Max worked on language almost every night. He read out loud and memorized vocabulary. When we returned to our country I had to almost start over with language learning while Max excelled. He then ended up testing higher than me at the end of our language classes. I had to learn humility in that process. I was so happy for him to get recognition for all his hard work. But it did sting a bit. We worked on supporting each other the second time around in language learning.
2. The “Introvert/Extrovert” Snare. There is big difference in how the extrovert and the introvert handle stress and culture shock. The introvert may want to hide from the world while the extrovert may want to make friends and talk with and to everyone about their experiences. Both are valid ways of coping. And both can be traps to hurting the marriage. The introvert can hide so much that they are not engaging the culture at all and may get depressed or just bide their time until it’s time to go back to the home country. The extrovert can be so immersed in the culture that they leave out their introvert spouse. Guard against this snare by seeing life from the other’s point of view. Try to walk in the other’s shoes and practice sharing with each other your fears and stresses. Be each other’s confidantes. Be each other’s sounding board.
Life Example: I am the extrovert and Max is the introvert. But you know what happened to us? We switched places. Culture shock turned me into the hider. I fought against wanting to stay in my house away from everyone staring at me and my kids all the time. In culture shock, Max turned into an extrovert because he felt a need to “conquer” his surroundings. In order to protect his family, he felt like he needed to really know, as much as he could, what was happening in our surroundings. He became very good friends with our neighbors and put out some cultural fires that could have turned ugly for us. I learned to have great respect for Max’s drive to put aside his introvertedness and he helps me to look beyond our house and step out into unknowns.
3. The “Roles” Snare. Maybe in your home country you had solid roles…the parenting role, the provider role, the “honey do” role or the home manager role. Whatever the roles were it’s a good bet that they will evolve and change while living overseas. You will both need to be able to jump in and serve each other and your family in those continually changing roles. Maybe the wife is the extrovert in the family and staying home is driving her crazy. The husband could stay with the kids while the wife goes and gets some coffee and stands in line to pay the bills (usually a life-sucking job for an introvert). The key is looking out for each other and stepping up when the other needs a hand.
Life Example: One of Max’s roles has been the family finances. But recently, when he had a lot on his plate I stepped in and did our expense reports. It’s not my forte by any means. I hate office work. But it was a way that I could help free up Max in other areas. I felt joy in stepping in and blessing our family while serving Max. Also, I have to cook from scratch a lot where we live. I can spend hours buying, cleaning, prepping, cooking and cleaning up for meals. Max has stepped up and taken on the kitchen cleaning duties so that I’m not tied up longer than needed. We weren’t always so humble and serving. We have fallen into this trap more than once, but little by little we are making progress.
4. The “Lone Ranger” Snare. We can’t do life alone. We need other people in our lives. Healthy marriages have close friends or mentors involved…people that we can be transparent with, and ask questions. Mutual marriage accountability with another couple can be huge in making attempts at avoiding bigger problems down the line. It’s a big temptation to hide in an overseas life. We can wear a mask of healthy marriages while in private be struggling. Don’t hide your marriage problems. Find help. Let someone know that could pray with and for you both. Talk to a counselor by Skype if you have to. Find help.
Life Example: After seeing a couple marriages struggle while we have been overseas, Max and I have tried to be transparent with another couple in our city. It’s hard. We don’t always want to air out our dirty laundry. But I would rather air out dirty laundry than live with the stench of an unhealthy marriage.
What do you think? Are there other marriage snares you see in the overseas life? Share with us so we can all benefit from your experiences.