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