I was recently reminded of how difficult the adjustment can be for both partners when one partner arrives in the country of his or her new partner, particularly if the partners are from very different areas of the world. A friend of mine from West Africa who had been in the US for only a few weeks recently commented on feeling like a sack his girlfriend has to lug around.
There is so much for a new arrival to contend with- new food, new people, a new language, a new geography to learn- where is the drug store? the grocery store? the bus stop? how do I get from here to there? How do I become employable and what do I do with myself in the meantime? The new arrival may be totally dependent on his or her partner for transportation, interpretation, income, assisting with logistics for creating a new life, as well as emotional support. For someone who has managed independently and competently at home, this can be a big adjustment. If someone is linguistically isolated, hasn’t yet made new friends, and has no family in the new country, the emotional experience may include feelings of loneliness, isolation, homesickness for the familiar, anxiety, frustration or depression. S/he may be acutely aware of not wanting to burden their new partner with their internal struggles on top of the logistical struggles of daily life. Staying in touch with friends and family from home may be helpful; modern technology such as skype, calling cards, and facebook make this easier and more practical than ever before.
Finding other ex-pats, especially those from your own country, in the community or nearby can also be quite helpful. They can share their own experiences of what helped them adapt, show you some ropes, and also serve as a way to keep your old culture alive in your new setting. An ex-pat community may share common language, food, holidays, music, religion, and celebratory customs. They can go a long way in increasing comfort as you learn a new community.
It’s also very important to keep lines of communication open with your partner. You may not want to burden him or her with every little frustration, but if your dominant feeling is one of frustration or anxiety, it’s likely to come out sideways, and show up in uncontrolled ways if you don’t deal with it directly.
There are also many adjustments for the native partner as well. Suddenly there is a new person to consider in every plan and new logistical arrangements to be made. Planning may take more time and lifestyle adjustments may need to be made. I watched my girlfriend struggle with her perceived decreased efficiency and productivity as she found that time she had previously devoted to the multiple projects and jobs she managed had to be redirected to creating a life for her partner. I remember when I first brought my partner to the US from Guinea we lived 35 minutes from where most of our work was, we had different schedules, and he didn’t speak the language or drive. I ran around to meetings at different sites in the community throughout the day, and he taught dance and drum classes at different community locations in the afternoon and evening. I had to figure out how to manage the structure of our days and evenings. When did each of us have to be where? Could I bring him into town with me when I left for work? Where would he spend his time, doing what, while I was at work? Could I get him to his commitments on time? Would he be ready on time so I could get to my next commitment?
Things you may used to be doing, going to a movie, or a comedy club, or spending the evening laughing with friends, may be things your partner won’t be able to enjoy until they build up some language chops. Be aware that you will likely need to make some considerable adjustments, many of them temporary, until your partner begins to acclimatize to life in your country.
Patience and communication are critical for getting through initial adjustment hurdles. Share your feelings with each other honestly, and reassure each other of your commitment as you work through the process. Talk with each other about what might make things easier as well. “This is a little harder than I thought it would be. I’d really like it if I could stay home while you did X….” or “I didn’t realize it would be so hard to X… But I’m so glad you’re here with me now.”
Patience and loving communication can carry you through.