Expats and broken marriages – who is to blame?

There have been a lot of blog posts and articles on the subject of losing a marriage/relationship while living overseas on an expat assignment.  There is even a fictional blogella, masterfully written by the Expat Expert Robin Pascoe, exploring the aftermath of such broken-while-expat marriage.  Heated discussions about who to blame and who should be responsible (a cheating spouse or his/her company) fill many forums — and, while I completely understand our human desire to find someone to blame, I’d like to look at this phenomenon from a different perspective.

Faith Fuller and Marita Fridjhon pioneered the field of relationship coaching that looks at all relationships – be it marriages, teams, partnerships, etc – from the point of view of what is trying to happen vs who is doing what to whom?  They say that systems are naturally generative and intelligent and conflicts within any system signal that some kind of change needs to happen.

If your marriage is entering troubling times during your expat assignment – if you are noticing stress and frustration or if you are perceiving that a distance is growing between you and your spouse or if there is anything at all that makes you question your relationship – stop and try to listen to the voice of the system that is your marriage.  Try to avoid blaming your spouse for going out after work and spending less and less time at home, for traveling a lot, for spending hours with their smartphone and, instead, do the following exercise:

(1) From the perspective of a bird view (or a helicopter), look down and imagine that you are looking at yourself and your spouse.

(2) Notice how you are in relation to each other – are you facing each other, are you turned with your back to each other; what are your facial expressions, etc.

(3)  Looking at yourself, your spouse, and your relationship from high above, answer this question: what is trying to happen here?

(4) Ask your spouse to do the same thing.

(5) Compare notes.

If the system is signaling that a change needs to happen, this change will happen no matter who gets blamed for it.  So your choice here is to help the system achieve the change it needs or ignore the system’s voice and deal with the consequences.

What would you prefer?

A reminder for expat coaches and cross-cultural trainers: include your practice in our International Directory of Expat Coaches and Cross-Cultural Trainers, sorted by country and search-able by city, language, specialty, certification, etc.   At this time our Alexa rank is 900,000 and 105,000 in the US.  Your listing costs only $5 or $8 and it’s for life (not yearly).

Copyright © 2011 by Global Coach Center.  If you’d like to reprint this, please do so but make sure you credit us (with a live link)!

5 responses to “Expats and broken marriages – who is to blame?

  1. Indeed nobody is to blame.

    I’ve been a German expat in Thailand since 2004 – and I am also one of those whose marriage did not stand the test. Was it because of the expat situation? No. There were problems already before that WE did not solve.

    My personal observation is however that living in a foreign country has a strong impact on relationships: either great experiences form a stronger bond between a couple – or it makes existing differences much more obvious.

    In the latter case BOTH have to decide if they want to work on this. If not, separation is very likely.

    All the best for you expat couples!

  2. This is an important topic as I work with expats who are hurting in their relationships. I have also written a little article about it entitled “The Impact of Expatriate Stress on Marriage.” Link: http://kinterlink.blogspot.com/2011/02/impact-of-expatriate-stress-on-marriage.html

  3. In Russian we have an old saying that it is not wise to bring over your old samovar to a new place 🙂

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