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Is Expat Life Taking its Toll on Your Relationship? 

ExpertsPost Category - ExpertsExpertsFamily LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life - Post Category - RelationshipsRelationships

With over half a million expats living in Hong Kong, it’s a sure bet we all hail from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds. Even so, we all (reassuringly) share that one common predicament at times – a sense of dislocation and disconnection that comes with living away from our family and friends.

Many expat BBQ’s and long, lazy lunches are peppered with talk of missing home, loved ones and yearning for a sense of place. The disconnection can leave many couples feeling the strain, especially without the comfort of family and friends to rely on and talk things through with. In those early days, there can be an expectation that your partner will fulfill many different roles from being your friend to sibling, parents, extended family, colleagues and even community.

While there’s no doubt being an expat has untold advantages for couples (who can forget the travel benefits and cultural adventures?), globetrotting can also be a double-edged sword. Many expat jobs involve a lot of air miles, adding extra pressure to manage relationships from a distance.

If one partner is away consistently, the other can be left to raise the kids and adapt to being in a foreign environment, without the familiarity of family or his or her own job and/or a community network. Throw a domestic helper into the mix and it can be a steep learning curve.

Staying connected with your partner and investing in your relationship is more important than ever, so it has the strength to survive when things get tough.

What can we do to make sure our relationships stay steady and strong? I interviewed Clinical Psychologist Camilla O’Connor to get her expert advice below!

How do we stay connected?

Make sure you find time to work on your relationship every day. Enhancing the emotional connection helps to keep your marriage on track and the relationship alive.

Here are some ideas for staying connected with your partner and helping your relationship flourish. We call it the ‘Magic Five Hours a Week!’ This is the number of hours successful couples are devoting to enhancing the connection in their relationship. These small changes can have a big impact of your relationship as you move forward.

1. Partings – Before you part for the day make sure you find out one thing about what your partner is going to be doing that day. (2 minutes a day x 5 days = 10 mins)

2. Reunions – Spend 20 minutes each day finding out how your partner’s day went. (1 hour 40 minutes)

3. Admiration – Share with your partner something each day that you admire and appreciate about them. (5 mins x 7 days = 35 minutes)

4. Affection – Kiss, touch and hold your partner when you are together. (5 mins x 7 days = 35 mins)

5. Weekly Date – Set aside two hours of alone time once a week, where you can catch up with your partner, enjoy their company and find out about their week. (2 hours)

Any suggestions for couples where one partner wants to go home and the other doesn’t?

This can be a difficult area for couples to navigate as it touches on the importance of connection, sense of place, identity and our very values. And for some couples, this could be driven by tension around one partner’s career progressing whilst the other’s is at a standstill or non-existent.

We place importance on managing our conflicts rather than resolving problems, as a way to move forward. So find ways to talk through these difficult areas, whilst being open to each other’s perspective. This means asking lots of questions to understand why certain aspects are so important to our partner’s sense of self, place and family. Also, compromise is very important: discuss the areas where you aren’t willing to compromise on and the areas where you are more flexible. Of course, it’s important to discuss this openly and thoroughly, with active, attentive listening.

To sum up, use the magic five hours to keep your relationship on track and then setting aside time to specifically talk about your values and your visions for the future at regular intervals. 

How, why and when do you seek professional support for your relationship?

Generally people do not seek support for their relationship for six years after the start of initial problems. Although that is the average, lots of couples also come in early in their relationship and lots of couples come in much later too. There are no rules and many different reasons for a particular couple’s timing.

When they do reach out for couple counselling, it is generally to discuss communication problems, a difficult transition period, a crisis in the relationship or how they have noticed and are concerned about a reduced sense of trust, commitment and connection in their relationship.

The focus of couple’s counselling is to help people strengthen their friendship base, emotional connection and intimacy and improve the way they deal with conflict in order to enhance the strengths in their relationship.

Take the Gottman relationship test to see how your relationship is going –  you can find it here.

With a little more dedication and conscious ‘couple time’, you’ll be able to keep your relationship steady and strong!


If you are interested in speaking with a Level 3-trained Gottman therapist, you can contact Clinical Psychologist, Camilla O’Connor at [email protected] or visit her website here. She sees only couples in her private practice and works on Tuesdays in Central.

Top image sourced from Shutterstock

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