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Anne Merritt, Matador intern and ESL teacher in South Korea, shares her advice.

In a Baskin Robbins in South Korea, I once met an American couple who were new to the country. They were teaching together, living together, and spending all their time together. I had given them a simple Fellow Foreigner Nod, but they waved me to their table and hit me with an outpour of pent-up observations and questions and stories. We had fun, despite the weird “thank God there’s someone new” vibe.

I’d hate to move abroad as a couple, I thought as I walked home. How could you not get tired of the person, being constantly together, and leaning on one another for all your social needs?

A month later, I met the man with whom I would share the expat life for three years and counting.

In the process, I’ve gained some retrospective empathy for that ice-cream-eating couple in Korea. Moving overseas together has brought us very close, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. Below are tips that I offer any couple looking to make the expat leap.

1. Discuss your Goals

“So what made you decide to move overseas?” This tired old question will come up just about everywhere, from family gatherings to consulate interviews, and most travelers perfect a concise answer along the lines of “for the experience.”

Of course it’s true, you and your partner want to have a fun and challenging experience together, but discuss your precise aims and expectations of those expat dreams. It’s far less fun than daydreaming about temple treks, but it’s necessary for ensuring you’re on the same page.

Are you going overseas to save money? To travel locally? To travel to neighboring countries? How active do you want to be in learning the local language and culture? Are you open to staying overseas for longer than one contract? These are questions to ask yourself, and each other.

2. Prepare for Curiosity

“When are you getting married?” “Why aren’t you married?” “When are you having children?” “Why don’t you have children?”

While living overseas, I’ve been asked these questions by children, bosses, shopkeepers, students, waiters, taxi drivers, and strangers in a café.

In most places I’ve travelled with my partner, people are less private and more outwardly curious than back in Canada. What’s more, in many parts of the world, it’s just plain rare to see long-term unmarried partnerships, commonlaw unions, or married couples with no short-term baby plans.

I can’t speak for all countries, but it’s a fair bet that most couples headed overseas for work or study will encounter these kinds of questions. Nine times out of ten, these queries are rooted in friendly curiosity, not judgment. Still, it’s good for a couple to be prepared for some private queries.

3. Set Boundaries

In an expat’s first few months overseas, one’s foreignness can feel isolating when the surrounding culture and language are totally new. Going abroad as a couple can allay that loneliness. Be mindful that it also puts more pressure on your relationship when your partner becomes your primary social outlet. For that American couple in the Baskin Robbins, they were each others’ partner, colleague, roommate, travelmate, shopping buddy, confidante, and shoulder to cry on: quite a hefty role.

Making an effort to form friendships and build a social network will definitely spread out your social needs. Of course, it’s not easy to wrangle some friends overnight, but even taking on a hobby alone can ease the 24/7 contact. I’ve seen couples join separate gyms and take separate language classes, and I truly believe that it’s healthier for a relationship to have that breathing room.

If you are working with your mate, be mindful that your relationship as coworkers shouldn’t eclipse your partnership. My partner and I once worked at a really crummy language school, and we would lie in bed griping about the shitty schedule and cocky head teacher. It was great to have someone to lean on during that stress, but bringing our work roles home caused us to dwell too much on those issues. In the end, we set limits on when we could talk about work, and when we had to put it aside, we would step completely away from our roles as colleagues and just be a couple.

4. Travel Together First

If possible, take a trip together before packing up and moving overseas. I don’t mean camping, a vineyard B&B, or your all-inclusive honeymoon in Aruba. I mean a trip where you face language barriers, culture shock, navigating new cities, and eating weird local dishes. Take a trip where you’re overwhelmed and disoriented and your senses don’t know how to take in all the sudden newness.

Why? Because you’ll learn a lot about your partner by doing so. You’ll see each other work around a foreign language and cope with getting lost. You’ll understand how you both cope in foreign situations and what you expect from an experience abroad.

Apart from seeing a new side of your mate, travel will help you understand your own strengths and limitations when it comes to being in a foreign place.

5. Don’t Make a Strict Timeline

I’ve met heaps of couples in Korea who come overseas with the intention of having a fun time, saving some cash, and going home again. Quite often, the timeline doesn’t work as planned.

The story may go something like this: They decide to stay longer than that initial 12-month contract. They catch the travel bug and choose to spend 6 months backpacking Asia together. They make contact with a friend of a friend and decide to take jobs in Bucharest.

While this article has addressed some hurdles that may befall an expat couple, we must also shed light on the other kind of unexpected events. There are the exciting, life-changing epiphanies that come when people go abroad expecting a pretty good time, and they end up hooked.

When you have someone to get hooked with, it’s awesome.

Community Connection

Do you have any tips to share for couples considering moving abroad?

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About The Author

Anne Merritt

Anne Merritt has lived in Canada, Europe, and Asia. She teaches ESL, writes, haggles, hikes, and wears sunscreen fanatically. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, GoOverseas.com, and The Compass. Check out her blog.

  • megan eaves

    Thanks so much for posting this, Anne! My husband and I have been living the expat life together for several years now in a variety of different countries. We started out unmarried and had some similar experiences teaching English in China. Great advice for young couples!

  • http://twitter.com/onceatraveler Turner Wright

    Bigger question – where did you meet your SO in South Korea?

    • Anne_Merritt

      Ha, straight to the point, Turner! It was at the birthday party of a mutual friend. The shameful detail: it was at a grungy expat bar called Old Skool. But we usually leave out that part…

  • http://www.jeffreyandflora.com Flora Moreno de Thompson

    These are all great tips for couples abroad. I also think another important tip is to spend time apart from your significant other from time to time. It’s important to have your own life as well as having your life together. 

  • Heather Carreiro

    Great tips Anne! Most of these can also be applied to couples who aren’t considering moving abroad. Maybe we also need an article on tips for inter-cultural couples…I know I could have used it! 

  • http://twitter.com/chilejenn Jenn Massoni Pardini

    Thank you so much for this piece, Anne! I’m moving to Chile next week to join my husband, who took a job down there, and I can’t wait to take on this next adventure while we have the time and the freedom. I’ll be teaching English and writing, so we won’t be working together, but we will definitely be relying on one another for a lot more than typical newlyweds, I’d imagine. We hope to start our family down there, too. That’s where I’ll really need some advice! 

  • Dorocon

    A great piece, Anne. I’ve lived overseas much of my long life, both with husband and more recently alone. Small point: in last paragraph don’t you mean “hurdles” instead of “hurtles”? Maybe they’re hurtling over hurdles.

  • http://www.sarahirving.co.uk Sarah Irving

    Yep, lots of this rings true (as someone who’s into the 7th month of being overseas with her partner of 8 years). My big thing would be to agree with the point about finding other social outlets. I’m really lucky; I’m politically active and therefore find it easy to make new contacts overseas who are roughly like-minded, via the existing structures for my particular ’cause’, but I guess the same principles would apply for hobbies, nightclasses etc. As a result, I’ve made a lovely new set of friends (some of whom I very much hope I’ll keep way beyond this visit) and I have company with whom to do things which he doesn’t want to and which, although I’m happy to go to gigs or exhibitions alone, is always more fun with other people. And husband and I enjoy each other’s company all the more for it, and don’t get tetchy with each other. I’ve tended to travel alone before and found it easy to meet people then, and not done so when I have travelled in a couple – but having organised ways to do this has been a godsend.

  • http://www.theworldswaiting.com Liv

    Lots of these apply to travelling with friends too  – Wise words!

  • Carol Bowman

    Great article, Anne. My husband and I have lived the expat life for 5 years now, since our move to Lake Chapala, Mexico for retirement. Since we were both rather young retirees, having an idea of what we were going to do once we moved here was paramount BEFORE we left. I teach English to Mexican adults and served as director of the ESL school here for 3 years. In addition, I write for 3 print and one on-line magazine in the area, giving me a support group of writer and teacher colleagues. My husband plays golf 5 times a week and is on the Board of Directors of the member owned golf country club here. His duties include supervision of the club restaurant staff and operation, allowing him independent interaction with other players and board memebers. These activities are all volunteer based and make for busy, busy, times. Thankfully we are both occupied with our own lines of interest, a must for any expat couple to thrive.

    Expat life does afford opportunities to become involved in the local culture, while helping out with community issues.  As a couple, we participate in several expat organizations that benefit the local Mexican people. I would recommend to any couple considering expat life to explore how, together they can make a contribution to the community. It makes life much richer to intertwine yourselves within the fabric of the adopted culture. 

    Lastly, the biggest pitfall may be the language issues. Early on we experienced many dramas in learning how to get things done in Mexico. It’s a very different world and causes much stress between partners. I speak more Spanish  than my husband, so I was usually expected to handle issues with the construction crew working on additions to our house, with the gardner, with the bank etc. After 5 years my husband has realized that he wants to be in the thick of these discussions and so he has decided to attend Spanish classes. I am so relieved.

     Early on, couples need to make an agreement, on how they plan to handle the unexpected, frustrating and serious issues that face the expat in a foreign land. The most important tipI can offer is to make sure there is a balance between ‘mine, yours and ours’. That goes for interests, activities, friends and responsibilities.

  • http://www.WanderingEducators.com Wandering Educators

    smart tips – and even more important when you’re traveling and living overseas with kids.

  • http://missanamon.wordpress.com/ Ana

    This is a great article! Thanks for sharing your tips from experience. This is something I’ve thought about doing with my boyfriend (he may be transferred overseas for 6 months by his job) so I’ve thought about going with him and I wondered how it may affect our relationship negatively… I really like your suggestion about taking a trip to a place where you must deal with getting lost, eating weird foods, and not knowing the language. 

  • http://waywardtraveller.com/ Annie @ Wayward Traveller

    These are definitely some great tips. After meeting my boyfriend abroad, traveling with him, moving to his country and now traveling and preparing to move again I’d say that it’s time for me to even take some of your advice here. 

    I really like the idea of joining separate gyms and taking separate language classes because I think it is important to take some time away from each other, especially when you haven’t met other friends yet! 

    On the other side of the coin, I have realized a lot in the last couple of years why we work together so well because we compliment each others travel styles and know how to balance the other one when it comes to frustrations whether it be in travel or at home. 

  • Casey

    Thanks Anne! My boyfriend and I are planning to move to South Korea to work as ESL teachers. We were wondering if there is a stigma associated with unmarried couples living together? We don’t mind answering the questions, but would rather not be looked down upon because of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=27202936 Laura Ambrey

    Really great tips – my husband and I work for the same Language school but are thankfully based in different centers. Even so we generally spend Saturdays apart – him playing on an expat football club, and me having lunch/pedicures/shopping/ with a girlfriend or two, and then reconnecting over dinner.
    http://www.writingsfromabroad.com

  • http://movingfromireland.wordpress.com/ Rick

    It is indeed a couple decision and not having one decided and the other drawn into the decision. Even if the circumstances are not equal, opportunities for both should be taken into account. Usually people overlook these things, but I advice them not to ignore it.
    http://movingfromireland.wordpress.com/ 

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  • Anonymous

    The workers at Lincoln Moving and Storage were so professional and so helpful. The staff anticipated and answered many of my questions, and was extremely helpful. Everything especially my paintings were handled with great care. Thank you. You made a sometimes stressful experience a very easy process. Contact them at Contact us today at http://lincolnmoving.com or (716) 874-1380. They simplify your moving and storage worries.

  • Anonymous

    The workers at Lincoln Moving and Storage were so professional and so helpful. The staff anticipated and answered many of my questions, and was extremely helpful. Everything especially my paintings were handled with great care. Thank you. You made a sometimes stressful experience a very easy process. Contact them at Contact us today at http://lincolnmoving.com or (716) 874-1380. They simplify your moving and storage worries.

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