“Divorce rates vary worldwide, with some cultures and countries seeing over 50% of marriages fail,” said Adele Theron, author of the internationally acclaimed book Naked Divorce and renowned expert in saving marriages. “There are no exact numbers as the nature of expats themselves make it difficult to track, but expatriate divorce rates are much higher.”
According to Theron, one of the biggest problems many expat marriages face is trailing spouse depression. Theron, who has coached over 40 expatriate couples throughout Asia over the past few years explains that especially here in Asia, the majority of the time it is the men who move here for their career (though roles are also often reversed), their wives and partners having to give up their own careers due to the challenges in finding suitable work, or visa restrictions, in a new country.
“Trailing spouses then find themselves having given up their previous lives and initially the thrill of a new culture, the excitement of a new adventure is giddying. The couple may have children, or perhaps even start a family abroad and the partner suddenly finds herself or himself settled into the traditional role of homemaker, focusing on child bearing and rearing. One day they may look around and realise that they are no longer the same person they was a year or so ago; and one day the working partner will look at them and also wonder where the strong ambitious woman he married or man she or he made life partner disappeared to.”
Theron goes on to explain that having coached numerous expatriate couples from Singapore to Hong Kong and Thailand to Malaysia, she has seen clear indicators which, if detected early, can prevent expat marriages from careening towards divorce.
For many couples, according to Theron, their standards of living greatly improve when entering the expatriate lifestyle, as packages tend to be rather enticing when it requires a move to a new country. The homemaker will enjoy the early days of nesting, decorating a house, going shopping, meeting friends, perhaps joining expat clubs, social clubs, or parent teacher associations (PTAs). The social whirl can be quite heady with new friends from all over the world sharing similar experiences. But then as time goes by and the partner is off at work all day, meeting new colleagues, perhaps travelling for business, the homemaker becomes listless, and lonely.
“Sure, there are coffee mornings, playdates, sport activities and ladies’ lunches,” she continued, “but somehow it can be quite unfulfilling and with family and old friends so far away, often on awkward time zones, it can become very lonely. I have seen many cases of women who simply do nothing all day, or drink secretly, leading to rampant alcohol abuse amongst many expats. This is when the husband may start having an affair, or the wife may reconnect with an old flame in an effort to reconnect with her past self.”
Theron warns that depression leads to thoughts of being a failure, feelings of isolation or being trapped which in turns leads to further depression. In fact, having talked to doctors who work with expatriates, she has also learned that such depression can lead to a number of auto immune diseases.
“Many diseases can both cause and be the result of depression,” concurred Dr. Nisachon Morgan of Health Care Medical Clinic, a popular expatriate general practitioner in Thailand. “I have found there to be a surprising number of auto immune conditions amongst expatriates.”
Fatigue, depression, lost of interest in life and the reduction of the sex drive are all symptoms to watch out for, according to Theron, who also says that there are also visible signs family and friends can take note of such as compulsively taking on a new hobby, exercising to extreme, changing looks, cutting hair, even shifting behaviour on social media by becoming more withdrawn.
Often expats who face these problems can feel alone and isolated when in fact they are likely surrounded by people with similar issues, explained Theron, explaining that there can be a little bit of a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ situation going on with wives. “The women are often impeccably groomed, they talk about having exotic holidays and posh dinner parties and post pictures of their fabulous lives on Facebook. But, behind doors, many suffer from similar problems. The women don’t want to complain to their husbands all the time as they are worried that he will begin to resent that and they shouldn’t rely on only him alone for her happiness anyway, and they may be afraid to reveal their vulnerabilities to their new friends.”
“The important thing is to speak up,” says Theron who says that if a couple comes to her before the ‘threshold of no return’, when the symptoms mentioned begin to appear, she can help guide them back towards each other. She says that becoming an expat couple is almost like starting a new relationship. The dynamics have all changed and it is important to communicate and mitigate any impending challenges. While it is a risk for a couple to become expatriates, if a couple is aware of this fact and seeks help and counselling, then it could result in an exciting and rewarding new chapter in their marriage.
“You must remind your spouse that you are still the person they married,” she said, “and find something to do, whether it is a job online, volunteer work or a project of some sort. It is very important to have a sense of self-worth that isn’t attached to a partner or children.”
Theron’s services offer couples tools to invigorate their relationship within a new context. Having gone through a painful divorce herself, which led to her bestselling books on divorce, The Naked Divorce, she sees her role as helping couples to reignite that spark in a marriage, working with couples to create a new relationship.
“Most of the time couples don’t ask for help until it’s too late,” said Theron. “They will keep waiting to work on their marriage after the next holiday, or the birth of the next child, or the next milestone, constantly postponing facing the issues until it is too late.” And when it is too late, being an expatriate can compound an already difficult experience as living in a third country adds tremendous obstacles to a smooth and amicable divorce.
“Often the wives are living on a spousal visa which expires after a divorce,” said Theron who goes on to explain that when children are involved the problem can become very serious. “Does the wife take the children and go home? Does she stay and live with her children? Can she stay at all? She may struggle to find a good lawyer, not being able to understand the local language and laws and if the divorce is acrimonious, she may end up with absolutely nothing, her only option returning home to a country she left with no job or means. These are devastating challenges for any expat divorce. So the best thing is to speak up, seek counselling and do your best to make sure matters don’t get to that stage. If they do, then I can also help guide couples, helping them to negotiate their way through the quagmire of international divorce. At this point mediation is the only solution.”
To learn more about how to avoid an expat divorce, and to download a free expat info graphic visit nakedmarriageonline.com/blog/expat-marriage/trailing-spouse-depression/