Sunday, June 19, 2011

How to Help Your Marriage Thrive Instead of (Barely) Survive While Living Abroad

by Expat Focus columnist Dhyan Summers

I am an American psychotherapist in private practice in New Delhi, working primarily with the expat community. I also work with expat couples worldwide through Skype video conferencing. Many couples come to me because they see counseling as the last stop before separation and divorce. Fewer couples call for a routine “check up” when they feel their marriage isn’t functioning optimally. Fewer still seek me out when their relationship is going reasonably well and they just want to iron out a few kinks.

Sam and Susan have been married for 15 years, and while they both agree that their marriage has never been “great”, it was meeting many of their needs until 2 years ago when Sam was given a promotion and transferred to India. They had both lived abroad as kids, so they didn’t think that living overseas would be difficult for them. Susan said that at the end of her first week in India, she threatened to leave and take the couples’ four year old son with her as she had hardly seen her husband during that time, felt abandoned, and like she may as well have been a single mom. Sam thought her behavior was irrational, they had a huge explosion, and their relationship has gone from bad to worse ever since.

Jennifer and Richard have two young children and live abroad. They had agreed to see a therapist for premarital counseling when they became engaged, and have had regular “check ins” periodically during the seven years of their marriage. Jennifer reports that she tends to nag Richard when he doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do. She feels angry when Richard doesn’t meet her needs for commitment and trust. Richard feels annoyed and defensive that his needs for respect and autonomy aren’t being met. They have learned through counseling how to make observations without judging the other’s behavior, take responsibility for their feelings and unmet needs, and make a request that is not a demand to their partner.

Sam and Susan fall into fairly typical patterns of “naming and blaming”. Neither of them is taking responsibility for their own feelings and needs and instead is blaming their spouse. They are making demands instead of requests which only further alienate their partners. Jennifer and Richard, on the other hand, have learned Nonviolent Communication, or as I prefer to call it the Compassionate Communication model of conflict resolution.

What is Compassionate Communication and How does it Work?

Compassionate Communication is a model for resolving conflicts...

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