Living abroad is a dream for many couples, but only a few really try to do it. After all, leaving everything behind is easier said than done. It’s not that hard, logistically—all you need is a bit of planning—but it is hard psychologically. Leaving your familiar life for something you don’t really know what—a promise of happiness, maybe?—requires a good deal of courage and a grain of foolishness.
Having taken the big leap, will couples live happily ever after? Only in fairy tales. In real life there’s no guarantee.
To state it clearly: If a couple is having serious issues, no trip will save them.
On the other hand, a long trip together offers a perfect test for a couple. When you spend 24 hours a day with someone else, you soon realize what you like and dislike about them.
Before planning to move abroad or take a long trip together, couples would do well to travel alone together for at least 10 days to somewhere new. I’m not talking about an all-inclusive holiday in a seaside resort in the Caribbean, but a place where you need to face language barriers, cultural differences and disorientation. There are many times on a trip when decisions have to be taken, problems have to be solved, issues discussed. The debate is inevitable, and afterward you can see if you two can survive the struggle or not.
Learning how to deal with difficulties together is among the most important things that travelling can teach a couple. When you are thousands of kilometres away from home, you can only rely on yourself and on your partner. Finding a flat, looking for a job, buying furniture, paying bills, going to the doctor, fixing the sink… the list of challenges that a couple abroad has to face daily is virtually endless. Although these might seem trivial, finding a plumber in China or filling out a bank form in Turkish are no easy tasks when you don’t speak the local language. The simplest chore can get very complicated in a country other than yours.
Life is not all roses for expat couples. Those fantastic pictures they post on Facebook show only one side of the coin: they have the same ups and downs as any normal couple does. In nearly 10 years of living together overseas, my girlfriend, Angeliki, and I have gone through several crises. In fact, our relationship has shown some cracks almost every time we moved to a new place.
It might be because we needed to adapt ourselves to our new environment and rediscover our balance. For example, when we are in Italy, my country, I take the lead, vice versa when we in her home country, Greece. Things radically change when we are in a third country. It’s like if two teams play a match at home, away or on neutral ground.
Being close to your partner 24/7, you end up learning every little detail about them. After all these years I can tell if Angeliki is in a good or bad mood in a second, even by a subtle facial expression. We communicate, argue or have a whole conversation without uttering a word, or speaking words in up to four different languages: I speak Italian; Angeliki speaks Greek; we both drop in some English and Turkish. Sometimes I doubt anyone else would be able to understand us.
“All of this is true no matter where you live. Living abroad doesn’t change who you are.”
Obviously you don’t need to live abroad with someone to get to know them very well, but it does act as a crash course, since the amount of time you spend together and the level of closeness you reach is way higher.
On the other hand, constant closeness begets the risk of getting bored of or even annoyed by the other. Sometimes you run out of topics to talk about or things to do together. You can feel suffocated and end up perceiving the person you love as your jailer. It’s a very unpleasant situation that can be avoided by keeping some time and space for yourself as an individual, and not as a half of a couple.
Hobbies, separate friends and good, healthy loneliness all help. That’s why I cannot do without my weekly football match, the night at the pub with my friends and my solitary stroll along the sea. In our case there it is even more imperative, since Angeliki and I work together as well as live together. Same job, same building, same working hours, same colleagues. (We didn’t choose this, it just happened!)
On top of that, our flat is so small that we can’t avoid seeing and hearing each other, whatever we do. If you’re thinking of moving abroad as a couple, be sure to afford enough space for two—your closeness as a couple will be amplified by your distance from anyone else.
When you move to a new country, initially at least, it’s normal to feel lonely. Everything around you, even people’s faces and expressions, is unfamiliar. Lacking the psychological support of our family and friends, we tend to get completely attached to our partner. Making friends is not easy when travelling as a couple—either the couple isn’t motivated, or strangers are intimidated.
But all of this is true no matter where you live. Living abroad doesn’t change who you are. Whether you are planning to live abroad, tour the world or spend your whole existence in the same place, the most important thing is knowing what you want in life. If two people share the same vision and the same goals, it doesn’t really matter where they’ll be.