In the first of a series of articles on marriage / partnerships in Sweden, Lysanne Sizoo, psychotherapist (UKCP reg.), considers the issues faced by expats when either one or both halves of a couple are in a foreign country. Part 1: At home or abroad.
What do we really know when we promise undying love to our exotic foreign partner? Or what do we truly expect when we decide to embark on the foreign adventure we always dreamed of? I think we have been given the rose tinted spectacles of love and infatuation for a purpose; if we always could oversee the results of our adventurous impulses, we would never leave all that is safe and familiar. And as we know from loved ones back ‘home’, even that is not a recipe for an uncomplicated life. Let’s face it, relationships are hard, and international relationships are harder still, but the rewards are worth all the investment.
The couples that we meet at Turning Point roughly fall into two categories: the cross-cultural partnerships where one of the two is a Swedish national; and the couples where neither partner is Swedish, who have come here together on an expat assignment. In both cases there seems to be an internal or even socially external directive to make this adventure a glowing success and to never ever have moments of doubt or regret. If those so-called negative feelings do pop up, you suppress them until finally they burst to the surface like a triumphant volcano of resentment, quite out of proportion to whatever the last drop was… and making everything seem a disaster, rather than the normal ups and downs of international life.
The love refugees that come here with so much hope often find that their decision demands a greater sacrifice than they may have thought… You’re constantly being surprised by the fact that even though they walk like us and talk like us, Swedes have their very own way of being in this world. Just like any other nationality, theirs is a way that tends to charm, baffle and, yes, annoy.
In this article, we’ll be exploring two aspects of couples here, one related to a cross-cultural marriage and the other where neither partner is Swedish.
Cross-cultural marriages: Being at ‘home’ in his or her culture
The love refugees that come here with so much hope often find that their decision demands a greater sacrifice than they may have thought. You miss the familiarity of home, you feel like a five-year old trying to express yourself in your best Swedish, and you’re constantly being surprised by the fact that even though they walk like us and talk like us, Swedes have their very own way of being in this world. Just like any other nationality, theirs is a way that tends to charm, baffle and, yes, annoy. But I also empathise with the Swedish national who feels responsible for every negative experience his or her loved one experiences in the course of the adjustment period. Underlying each complaint, explicitly or implicitly, is the notion of sacrifice and guilt.
Quite often the recriminations don’t appear until after the first year or eighteen months; “you have no idea how hard this is”, “I hate the way they do things here”, “I miss being able to have an adult conversation in my own language”, answered by “but I thought you said you wanted to come here”, “we do have the best way of doing things in Sweden, it’s just different”, to “you can talk to me”. If this is the conversation that you’re in, going round and round, then forget trying to solve things. No one is to blame, but often the incomers do need to be ‘seen’ in all the hard work they are putting in, day in day out, and the homebodies need to be relieved of standing responsible for all the ills of the Swedish community.
Sometimes what’s needed is the opportunity to express that this foreign adventure is harder than either of you thought, each from your own perspective, non-defensive and without recriminations. Usually you can manage to work through these things ourselves as couples, but if the support of a third person is needed, then that possibility is always there as well. Once you’ve cleared the decks of all the previously unexpressed and unexplored emotions, you can begin to make up the balance. Most couples will happily stay, others will move to a third, neutral country and in very rare cases, some couples will decide to split. But whatever you decide, let it be based on an open, honest discussion and an understanding that you both chose to add that extra spice of ‘international’ to your loving relationship.
Non-Swedish couples: “We’ve always wanted to work abroad”
Scratch the surface of that statement, and you often find that there is an imbalance in the ‘we’, where it is actually one who wanted it most, and the other who wanted to be supportive. Often, there is a supportive partner and an initiating partner, and if the supportive partner decided to move because ‘it seemed the loving thing to do’, then their investment is more likely to be in the well-being of their partner rather more than the move. If the initiating partner then has a bad day at the new job, or a moment of doubt and a wobble, the whole project feels in jeopardy and it is a heavy burden to bear. In the same way, if the supporting partner expresses his or her frustration about the time it takes to feel settled in, make friends, learn the language, the initiating partner feels it like a personal attack - the ‘I did this for you’ hanging in the air – and responds with confusion and defensiveness. I often ask the person who finds it hard to adjust to explain exactly how invested they were in the decision to move, because figuring out how you made the decision and why, and whether you need to revisit it to recommit in a more ‘informed’ way can be helpful for both partners.
You don’t have to be the starring couple in an A-rate Hollywood movie about expats, it’s enough to have a good enough experience, where the extra challenges enrich and deepen your experience of one another as a couple, bringing you closer together.
Often the initiating partners are working harder than ever and are full of fears about not coming up to scratch, and failing at the job that they uprooted the family for. They spend less time at home, which is the one thing that the supporting partner needs more than ever. Feelings of abandonment are part and parcel of the overseas experience. But just as with the couples where one of the two is a national, the important thing is not to try and solve issues, but to listen to one another and allow the frustration to spill out. You don’t have to be the starring couple in an A-rate Hollywood movie about expats, it’s enough to have a good enough experience, where the extra challenges enrich and deepen your experience of one another as a couple, bringing you closer together. Closer, not by pretending there are no challenges, but by meeting them head on and dealing with them.
In part 2 we will be looking at the role of in-laws and family members, as well as other visitors. In an international relationship, a visit from your mum becomes a two week stay rather than a cuppa on the odd Sunday afternoon. How do you set the boundaries?
These articles are a composite of my personal, my colleagues’ and
clients’ experiences in order to protect recognition. All therapeutic
meetings are Turning Point are confidential, and specific content would
never be shared in a public forum.
If you have any specific questions about marriage in a foreign land, or indeed other issues that you would like Lysanne to consider in her articles, please contact her here (anonymity will always be preserved).
Lysanne Sizoo is the founder and director of Turning Point, the only international counselling centre in Stockholm. In 2008 she obtained her psychotherapy license from the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy. She has been practising as a counsellor and psychotherapist since 1997, specialising in the field of cross cultural issues, as well as fertility, bereavement, parenting, anxiety and stress management.