Thursday, January 26, 2012

Marriage and Living Abroad, Part The Second

Beautiful flowers in a beautiful home housing a beautiful marriage

This hasn't happened to me in Taiwan, but what I've seen on various expat forums and even witnessed among expats in China (I was too young, and in a place with too few expats, to see it in India) is an expectation that marriages, when taken abroad, not only often fail for reasons specifically related to the expat shift, but are expected to fail.

Memorably, a thread on one major travel forum in which more than one person proclaimed - or insisted on, or pontificated on, your verb of choice really - the inevitability of most expat marriages failing (the discussion was centered on marriages where both spouses were expats). The main reason for this? If it was a corporate gig the man (it's always assumed that the working spouse is male and the trailing one female - ugh) would either work too hard and not be supportive of his wife getting used to a new environment, or, more likely, he'd inevitably want to, *ahem* dip his wick in the local pool.

Now, most of me wants to say that's ludicrous, and in my experience - both personal and in being around other dual-expat couples - it's not true at all. Various commenters might say it's not true yet, but I'm confident that they're wrong.

A small part of me can't ignore the fact that a lot of expat marriages do fail, and around the world, the community is strewn with examples of exactly what I said was ludicrous above. I've semi-witnessed it firsthand (a couple in China that I got to know during my brief stay in Beijing after my year in Zunyi was up), and it followed all of the tropes and cliches that I like to pretend aren't real. Guy gets job abroad, wife follows soon after, wife thinks marriage is strong (not sure what he thought), within a year guy is cavorting with local women and not-so-secretly thinks his wife is an "aging, nagging, irritating old hag". I'd like to pretend I didn't see it happen (I mean I did not literally see it happen, I just knew them at the time that this was going on, was aware of the issue, and it was more drama than my 22-year-old brain could process at the time). I like to pretend this sort of thing is a Grimm's Expat Fairytale, made up and full of mythical bugbears and boo-monsters, and it doesn't actually happen in real life except to couples that are poorly-matched or the guy's just a douche and his wife, when they married, didn't realize it.

I will say when I met them that they seemed well-matched, and that the husband seemed like a good guy, but I didn't know them that well and I didn't know them for very long - oh yeah, and I was 22 - so my impressions aren't worth much.

Of course there are other reasons why things might not work out, just as their would be in one's own country. People change, always slowly, rarely to a great extent, but they change over the course of their lives. Especially from their mid-twenties (when one is likely to get married) to their mid-30s (when one becomes more likely to be sent abroad). I've found the change is far greater when you travel for an extended period or live abroad. I've changed more in my 5 years in Taiwan than I believe I would have had I stayed in Washington, DC. Brendan  has too, I'm sure.

Culture shock and adaptation affect different people in different ways. I personally have mellowed out a bit - I know, I know, it doesn't seem like it but you didn't know me in college - whereas Brendan's grown a bit more outgoing. Of course, that could be our influence on each other, too. I recently realized that I sometimes take things too personally and how good Brendan is from depersonalizing himself from things other people say, and is better at seeing their quips as a reflection of themselves, not him. These differences in reaction have been small with us, but I could see how they might be huge with another couple, especially one in which each spouse has different experiences: if one spouse is working and the other is at home, their impression of the new country and culture will diverge, probably quite a bit, and they might face huge marital issues vis-a-vis these changes.

To wit - an example I heard online: classic working man and trailing spouse wife in Southeast Asia. He was having a grand old time entertaining clients, going to swanky restaurants, living the big business life. She was at home with little to do (they had a domestic helper) and her experiences mostly made her aware of the unspeakable poverty and rampant sexism skeined throughout the land and culture. She just didn't get why her husband dismissed her shock so blithely, and of course, he didn't understand what she was so shocked about. It was like they were living in two separate boxes, each denoting an aspect of the culture, and couldn't quite reach across and see what was happening in the other box. Exeunt.

Living abroad but having two different experiences can cause two people to
feel as though they're boxed off, eperiencing entirely different things,
even within one culture.
Another example - a couple, also known of online, in which the working spouse had lots of chances to socialize through work but the trailing spouse was having trouble reaching out and making friends, even among other expats. The trailing spouse's friends were basically the friends of the working spouse, and that was the extent of her social life. Financially, emotionally and socially dependent on him,  she felt she didn't have her own true friends or experience and definitely not a support network. She had no one to turn to when they started fighting, and she eventually left. Exeunt.

Then I look at my own marriage, where if anything, life has become more comfortable and culture shock experiences and changes have caused us to bond more deeply rather than grow apart. We don't quite fit the classic mold - we knew each other before but got together abroad and married while abroad, and we both work and hold similar jobs. There's no "working spouse/trailing spouse" and we're a bit younger than many (not all!) married expats. If anything, expat life has strengthened us and turned us into wiser people with a better marriage than had we never had the experience.

I'm not writing this out of worry - nobody knows a marriage like the people in it and I am extremely confident of mine, Internet blatherers be damned - but more that, in knowing that my own expat marriage is quite successful and seeing so many other successful examples - I want to rail against the greater online expat community's belief (or at least the belief of its shrillest voices) in the inevitability of expat marriages failing - and especially the deep-seated belief that expat men will always cheat with local women (for those of you who know Brendan, feel free to laugh at how hilarious that is when you consider his personality. He might cheat on me with a book - "sorry honey, I'm going to be out late tonight reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" - though).

In the end, while the "expat men will always cheat on their wives with local women" cliche does happen (and might even happen for the reasons cited by the worst of the sorts of folks who spout this rhetoric), I don't accept it as commonly true. I accept it as something that happens, sometimes, but not because it's inevitable and certainly not because "all men are like that", or "men prefer the women in Country X because they're Y whereas Western women are Z". Sometimes it's just one bad egg making all men look bad, and a wife who made a mistake in marrying him.

Usually, though, I'd say that the reason things like this happen is because there was a problem with the relationship itself before it got taken abroad. Maybe it would have been fine had nothing ever changed, and the issues that the move to another country uncovered would have never even been issues if they'd never left home, but that doesn't mean they weren't there. Like a buggy software program that you never open, they're still there and still buggy, and the only reason you didn't know it was because you hadn't opened the program.

What I don't accept, and never will accept is "men just prefer Asian (or wherever, but you hear this mostly regarding Asian) women". That not only generalizes about men and makes them look bad, but doesn't say anything nice about anyone else, either.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a South European woman who moved to a Scandinavian country to be with her South American husband(yes this happens too!)I have to say that life is challenging for some of the reasons that you mentioned. And that is not because the husband has a wondering eye or anything like that, nor that the marriage is not strong, it can be a wonderful relationship.But any relationship can be damaged when you have to be a trailing spouse and sacrifice your own career and dreams. Many of the examples you mentioned involved women who just had to stay at home doing nothing, when their husbands enjoyed their careers. Perhaps these women had difficulty integrating and/or getting jobs even though that was their intention in the first place. It can happen to the best relationship. As it can be that a so so relationship survives because the circumstances make it easier. Consider yourself blessed that you have a job and a social circle and can lead a balanced life with your husband. But I would certainly not say that the people you mentioned did not have the "foundation', or "enough love" that others had. Their relationships were unfortunate, but this can happen to the best of people.