Saturday, 4 April 2009

This Marriage Thing - Navigating Love Abroad

Dina at This Marriage Thing asked me to be a guest blogger back in January. Thing is, there's some kind of script error over on her blog, and you can only see my entry if you have Mozilla Firefox, so I've decided to paste my article here as well.

I’m delighted to have my friend, Susan, guest blog today. We’re kinda kindred spirits. She’s an ex-pat from the States. And, I feel like one from work now that I’ve retired, eh, transitioned, uh whatever. Enjoy!

When I saw that Dina was looking to broaden the focus of This Marriage Thing, I was hoping there might be some room to address the issue of what it’s like to begin or move a marriage overseas. Since meeting on a backpacker tour of Ireland, my husband and I have lived and loved in four different countries, before we were finally able to settle down in his home country of Australia. Along the way, we have faced challenges particular to a marriage on the move.

Starting on the Road

As I said, my husband and I met in Ireland. At the time we were both living in different parts of England, myself while studying and himself on a working holiday. For 8 months, we met up every 2 or 3 weeks on weekends, and for our last 4 months in the country, after my degree was complete, I moved into his London flat. This involved my husband staying in the UK longer than originally planned. In fact, he was away from home for a couple of years longer than he’d expected to be as a result of meeting me and I ended up permanently moving to a country I had intentionally left off my list of places to ever even visit. We found ourselves talking about marriage 4 months into the relationship, much sooner than we would have if we didn’t have to think about how to avoid living 10,000 miles apart. We went from the UK to a long visit to the US, then on to Australia where I got a working holiday visa for a few months, simply because he wanted me to suss it out before he felt ok with my decision to move there permanently. After that, we were off to New Zealand, where we got married and spent the better part of our time there waiting out a spousal visa. Almost 3 years later, we’ve now been back in Australia for about 9 months, where we are being patient with settling back into our home and marriage.

Making Allowances for Excess Baggage

I’ve found over the years that being an expat partner/spouse adds a lot more complexity to a relationship, making essential relationship values such as flexibility and patience even more important. Both partners need to be committed to being open-minded about the challenges they will face when one or both are moving to a new country. New expats need to be a bit more open to trying new things, and those partners who are already in their home country need to accept that flexibility is essential and some things they take for granted may not be (at least immediately) acceptable to their immigrant spouse/partner. Stubbornness and resistance to change can cause roadblocks and unhappiness in any relationship, but can be the downfall of an expat relationship.

Growing Up and Making Space

I’ve matured so much since I met my husband; some of the growing pains including crying myself to sleep when I felt my husband wasn’t being understanding enough. An important thing I’ve learned is that you can’t expect your spouse to fully understand what you are going through if you’ve moved to his/her country. They can sympathise, even empathise, but they will never know exactly how you feel, just as you yourself could not have imagined what it would really be like before you stepped off the plane. One person can never be everything to you, but as an expat, you have to make a special effort not to only unburden yourself on your significant other.

The story of the filing cabinet is a perfect example of how two people can view something in two completely different ways due to two entirely different mindsets. This comes up in any marriage, and as we all know, it’s not always about who is right or wrong, but how to deal with the situation in a way that works for both people and doesn’t hurt anyone. As it goes, I didn’t have a car here for the first 7 months or so, and had to rely on public transport or my husband to go anywhere. One weekend, I asked my husband to drive me to the local shop as they had a great deal on a filing cabinet. He was tired, and said no, so I ranted and raved and cried about how I felt like I was trapped, to no avail. I felt terrible and not understood at all, and my husband had a few choice words for how he thought I was acting. Neither of us truly understood the other. My husband eventually did do some running around looking for me, but couldn’t find that one. I still need the filing cabinet, but I haven’t seen as good a sale since then and I’ve been in between jobs until recently. The moral of the story: buy a car, even if it is cosmetically challenged and 15 years old. And remember, just because two people come from English speaking countries doesn’t mean cultural differences in communication methods don’t exist, but that’s an entirely new story.

Changing your Itinerary

As I tell people, being an expat is a wonderful opportunity to re-create yourself. You not only should but also need to develop new interests in your new home. Talents you’ve always had but perhaps never put into action become more apparent, and important. You’ll need to create something of your own in order to gain independence as well as keep yourself busy and meeting new people. Being an expat is an excellent confidence builder if you treat it as an opportunity. My husband was afraid when we met that we didn’t share enough interests, but as his father said, it’s been a blessing that we don’t, particularly in this situation. His friends are lovely, but I’m enjoying making my own. I’ve been forced to cast away my shyness. I’ve even formed an expat social group that has grown to 150 members in under a year. We meet up once a month for drinks and conversation, and I’ve met most of my new friends this way. You may ask how an admittedly shy person got the courage to begin and host a new social group. The answer is out of necessity. As an expat, you have to get used to meeting and socialising with strangers, unless you are ok with being very lonely. I can almost say I hated Adelaide the first time I was here, and while living in New Zealand, I knew I had to do something to change that, or I’d be leading a very unhappy life. This is home for my husband, and I could see very early on that he wouldn’t be happy anywhere else. I knew I could find things to make Adelaide work for me, so I did.

Arriving at Your Destination

One essential component of any relationship, and a key to successfully negotiating a change or new situation, is patience, and you must constantly remember that it takes time to settle and grow into anything. Marriage is a growing process, and the destination is not as important as the path. My husband and I still have a lot to learn, but we’ve certainly become more flexible, understanding partners because of the extra hurdles we’ve had to go through. We appreciate the very existence of our relationship that much more, I would say, now that we’ve had to work so hard to maintain it’s very existence in the same location. If you can handle a relationship abroad with grace and success, you can handle anything!

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