Will Moving Overseas Make Or Break Your Relationship?

Relationship cliches about living abroad

There’s a well-worn line in expatriate circles that goes something like this: “Moving overseas will either strengthen your relationship, or break it.”

And here’s another one that gets rolled out regularly: “If your relationship was strong before you moved, it will become stronger. If there were already problems, moving overseas will exacerbate those.”

There is some truth in both of these sayings. Moving overseas is a hugely stressful undertaking. It puts enormous pressure on us—the sort of pressure that forces us out of our comfort zones and makes us change and adapt to meet the new challenges coming from every side.

No relationship can stay static when both parties in it are changing, and so our relationship with our spouse or partner will inevitably change, too.

How does moving overseas change relationships?

In a binary world, moving overseas will either strengthen or weaken our relationship. We will grow closer or more distant. We will make it or break it.

But guess what? Life and love and how we change as people and as a couple is rarely binary.

Sure, some couples will talk about how they moved abroad and it did nothing but good things for them. They are closer and stronger and more in sync than they’ve ever been before. They have a new lease on life and love. Yada, yada, yada.

[Forgive what may be cynicism here, but I would hazard a guess that many of the couples saying this don’t have children, haven’t weathered multiple medical emergencies or major natural disasters along the way, and/or have been together less than ten years.]

Other couples will move abroad and have the relationship fall apart. The move exacerbates tensions that were already there and creates new ones. Embers of frustration, resentment, anger, or pain that were already smoldering underneath the surface get stirred up and blaze to life. Couples increasingly struggle to connect and communicate well. The relationship disintegrates.

But there are many other, more complex, scenarios that can unfold when you move overseas. Here is just one…

Not either/or: One way moving overseas can change a relationship

The decision to move overseas was made together, and you’re both fully on board with this decision. You’re in a strong, stable relationship when you move. The intense experiences that come with moving initially draw you closer.

You grapple together with getting oriented in your new city and learning a new language and culture. Your strengths and differences complement each other in obvious ways. You have a real sense of being better equipped to “do this thing” together than either one of you would be alone. You (mostly) support each other well. You learn a lot about meeting challenges as a team. Trust, respect, gratitude and affection for each other grow stronger.

And then life settles into something akin to routine. The initial excitement wanes, and the extraordinary becomes more normal. More normal and mundane sorts of daily stressors (such as concerns about work, children, finances, life logistics) start to “layer over” these bigger stressors (which haven’t fully subsided) and become more dominant.

One or both of you starts to feel tired, worn out, and increasingly frustrated with certain aspects of your new life. You find yourself pulling inwards, or actively taking things out on your partner. You increasingly lack time and energy to talk about the little details of your day and what’s on your mind and heart. Sudden upswells of anger and resentment surprise you with their intensity. A growing sense of distance from your partner scares you, but you figure it’s just a phase and it will pass.

You’re both still committed to the relationship, but slowly moving into more separate inner orbits. There iss often a fine and fuzzy line between healthy distance in a marriage and unhealthy/scary disconnect, and you’re not exactly sure where that line is anymore—or whether it still lies in front of you, or behind you.

It brings both good and bad…

Whether our closest relationships grow stronger or weaker when we move overseas is not binary and it’s not static. For most of us, the pressure of moving and living overseas will make us closer and stronger as couple in some ways and at some times, and weaken us in other ways and at different times.

All this is a long (very long, sorry) preamble to why I wrote this post.

I’ve been thinking about the impact of moving overseas on relationships for many years now. My background as a psychologist and my own life experience (my husband and I met long distance and have moved internationally three times in the nine years we have been married) has made it highly relevant.

Some time ago, I realized that many of us could use a process designed to help us connect with our partner in new and deeper ways. A process designed to help us make each other a priority, talk about important topics, and learning more about each other. A process designed to strengthen and deepen our relationship.

So I’ve designed one.

And if you want it, I’m going to give it to you for free for the next month.

It’s brand new. I haven’t published it yet (I will do that before Christmas). But I want to give it away to you guys here on A Life Overseas before it even goes to press because you’re my tribe. You’re my people, scattered far and wide. You are people who are passionate about your work, your faith, and your relationship with your partner. You are people who are trying to do some amazing and wonderful things in this world—endeavors that can come at great personal and relational cost.

And if this series can help even a handful of you in some small way, that will make me happy.

So, here’s a bit more about the series and how you can get ahold of it.

Deeper Dates For Couples

Deeper Dates For Couples is a 12-week series of activities and questions that will guide you into important, interesting, and intimate conversations. Along the way, it gives you tools and uncovers insights that will strengthen and deepen your relationship.

Each week for 12 weeks we will focus on a different topic. I will give you some background information (strictly interesting stuff). Then I’ll tell you about your task for the week and share some questions you can use to kick off discussion during your weekly date.

You will:

  • Learn about each other’s strengths, sense of humor, communication style, and personality.
  • Discover brand-new insights about yourself and your partner (yes, no matter how long you’ve been together).
  • Do fun and fascinating positive psychology activities together that have been proven to make people happier and healthier.

How much time will this take? It will usually take you a total of about 45 – 60 minutes to read the chapter and do your task for the week. As for how long you want to spend talking during your weekly date…? Well, that one’s up to you.

And to help you get the most out of this series, I’ve designed a special companion journal to go with it. Your 32-page personal workbook for the Deeper Dates series will guide you through the reflection questions, discussion questions, and tasks for each week, and contains space for you to make notes and keep track of your answers and insights along the way.

If this sounds like something you’d like to have, jump on over to this page where you can enter your email and I’ll send you the book (I don’t want to put a direct link to the book file out in public space before it is officially published, so this is the safest way for me to give it away.)

If you grab a copy, I hope you find it helpful. And I’d love to hear from you about anything to do with the series, anytime.

Wherever you are in this world and in your own relationship journey, I’m cheering you on and wishing you all the best.


15 Questions To Help You Set “Relationship Resolutions” In The New Year

After we got married and moved overseas five years ago, my husband, Mike, introduced a concept that initially horrified me. He suggested that every year around New Years we name one thing we’d like each other to work on in the upcoming year. In essence, he proposed that we assign each other a New Years resolution.

I spent weeks trying to decide what I would say to Mike that first year. I felt like I had to pick something serious. Momentous. Life changing. And I fretted about what he was going to say to me. What awful, embarrassing, character flaw was he going to spotlight and ask me to work on?

When the night finally came, this is what he said: “I would like you to please pay more attention to not scattering your stuff all over the place the minute you walk in the door.”

I was so relieved that this was what he picked, I laughed at him. But I now think his choice that first year was wise. He started small—a pet peeve that annoyed him out of all proportion to the actual offense, but something easy for me to agree to work on. And ever since then I have tried (with varying degrees of success) to be more mindful of keeping my clutter out of common areas.

Now that we’re several years down the track of our relationship, this little tradition has begun to serve an additional purpose—it reminds me that New Years resolutions shouldn’t just be about what I want to do (or not do) as an individual. As I take stock of my year in December, I should also be thinking about how my relationship with Mike is going and how we could improve it.

There are all sorts of things we can aim to do to build happier, healthier relationships. Here are just a couple:

  • Practice kindness
  • Laugh together more
  • Say what’s on your mind
  • Tell your partner what you want and need
  • Ask questions
  • Play together more
  • Practice really listening
  • Spend more time together
  • Talk about tension points (like money, or sex)
  • Give each other undivided attention (with no cell phones lying handy nearby!)
  • Be quicker to apologize
  • Practice forgiveness

The trick with setting resolutions, however, is to focus. If you try to do everything on this list you’ll probably end up accomplishing nothing new in the long run. So be strategic. Take stock of your year and your relationship, and then pick one or two things you really want to work on. Add this to the one thing your partner has asked of you and craft your New Year intentions around this trio of aspirations.

Ready to get started? Great. Here are some questions for you to think about and discuss this month in the lead up to Christmas and New Years.


Answer yourself

Answer these questions for yourself, and then set aside some time to share some of your answers together.

  1. Pick three words that describe this year.
  2. What are four things from this year that you are grateful for?
  3. What is the habit you would most like to stop next year?
  4. What is one habit you would really like to start next year?
  5. What are two things you and your partner “did well” in your relationship this year?
  6. What is one thing you would like to do with your partner to improve your relationship next year?
  7. Pick three words you would like to describe next year.

Ask each other

Now, take some time to ask each other these questions and discuss the answers.

  1. What were some of your favorite moments this year?
  2. What is something you have really appreciated about me this year?
  3. What is something I could do to support you well in this upcoming year?
  4. What is one thing you would like me to work on this year?
  5. What is something you’d like us to work on together to improve our relationship?

Setting relationship resolutions

Congratulations!! If you’ve asked and answered all of the questions above, you’re ready to set some relationship resolutions for next year. Use these questions to help you:

  1. What are one or two things (not more!!) that I really want to work on this year in my relationship?
  2. What is one thing my partner would like me to work on?
  3. What might these things look like in action (e.g., if you want to practice kindness, what might that actually look like on a daily basis)?

Your turn…

Do you set New Years Resolutions? If not, what do you do to mark the turning of a new page in January?
Leave a comment and let us know, or share some of your answers to the questions above.

blank list of resolutions on blackboard

Let’s Talk About Love

Happy Valentine’s Day!! Before I jump into all things love (because, really, what else could I write about today), I just want to say thank you for the lovely comments and notes I received after my last post about my husband’s cancer diagnosis and our sudden (hopefully temporary) departure from Laos. We’re still in Australia. Mike’s at the oncology unit today, almost half way through his second cycle of chemotherapy. We celebrated our 5th anniversary in style, in our wedding clothes, at the hospital :). We hope to be all done with chemo and able to return to Laos by May 1. We will see.

Now, love.

If you had told me a decade ago while I was working full time as a stress and trauma specialist for humanitarian workers that I’d now be fashioning a new “career” as an authority on long distance relationships, I would have been both bemused and amused. But there you have it. In the last year I’ve published two books for people in romantic relationships with plans for more to come.

So, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I’ve pulled something out of each of my recent books that I thought might help you “grow love” in your life.

Whether you’re dating, married, or single, I hope these discussion questions and activities provide you with fodder for thought and conversation with others in your “inner circle”. I hope that in some small way they help you deepen and broaden important relationships in your life. And, wherever you are today and whomever you are with, I hope you feel that you are well loved and that you are loving well.

201_comps_72dpiSome things to talk about from 201 Questions

  1. Think of someone you greatly respect. What are three things you admire about that person?
  2. What are some of the best gifts you’ve received? Why were they so special?
  3. When you feel stressed, how does that show up in how you interact with other people?
  4. What would you like to do more of in life, but don’t? Why not?
  5. How does your job allow you to express or “live out” what you value?
  6. What is something you’ve achieved that you’re really proud of?
  7. Tell me about a time you overcame a fear.
  8. What are two issues or themes around which you most frequently feel as if you struggle to find balance in your life?
  9. How have your beliefs been challenged and/or changed recently?
  10. What are things that refresh you, inspire you, and remind you of what’s most important to you?

kindle_cover_borderSomething to do from Dating Smart

The VIA Survey of Character Strengths is a psychological assessment measure designed to identify an individual’s profile of character strengths.

The version on the Authentic Happiness website is free. It has 240 multiple-choice questions and takes about 20-30 minutes to complete. After you answer all the questions, you’re presented with a personal profile rank-ordering the 24 character strengths. Your top 5 strengths are considered your “signature strengths”.

This is such an interesting test that I often recommend it to friends as a personal growth exercise. However, it becomes even more fascinating if your partner or a close friend also takes the inventory. Then you can compare your results and discuss the implications.

Want to play? Here’s what I suggest …

1.  Go to http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu.
2.  Register so that you can access the Authentic Happiness Testing Center.
3.  Take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths.
4.  Then, think about the following questions and discuss them with your partner, family member, or friend.

Your strengths:

1.  Do you agree with the results, or not?
2.  What does the test suggest are your top five “signature” strengths?
3.  List at least one way each of your top five strengths is evident in your life.
4.  Which two of your top eight strengths do you feel you use most frequently?
5.  Which two of your top eight strengths do you feel you use the least frequently?

 Your partner, family member, or friend’s strengths:

1.  What are your partner’s signature strengths?
2.  Do you agree that those five strengths are “signature” strengths for your partner or would you have guessed that other strengths would show up more strongly in their profile?
3.  What are ways that you see these signature strengths show up in your partner’s life?
4.  What are ways that you and your partner have different strengths?
5.  How can these differences be complementary?
6.  How might these differences cause friction?

Leave a comment and add to the Valentine’s Day “fun and games” ideas!

Do you celebrate Valentine’s Day? How?

What’s a question you’ve recently discussed (or something that you’ve done) that led to growth in a relationship?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos
Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red