Can Your Marriage Survive Expatriating?

by Manya on February 4, 2014

Can Your Marriage Survive Expatriating?


Expatriating is the ultimate test of a marriage.  Hands down, it could be the hardest, most stressful, strain-producing experience the two of you will ever go through.

The true gift of this great adventure is that it offers an opportunity for transformation.  But, like birth itself – while glorious and miraculous in the outcome, the process can be messy and painful.  Not only will each of you be going through your own transformation, so will your relationship.  In essence, you will have three complex changing systems, attempting to move in synch through time and space.  And to top it off, you don’t really know what the outcome will be.

Forewarned is forearmed 

Whatever issues and dynamics exist between you will be heightened and exacerbated during the transition.  Although any major life transition easily takes a minimum of two-three years, the intense phase of expatriating will probably encompass a minimum of two-three months both before and after the move abroad.

There are days, weeks, perhaps even months when your marriage will be so hard you wonder why you ever married this person or if it’s worth it.  As mild-mannered as I generally think I am (albeit with an easily aroused ever present undercurrent of anxiety), there is no one who can frustrate me, anger me, or even enrage me more than my husband.  After all, even in the best of times, on many dimensions, we live in opposite-land. 

Which screaming banshees  appear in your mind as you navigate these shoals of change depends of course on your particular personality type.  Regardless, it’s likely that you and your partner have banshees that do not get along, and banshees by their very nature are not given to cooperation.

There are, however, some common psychological challenges and sources of conflict you should pay attention to as mindfulness about them lessens their potential to be terminally destructive.


If you’re like me, when your sense of security is threatened in the face of lack of groundedness and uncertainty, you may become the control freak who wants to prevent any possible error, mishap, unnecessary expense, and last minute stress.  [Needless to say, this borders on delusional in dealing with an intercontinental move].


Those who are haunted – unconsciously or secretly – by issues of competence will get quite agitated by the constant ego bruises they encounter when undertaking life in a new culture, a new language, and a new life stage transition.  You will come up against your own incompetence repeatedly and – especially if you’re in a Latin American non-achiever culture (unlike the U.S.) – you will be plenty pissed off at others’ seeming incompetence.

Decision-Making Style

Differences – and conflict – in decision-making style loom large in a decision to expatriate, for it is nothing if not a seemingly endless and often overwhelming cauldron of decisions and decision-making conversations.

Order Freak vs. Flexibility Maven

Do you like and need a fair amount of order and consistency or are you a go-with-the-flow, give me flexibility over routine any day kind of person?  While you may have already learned to accommodate the other if you fall on different points of this spectrum, this dichotomy too will be tested, especially if you are dealing with a new retirement and a cultural relocation as in both situations most if not all previous ordering structures disappear.

Slow vs. Fast Mover

Patience is at a premium in undertaking a venture of this magnitude.  It’s important to clarify your roles.  In my marriage, I am usually the faster mover, the scout, and my husband, the deliberative one, is great at bringing up the rear.  When we lose sight of our roles and preferences, impatience and irritation with the other can easily surface.

Finally, the fundamental universal hobgoblin that shows up for most of us in times of uncertainty and vulnerability, sometimes voiced, sometimes mute:  “If you really loved me, you would….”  which can escalate to “I knew this was a big mistake….(the move, the marriage?)”….

Whatever issues exist that are concerning to you before your move will NOT, I repeat WILL NOT, be resolved with a geographic cure.

Remember that once you move and/or retire, for the first few months anyway, you will each be stripped of your comfort zone (language, habits, customs, close friends) and familiar structures (work and family).  Your resilience will be maximally tested.

Can you persist through the transition, survive the strain, and ultimately thrive?  You’ll increase your chances substantially if you:

  1. Have a shared vision – for the move, ideally built on a shared vision or sense of purpose in your relationship
  2. Practice acceptance– for your own and your partner’s very human frailties and preferences AND acceptance of your adopted culture as it is rather than as you want it to be
  3. Practice Loving Kindness  – a wonderful life-giving practice of compassion that reduces suffering any time you get hooked by intense emotions
  4. Clear the air frequently– always a good habit to cultivate in relationship and really critical to do frequently during a major transition.
  5. Set realistic expectations for what you can accomplish individually and together at every stage of the transition
  6. Cultivate outside friendship(s) and independent activities once you’ve made the move.  Always essential for relationship health, after expatriating and/or retiring you can find yourself being overly dependent on each other.  Outside energy and stimulation that each of you can bring to the relationship enliven it and reduce the likelihood of imploding in on each other.
  7. Recognize that the roller coaster ride will end if you have enough of the above

Entertaining the option of expatriating is a wonderful opportunity to expand your possibilities, individually and as a couple.  At the same time, take stock of the real issues and dynamics in your relationship.  Don’t gloss over your challenges and concerns.  Reach out for information, support, and resources.

If you decide to move forward with a relocation, whether you ultimately stay together or separate, expatriating will catalyze change in your relationship and most likely for the better.

If you’ve gone through this fire, what insights and tips would you add?




Rose February 7, 2014 at 2:49 am

These are wise and wonderful words! Though my husband, Jim, and I are still in the relatively early pre-stages of our anticipated move, the stressors that can come from just thinking about such a big, exciting – and daunting – next “fork in the road” are already with us.

We’re taking it one step at a time, enjoying the explorations that help us imagine the life we hope to live in Ecuador. Your blog is a great find – and I really look forward to more of your insights. And your offer of friendship is very much appreciated. Can’t wait to again be in Cuenca, where we will do our best to envision our future living in this beautiful place in the world.

All the Best to You!

Manya February 7, 2014 at 1:03 pm

There’s no doubt that anyone – single or partnered – who chooses this kind of move has a lot of courage. And of course, staying mindful of your personal vision(s) for the move and the magic of this place can of be a very important counterweight to the stress. Best of luck with your transition!

Jo Ellen February 6, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Thank you for the wonderful blog entry.

Although I am not partnered myself, I find that much of the same advice applies. After all, repatriating as a single person is partnering with yourself to take a giant leap out of your comfort zone.

I find that I need to treat myself with additional kindness, be comfortable with being with myself 24/7, and accept myself as I am in a new environment.

Challenging, but a life altering adventure. And the surprise is how your life will be altered.

Manya February 7, 2014 at 12:57 am

I know that to be true, Jo Ellen, remembering big leaps into the unknown I made as a single person. Self-acceptance, acts of courage and loving kindness are an ongoing practice for each of us, no matter our partner situation.

Laura Lee February 7, 2014 at 1:14 am

That’s really insightful, Jo Ellen. Although I am a divorcée, I did move with my mother and my children. The same rules and practical advice applies. It’s OK to give yourself permission to “take it easy” if you’re having a struggle (and some days are more of a struggle than others.) I also like rule #1 – keeping in mind the REASONS why I chose to move to South America has gone a long way toward helping me with culture shock.

Manya February 7, 2014 at 2:03 am

I think that may indeed be the most important one, Laura Lee, in terms of expatriating. If there’s a strong sense of vision or purpose, that can take one through a LOT of stuff, certainly the culture shock as well as other doubts, challenges, and dark moments.

Manya February 6, 2014 at 10:52 pm

I couldn’t agree with you more, Laura Lee, and my experience tells me that unfortunately too many people become easily disinhibited with the person they feel safest with. Not that many people actually have the level of emotional self-control you’re describing, a competency which is at the very heart of emotional intelligence. Nonetheless, calling it out as a cornerstone for a healthy relationship is very useful. Thanks!

Laura Lee February 6, 2014 at 10:02 pm

Excellent article! I enjoyed reading it. Very wise yet practical advice. Yesterday, while shopping at the local mercado, I ran into two tourists from Canada. They were traveling through Ecuador for several months, looking to see if they wanted to move here and the woman readily admitted that being together 24/7 had been very difficult at first.

I would add one more item to your list (although I suppose it could fall under practicing loving kindness) and that is ALWAYS treat each other with courtesy. Basic politeness, treating each other with the courtesy you would a stranger, goes a long way to smooth over tense situations. And to whom do you owe courtesy more than your nearest and dearest? Thanks for such great tips. I enjoyed reading it.

Previous post:

Next post: