Expat Marriage Characteristics

mars ship Dennis Tito, American multimillionnaire, holds the title of world's first space tourist. Where you and I might think twice about a $1,500 trip to Hawaii, he spent $20m to go up in a rocket ship. Call it eccentric, but the trip did produce an idea that's going to create lots of jobs and opportunities: he's now planning to send people on a privately-funded return-trip to Mars in 2018.

Not just any people, a married couple.

501 days in close quarters - with your spouse. Let's take a breath and imagine what that'd be like. Nowhere to go, no doors to slam, no idea how sex would work in zero gravity. Certainly not for everyone, right?

Of course, living in close quarters under strenuous situations with a limited group of people is nothing new. Submarine or oil-rig crews do it all the time, as well as soldiers on assignments. There were eight participants in a 2-year ecological experiment locked away in Arizona, and let's not forget monasteries or various the Big Brother houses.


Deborah Shapiro wrote an article on the subject. Her experience makes her an excellent source of reference: she and her husband spent 270 days alone in the Antarctic on a boat. Severe weather conditions, having to maintain and fix things all the time, lots of time for thoughts to swirl around your head, and only your husband to talk to. Well, and whoever's near enough for radio transmissions, I guess.

Here are her top tips for not killing your spouse, and who would make a good space couple (bolding is mine):

(...) because we relied on each other for survival, murder would be counter-productive.

We figure that a couple who ran a farm a few generations ago would be very likely to have a successful trip to Mars. Why? Because a couple on a farm lived in interdependence, with accepted roles. They lived frugally, entertaining themselves, producing what they needed and repairing their tools that broke. All those traits are necessary for a long space voyage.

Showing tangible signs of caring and of empathy ensures that cabin fever never takes hold.

(...) firstly, remaining sensitive to each other's moods and concerns, never belittling. (...) The second important rule, is that showing care benefits both.

I think all of those tips are valid for couples who go abroad on an expat assignment as well.

  • If it's not in actuality, it may feel like your survival is threatened, creating the same visceral responses in your nervous system.
  • If you're not clear about your changing roles, e.g. when one spouse loses a work permit, anger and resentment are sure to follow.
  • If you don't speak the language, trips to the cinema are out. Reading food labels going shopping are a challenge. Conversing with your kid's teacher or the plumber is frustrating.
  • If you're cooped up inside all day waiting for your spouse to return from work so you have someone to talk to while they just want to sit down and be quiet, it can spell disaster.

A marriage is hard work to maintain under any circumstances, and international assignments add various layers of new potential aggravation you wouldn't have experienced at home. If you don't have any couple-friends who've been abroad together, things like role expectations, daily routine, entertainment, and the sense of self-worth may not come up in the usual conversations.

In our normal daily lives, we have work, friends, family, and hobbies to attend to. When moving abroad, all of that gets disrupted and changed. We turn to the one person who's closest to us, and if we make them responsible for everything that's going wrong in our lives, it will break the relationship.

Here's where Shapiro sees a big difference between her own experience and that of the space couple:

In a space capsule, the couple will have to depend upon a vessel they have not built, and the people working at space control.

If you're not absolutely sure you want to go on the assignment, you'll feel out of control as well. Make sure you have all the information you need to make an informed decision. Because once you're abroad, coming back early is going to be a hassle. I'm not just talking about the cost and expenses, but also the feelings of failure to complete the project, to make your company look good, to disrupt project deadlines and customer relationships.

There are plenty of conversations and tools at your disposal. Know before you go.