In the Expat life series, I will share the things I learned, my experiences, and the various aspects (good and bad) of living abroad.

Maybe you’ve been there, maybe you’re thinking about it, maybe you’ve done it. But you could sum it up like this: you meet someone, you fall in love, you become a couple, all is well and then one day, you decide move to another country.

Sometimes, you both want to experience something different. Sometimes, one of the partners has to move for work or to study. Sometimes, it’s just one of the partners who wants to go. The end result is that you both decide to go for it and move. As always, there are two sides to the coin. On the one hand, you won’t be alone and will have your partner’s emotional support, but on the other hand, moving to a different country, while very exciting, is also very stressful, and like any major life change, it is bound to have an effect on your relationship.
Here are a few possible scenarios of what can happen, loosely inspired by real-life couples (note that these scenarios are about Western people who immigrate out of choice, I can’t pretend to know much about other types of expatriation):

Chris and John are Australian. They have been dating for five years and they just got married. They both decide to move to Italy because they want to experience something new and broaden their horizons. Plus, they were always interested in Italian culture. Chris has a good job but she’d have to quit to move. John makes good money as a freelancer so the deal is that he’ll support her until she finds work in their new country. She quits her job, they pack their bags, and off they go to Rome. John never lived outside of Australia and he gets a serious case of culture shock. He immerses himself fully in the Italian lifestyle and reevaluates his values on a very deep level. As for Chris, she doesn’t speak Italian very well and has a harder time than expected finding a job. She takes it really badly because she’s never been unemployed before. Her self-esteem suffers, she becomes increasingly negative about her situation and John starts resenting her. Chris feels like she doesn’t know John anymore, he has changed a lot. Communication becomes harder and harder, they fight more and more. They try couple’s therapy, but eventually, they break-up.

Frederik and Rie are Danish. They have been together for a year. Frederik is offered a great job in France and decides to take it. He asks Rie if she wants to come with him. They’re not sure about having a long distance relationship. Rie has a job she doesn’t really like, and she really loves Frederik so she decides to go, plus, she studied French in school for a couple of years. She quits her crappy job, packs her stuff and off they go. Frederik agrees to support her until she finds a job. Luck is on Rie’s side, she finds a job very quickly. Frederik is very happy with his job, but this change of life also reveals sides of him that Rie doesn’t like so much, and vice versa. Rie picks up French quite quickly, which helps a lot. She’s a bit shy though, and between her job and her relationship, it’s not easy meeting new people and making real friends. She misses her family and friends back home and it’s harder to deal with the negative aspects of her relationship without her usual network of support. They have a couple of big fights, they both wonder whether to call it quits, but love prevails and their relationship comes out stronger.

Cécile and Julien are French. They met when they were students and fell in love. All things Spanish fascinate Cécile. She always wanted to move there and in a way, she feels she was born in the wrong country. Julien grew up in the city they live in. He has lots of friends here, a good job, but he really loves Cécile so he agrees to move to Madrid with her. She thrives there, even if they live in a tiny place in a seedy neighborhood and even if her job is not the best: she’s IN SPAIN!! Julien, on the other hand, is not doing great. He tries hard, but learning Spanish is quite difficult, and he just can’t seem to find a job in his field. Cécile tries to support him and to cheer him up (and on), but she starts to feel like Julien is more and more of a burden. They decide to go on a month-long trip in Asia to clear their heads and try and reconnect. When they come back, they break up. The things they want are just too different. Julien goes back to France, and two months later, Cécile meets a dark brooding Spanish man and falls in love with him.

What these scenarios* show is that moving to a new country will upset the existing balance in a relationship. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you will definitely have to deal with it.
If you’re planning to move as a couple, here’s what you should keep in mind:
  • It will probably be harder than you though.
  • You will see aspects of your partner that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
  • Some of these aspects will be good, some of them will be bad, so you both have to be clear about what you’ll be able to tolerate or what will be a deal breaker.
  • Because at first, it will be just the two of you, you will live in some sort of a bubble for a while where you’ll be each other’s all, which could end up being stifling.
  • Which is why it’s super important (dare I say vital) that you both make friends on your own.
  • On the subject of making friends, it will be easier to meet new people if each partner also socializes on their own, because a couple is sometimes less approachable.
  • If you’re the one behind the initial impulse to move, be aware that your partner could find it difficult to adjust so be patient with them.
  • If you’re the one that follows, be aware that you may, at some point, resent your partner for making you give up your old life. In a way, you did give it up, but remember that it was also your choice, so embrace the experience and make it your own.
  • Make sure you have a long and thorough talk about finances, how the costs will be shared etc.
  • Even if you may not want to think about it, try and imagine what would be the worst-case scenario and make sure you have a plan B and, ideally, enough savings should this worst case scenario come true.
  • There is no right or wrong way to deal with the expatriation experience so don’t judge or belittle your partner’s experiences and observation.
  • Beware of the green-eyed monster: the locals will be all new and exotic, and you may catch your partner checking the sultry Italian babes, the cool French guys or the long-legged Scandinavian blondes a bit too much. And as an expat, you will be automatically exotic, hence attractive. So in my book, it’s OK to look, and harmless flirting can be delightful, but beware of temptations.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Becoming an expat couple can be a risky venture, but when I look at all the couples I’ve met, here’s my non-scientific conclusion: the relationships that didn’t make it had what you might call structural flaws from the get go and moving to another country merely revealed them, made them worse at times, but it didn’t cause them. If the relationship is healthy and if both partners are willing to make an effort, it will be stronger in the end. And they can be proud of the fact that they did something brave and survived, as an individual and as a couple!

*I know, in my examples, two couples out of three don’t make it, I just couldn’t find a fourth example with a happy ending that was good enough!