Expat Marriages

By Todd Blackhurst

Recently, my wife and I have had some opportunity to think specifically about our experience of living overseas as a married couple with children and it’s effect on our marriage and family. And to be honest – it hasn’t been easy. In my former life in the states, I was a pastor, so I spent a good amount of time counseling couples pre-marriage, during their marriage and at times, post marriage. And now 20+ years into our own marriage, we find ourselves in a new stage of life yet again that we were unprepared for, but thankfully because of our commitment to each other and faith, able to navigate.

First, why this note about “Expat Marriages”? Well, living overseas in an expat environment has some particular challenges that are not usually found in our home countries. In our home country, we would usually live in a neighborhood of people with similar values, culture, income, etc. We would participate in activities where we would rub up against people we could easily talk with, our children would attend school together, we would be able to easily speak with our neighbors, join social groups and clubs, participate in religious functions, etc.

The point is, in our home culture the ability to share our common experiences with others is much easier, so, whether we are up or down, it doesn’t feel abnormally high or low at any one time, because we have others who are similar to us by which we can measure how we are doing. But here in another culture – the ups and downs, highs and lows can easily feel extreme. We easily lose our sense of what is normal when we don’t have the cultural gauge of our home environment. Add on top of that the other pressures, language, culture, traffic, whatever it is that you find personally frustrating – and you have a potential recipe for disaster. So that’s why I think it’s helpful to be reminded as an expat married couple – take a breath and center your relationship before things get too far out of whack.

As I’ve learned over the years, giving other people advice on how to live their lives is usually unwelcome, so I won’t do that here, but I have learned that wisdom often comes from observing principles that seem to work across culture, race, age, etc. So that’s what I will share here. Principles that my wife and I have learned from others, the school of hard knocks and our faith that have helped us not only survive, but thrive.

First – Fight Fair. What do I mean by this? When we fight, argue, disagree, whatever you choose to call it, and we do, we keep it about the issue, not about each other. The most dangerous thing you can do in any relationship is turn personal. So we made a commitment early on that we would never attack each other. Once you start down this road, the words that you say are not easily forgotten, they leave scars that never go away, even though forgiven.  So I would encourage you to make a commitment to yourself and your spouse – fight fair.

Second – Fall Back. In our lives, their always seems to be a somewhat frantic pace. Because we live in a foreign culture, there is always something that seems to be pressing. Because it’s harder to do almost everything, it creates an underlying sense of pressure. Some people deal with pressure better than others. But in the long term, stress always has negative consequences, both personally and relationally. So, you have to give yourself and each other permission to “fall back”. Build space in the weekly and monthly schedule where you don’t have anything to do but just relax. Make time for each other or give time to each other to do something you enjoy, whatever that is, even if it is just sit on the couch, take a nap or sleep in or go to bed early.

Third – Find Friendship. And no I’m not talking about the casual relationships we all have and make. The truth is, we all need a few people in our lives that have some unique characteristics. What do I mean? For me, a friend is not just someone to hang out with, but someone who can contradict me without fear of rejection. Someone who can tell me they see something off in my life and I won’t be devastated because I know they have my best interests at heart. A friend is a rare find, takes time and effort to develop, but in the long run, is not only worth it, but necessary for me to function as a real person in the world, otherwise my own view of myself gets a little off kilter.

Fourth – Find Purpose. In every relationship there is what I call a “center of gravity”. It seems that generally speaking, for men, it is their work and a deep seated need for respect. For women, it is relational and will tend to be more focused on their husband, children, friendships – often with a romantic interest. The problem with this is – none of these things have enough “weight” to really keep everything in balance. I actually think the “center of gravity” must be something greater than work, money, power, children or even each other. For us, because we are Christians, we find our center of gravity in the purpose we believe God has given us. It keeps us moving forward, it give us hope, it keeps everything in our universe oriented. For me, if I make something smaller than this my center, then what happens when I lose that something, say my job, my relationship, my hobby – then I am potentially devastated. But If my center is outside my self, bigger than any of these things, then actually it can bring meaning and purpose to all of those smaller things.

Finally, Foster Love. When I say finally, I don’t mean last by any means. Love is the bedrock of any marriage and will help you weather any storm. What I do mean is you must tend the garden of love in your relationship. Maintain intimacy, communication, friendship. We have found one of the best ways to foster this is to serve each other. Rather than thinking of what my spouse is not doing for me, I just try to find ways to do for them. Here is something that is often said at many marriage ceremonies, a good reminder for all of us:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

One of my favorite speakers, Tim Keller, said it best when he said, your marriage is like this. When things are going well in your marriage, it doesn’t matter how bad things are in the rest of your life, you feel like you can take it. But when your marriage is failing, then it doesn’t really matter how great things are in the rest of your life, it seems like everything is failing.

If you find your relationship in a bad place and need some help. I and my wife are certainly not professional counselors, but we are a safe place where you might find some help. Please feel free to contact us.

One thought on “Expat Marriages

  1. well-put. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We’ve been married 13 years and for 12 of those years, we’ve been overseas. During that time, we went from a family of 2 to a family of 6 and we’ve implemented some of those exact same principles that you mentioned, which has helped us keep our marriage strong.

    One more that I would add, (and unfortunately it doesn’t start with an “F”) is “Give Grace.” Sometimes we are really quick to be critical to our spouses if they don’t act in a way that we think is right or appropriate. Sometimes little issues can get magnified overseas…things like a spouse feeling really homesick around the holidays. If the other spouse isn’t sensitive or understanding, the homesick spouse will feel even worse. And I’ve seen couples really grow apart because of ‘little’ issues like this.

    My husband is really good at showing grace to me, even when I don’t deserve it. I did some dumb things culturally when we first moved here (out of ignorance), and instead of making me feel worse about it, he showed grace to me in those moments when I knew I’d screwed up badly. When we try to give each other the benefit of the doubt in situations, we’re far less likely to jump all over each other with critical comments.

    Finally, one ironic thing to add is that usually our marriage feels most tested when we’re back in the States, among family, and confronted with all of the things that used to be so ‘familiar’ to us. Strangely enough, that’s when we’ve had some of our biggest disagreements…arguing about money (everything’s so expensive!!) or making sure we spend enough time with both sides of the family…stuff like that. So we really need to be more intentional about ‘fostering love’ in our marriage when we travel. Traveling can be really stressful, especially when kids are tagging along! 🙂

    thanks for letting me add my two cents.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *