Expat couples: how to make love, not war

Expat couples: how to make love, not war

Before my move from Canada to the Philippines, I have read about challenges couples face abroad. Unfortunately, this knowledge did not seem to protect my relationship from suffering a slight meltdown three months into our move.

There are many articles on why expat couples are so vulnerable to divorces and break ups. Most of us are creatures of habit, and when yanked out of our familiar environment, we can react in less than graceful ways. Anger, resentment, frustration all can bubble up to the surface drowning our initial excitement about the move. These emotions can become predominant companions in our relationships and slowly or rapidly lead to their demise.

Research by John Gottman, a prominent marriage psychologist, shows that for a relationship to stay healthy a delicate balance of 5:1 positive to negative interactions must be maintained. Place a stressor on a couple like moving continents and changing jobs, and the couple’s equilibrium is offset.

It is in this offset that problems started to brew in my relationship with my fiancé. I know that some of you might think that I am a therapist, and therefore, my relationship should be infallible, but that is just not the case. Just like medical doctors get illnesses and ailments despite their great knowledge of preventative medicine, so do therapists suffer from conflicts and anxieties. At times like that therapists see other therapists.

So our 3-month meltdown turned into a classic exchange of “You don’t understand me! Why can’t you listen to me! You are not listening! This is not working!” Sounds familiar? I imagine many of you can relate. We were locking horns, neither of us willing to step away from pushing our agenda at least for a few minutes, long enough to listen to another person. My fiancé was convinced I was in the wrong, and I was confident that he was the problem. What do you do?

Many books on couple’s therapy and marriage wellness promote empathetic listening and open, non-judgmental communication. While that sounds great and I fully support this method, putting it to practice at the time when feel like smacking your partner is not easy and sometimes impossible.

Following our fight, I started to think about what pre-existing conditions need to happen for that beautiful open communication to take place. Since my lovely partner and I made up and restored peace after a week of warlike exchanges, I wanted to retrace our steps to see what helped us to finally be able to hear each other out.

Here are my conclusions:

  1. Begin with a timeout. Naughty kids are not the only ones that need a timeout. When adults get nasty with each other, they need to do the same and give each other space. This is a very important step as it prevents conflict from escalating and puts a stop to partners exchanging mean, hurtful things with each other. When things got to a screaming match between my partner and me, I made a suggestion to him similar to this ‘Things are really heating up between us. Let’s take a break so we can both cool down and resume the conversation later’. If you decide to try it out, notice that you want to sound neutral in your request and not to point fingers at your partner, even though, he or she might the one yelling at you. If you are finding that your partner is repeatedly ignoring your request you might need to explore some assertiveness training. (needs to be hyperlinked to the assertiveness specialization)
  2. Assume your partner is right. ‘What?’ Some of you might say. I dare you to play a devil’s advocate with yourself. No matter, how certain you are that your partner has wronged you, it is most likely that you have also contributed to the problem. Ask yourself ‘What percent is my contribution to this conflict?’ Be honest with yourself. Regardless of whether it is 40%, 15% or 1%, you have played a part in the development of the problem. When we are honest with ourselves, we also become clear as to what part we played in things escalating. In this case, when you resume a conversation with your partner you can begin with accepting responsibility for this 40% or 5%. In the case of my relationship meltdown, I approached my fiancé by telling him ‘I gave some thought to our argument, and I realized that I have been very swift to react and get defensive lately. I can see how that created a lot of frustration for you. I am sorry about my shortness.’If you decide to try this, please avoid any blaming in your speech. The last thing your partner wants to hear is ‘I can see now that I am responsible for 20% of this conflict, and I am sorry, but you are guilty of the other 80%.’ This will put anyone on the defensive, and that exactly wants we want to avoid. When we take responsibility for our part, no matter how small it is, and offer a genuine apology, we are creating an opportunity for an open conversation. We know from experience that when we are approached in this way, we can feel our defensiveness melt away, our bodies become less tense and less rigid, our listening more focused and open and our hearts warmer. It will have the same effect on your partner as it creates a softer and safer environment.
  3. Let your partner raise your awareness. No matter how much self-knowledge we have, we are bound to also have blind spots. Sadly, unlike cars, we are not equipped with a blind spot mirror.In our blind spots lurk the behaviors that we are not fully aware of or if we are, we might not be aware of what effect they have on people close to us. Because our partners spent a lot of time with us and know us intimately, they become our blind spot mirrors.  This means that you might be doing something quite annoying and not be aware of it, while your partner might be suffering on the receiving end trying to communicate that to you.Bring this blind spot assumption into your open conversation by listening to your partner’s complaint with an open mind. In the end, you can always say that he/she is wrong, but give them a chance to share what’s been bugging them.
  4. Team up. This one helped me during my relationship meltdown. My fiancé was the one to remind me that we are a team and that ultimately he wants to make me happy. Hearing this made my defenses melt. It was a great reminder to me that we are a team and we have each other’s interests at heart. We both have a common goal of having a harmonious relationship.In the heat of an argument, we often forget that the other person had no intention of hurting us. They might have hurt us in the process of doing or not doing something, but it is not like they woke up in the morning and asked themselves ‘How can I come up with a way to piss my wife/girlfriend today?’It is this gentle reminder that you are both playing for the same team from you to your partner that start to melt his/her defenses down. Remember, that although your teammate accidently stepped on your foot, you can still know that you have each other’s back and present a united front.If you feel that being a team is a completely foreign dynamic for you and your partner, you might be long overdue for an honest conversation, perhaps a conversation with a professional and unbias guidance. After a long time of silence or prolonged fighting, a therapist can provide the necessary environment to foster sharing and conflict resolution.

These four points are the wisdom that I carried out of my recent unpleasant relationship experience. Although I have come across these in the professional books I have read over the years, it is, this time, I have put all of them to practice and experienced their power for myself.

Your Global Therapist,

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