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Becoming an expat: can your relationship take the strain?

While some Brits emigrate to France for work, many decide to make the leap into a new culture to live an entirely different life: whether it’s running a gite, starting small business or simply ditching the mortgage in favour of an early retirement. 

article by gillian harvey for telegraph.co.uk

However, the reality of living a new life can be slightly less romantic than we might imagine.

When you move to a different country, you leave behind family, friends and the familiar and plunge yourself into the unknown.  Even though you may connect with other expats, integrate with locals, join clubs and associations, it takes a long time to build relationships which have the strength of those you left behind.

And although you may enjoy reading a book in the sunshine, after an hour or so you might find yourself searching for something a bit more inspirational.

This is where your relationship comes in – the closeness you’ve built up over years together, the dreams you’ve hatched, the plans you’ve made.  And this is where, for some, things start to fall apart.

With the demands of work and family, most couples will only have spent a few hours together each day over the preceding decade or so.  Suddenly, when you’re spending 24 hours together, possibly seven days a week, cracks that you weren’t even aware of can make themselves obvious.  You begin to get under each other’s feet.  And your relationship is polarised in a way it probably wasn’t in the UK.

Is expat life the icing on the cake for your relationship or will you find that it crumbles like a cake instead?

Many people say that you don’t know someone properly until you’ve lived with them. I would argue that you don’t know someone properly until you’ve lived with them as an expat.  When stripped of the part of their identity that came with their profession, lifted from the smart suits that were a must in the office and left to make their own way, they can seem an entirely different person.  Worse, a person who wears grey jogging bottoms and dirty old trainers.

The first years in a new country can put tremendous strain on a relationship, and you need to be prepared for the ups and downs of getting to know each other all over again.  Part of this process is adapting to a raft of formerly invisible annoying habits, from leaving teabags in a soggy pile next to the sink, to taking on insurmountable renovation projects or acquiring tat at brocantes to display proudly in the living room.

One acquaintance described her first months in France as a “power struggle”.  Both parties were used to being in charge in their respective jobs – and both transferred that struggle to their relationship.

“It took several months for us to work out a way to live with it… there were screaming matches and a great deal of learning to accept each other,” she confessed.  Others have confided that they suddenly found their partners “boring” when taken such in large doses.

As former teachers, my long-suffering husband and I had already endured many summer holiday stretches together before we moved, so had more of an idea what we were in for. Even so, we’ve had times when we’ve quite simply annoyed the hell out of each other – me, because I seem unable to relax, and him because I have a tendency to leave chaos and dirty socks in my wake.

However, if the initial shock of getting to know one another all over again doesn’t break your relationship, then it may well end up stronger.  Interests blossom – some mutual, some exclusive – friendships develop outside of your relationship and your lives become fuller again.

And you also have the opportunity to discover the person you fell in love with before the crippling mortgage, daily grind and work stress of living in Britain took over.  Chances are, once you’ve both learnt to adjust, the discovery will be a happy one.

If not, please feel free to use the line I once found myself snapping out to my poor better half during an argument.  “You knew I was like this when you married me: you haven’t got any comeback now!”

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